Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Great Unwinding: The next real innovation opportunity

This week is clearly a "sports" oriented week, as yesterday I discussed what innovators could learn from baseball.  I focused primarily on strategy, coaching and practice.  Today's post was triggered by my family's enjoyment of tennis. 

For those of you who enjoy tennis you know the drill.  You need a good, fresh set of balls to really enjoy the game.  But that started me thinking - what do we do with all of these old balls we generate, which after a few games of tennis are really useless for playing tennis?  My family alone generates hundreds of dead tennis balls, and the thought of all of those balls ending up in a landfill sickens me.  But tennis balls are merely the tip of the trash spear.  Frankly, the next great innovation opportunity will focus on what I call the unwinding.

Over the past 200 years or so, mostly driven by the industrial revolution, we humans have learned to build things and construct things out of many different materials - metals, plastics, glass, compound components, etc.  These advances have given us a quality of life unimagined even a few hundred years ago.  If we traverse back to the days prior to the industrial revolution, most day to day items were made of readily available materials, and when discarded often decomposed.  Think about archeology - we dig and dig to find one small campfire or a few arrowheads.  Everything else that our ancestors used was left behind and decomposed.

After the industrial revolution, we became very good at building things, but neglected to build in planned obsolescence and useful obsolescence into our products.  We discarded these products - cars, refrigerators, mattresses, furniture, etc - in large landfills, because there was no planned obsolescence other than to fill landfills with these products that had reached a useful end of life.  And here we are back to tennis balls.  While we enjoy tennis, can we rest easy knowing that thousands or millions of tennis balls will be dumped into landfills to sit there for all eternity?

I titled this post the great "Unwinding" and increasingly I believe that "unwinding" will be the innovation focus of the future.  We must plan to unwind our products, so that at the end of their useful lives the components or materials can be recaptured and reused in new and useful ways, rather than simply dumped into the earth to hopefully rot.  Whether this unwinding takes the form of finding new uses for old, discarded items (many schools use tennis balls on the feet of their chairs, for instance) or planning to recapture and reuse the components of complex devices when they are designed, there can be no argument that the opportunity is vast, the waste stream is huge and the environmental impact is tremendous.  What we need now are good minds to ask the question that so far hasn't been asked - how can we use what is in the waste stream for new, practical uses, and how can we design and build products to take them apart and reuse those components at end of life.  This is what I call the great "unwinding" and this opportunity will be one of the next great innovation opportunities.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:09 AM


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