Sitting here at the Greener Gadgets 2009 conference in New York City listening to a highly intelligent panel of design experts who are debating about the definition of green or sustainable design. Actually, I have an even more basic question: what the heck does "gadget" mean?
I found a couple of scary definitions, including the Wikipedia revelation that the term "the gadget" was actually the code name for the first nuclear explosive device that was created by the Manhattan Project. The more common definitions focus on the fact that gadgets are a) meant for a specific purpose and b) are somewhat more clever than is what is otherwise available.
I usually think of gadgets as portable things, but actually the definition I just dug up could be applied to lots of things from mobile phones and smart phones to gaming devices to even things like flashlights. Gadgets actually don't have to be consumer-facing. It could come in the form of an embedded system, such as a medical image devices. The latter, actually, seem awfully green—if they do their job well, there's really no reason to go nuts with "new" features. Consumer devices, sadly, are far less verdant.
So, what happens when you stick the word "green" in front of the word "gadget"? Can the two really be used responsibly in the same sentence?
Several speakers here have planted some very reasonable seeds of doubt that they cannot. The current high-tech business model has been fed for so long by a very predictable cycle of software and hardware upgrades that building products that last longer than 18 months (ie., cell phones or media players) runs counter to its long-term revenue model. At least as it stands today.
Saul Griffith, co-founder of quite a few start-ups, including wind power company Makani Power, urges the entire high-tech society (both vendors and consumers of the business and personal type) to start designing their products as "heirlooms" as opposed to things that can be thrown away (especially when there are fewer places that qualify as "away" now).
What does that mean, exactly? Well, in my mind, it means that durability and reliability must be a bigger part of the design equation for new product. The ability to repair things more easily, the ability to upgrade them without an advanced technical degree. Many sensibilities that seem at odds with how we think about technology, especially consumer electronics.
In the world of IT, keeping a server or desktop or a notebook beyond its "end of life" expiration date winds up costing more money, which is why businesses upgrade according to certain pretty predictable schedules. At least that's how things have worked out for years. Food for thought, certainly and another lens through which to thinking about what technology purchase you make. And when.