Over the past 30 years, almost all consumer products we design and produce are somehow destined to break or just malfunction. Many political movements have arisen against these facts, and the authorities are moving on this, late as usual. We have to change the way we manage electronic products’ life cycle tending to sustainability as soon as possible.
I don’t want to focus on why this is happening, but more on what consequences we are suffering and how to fix it.
High technological electronics equipment production requires lots of minerals and chemicals to process them, as well as energy. As the supply chain behind an electronic device is huge, it is hard to exactly determine the quantity of resources we need to make a smartphone or a computer; however, as our soil is finite, those resources are finite too and with our “throwaway game” we don’t get very far.
Smart devices such as smartphones, computers, smartwatches, cars… work on two planes, that allow us to split our problem in half: on one hand, we have the physical object, the hardware; on the other side of the playing field Software is dribbling with the first.
If we go deep on the ecological sustainability meaning, we know that we reach it when we have ecological balance. Oversimplifying, it means that any finite resource we use has to go back to the ground or have to be regenerated before we utilize it again. This is impossible to do, as every usable resource we have and know today is finite on different scales: even the sun will stop shining in a few billion years.
We obviously have to find a compromise if we want to continue to exist as a technological species. Taking inspiration from responsible family financial management, we can understand that focused investments and savings (i.e. produce less waste possible) could be the key to our longevity. Making things that last more and consume less energy should be our goal, at least until we don’t solve the resource recycling problem.
On the other hand, software is a different universe. While hardware existence is limited by matter, software can be written, run and replicated without extra physical implications except the hardware that supports it: We don’t need a computer for browsing the internet and another for reading emails. One computer is good at both, and we can use it in infinite possibilities, and we just do it.
Same Hardware type, called also Architecture, allows the same program to run on different PCs just copying and pasting it. If we write software for a specific architecture, we can run it on hardware from different vendors. As architecture does not change very rapidly and somehow maintains compatibility with older versions, we can run 90s software on modern computers, as well as to write software compatible both with 30 years old equipment and new hardware.
This intercompatibility between different hardware and software is not guaranteed: as time passes, more vendors are applying mechanisms to their hardware that stops using different software and vice versa (Lock-In). A valid example are the smartphones: We produce 1.5 billion devices per year, so hypothetically every human on earth can renew his phone every 4 or 5 years. If we don’t chop our smartphone, it should last decades without problems.
Leaving aside the deterioration programmed in the product itself by the manufacturer that makes the device lasting only a couple of years, and considering only the obsolescence due to technology advancement, the same hardware can be recycled without compromises as a “dumber” smart device such WiFi Camera, Satellite Navigator, Remote and so on. Giving a second life to our products, we generate less e-waste and no need to produce new devices.
The vendor Lock-In prohibits modifications on Our hardware and software (We bought it, am I right?) so the end of life is defined only by the manufacturers and is not in our control.
From this, we learn that sustainability of electronic devices, in its comprehensive meaning and in the short term, is not much about producing hardware in a sustainable way, but expanding the life of the products as much as possible. Energy saving and using as few resources as possible will help the development of our society.