Disposable architecture?

I’ve noticed a number of faint signals recently pointing to a general shift in the speed of technology and the repercussions it’s having on the products we’re seeing come to market. This recent Tweet from Tom Scott got me really thinking about it:

Scott’s comment brought me back to a recent conversation I had with Princeton architecture student Alastair Stokes. I’d asked Stokes whether the technology challenges of designing a building to last 100+ years are more difficult today than they were in, say, 1900 — or if it’s as difficult, just different. He said the challenges might be more difficult today, but regardless, maybe technology is changing the solution: we shouldn’t try to design buildings today to last 100 years, but design them so they’ll last for, say, 20 years and then be replaced.

Initially, I found the suggestion intriguing, but unlikely (and exhausting, considering how much I hate to move). Then a few days later, this story came out: “‘Ninjas’ and ‘skeletons’: Japan’s eccentric homes find a niche.” The story describes just such a “disposable” home:

“Houses depreciate in value over 15 years after being built,” says Tokyo-based architect Alastair Townsend, “and on average they are demolished after 25 or 30 years, so the owner of a house doesn’t need to consider what a future buyer might want. It gives them a lot of creative license to design a home that’s an expression of their own eccentricities or lifestyle.”

In this case, the homes are targeted at niche markets looking for eccentric designs and customization, but it’s not a giant leap to imagine a similar business model growing out of the connected home market — or connected buildings in general — offering customized connectivity in buildings designed to last about the life cycle of the chosen technology. Aside from my jesting about finding the idea exhausting, this prospect raises serious ecological concerns and would require not only technological advances and innovation in the connected home/building market, but in recycling as well — all of which speaks to another observation Stokes made during our chat: technology is now outpacing innovation, where in recent years, the reverse has been true.

This sentiment was echoed in a conversation I later had with a woman who works in product marketing at Corning when she noted that the company is finding itself able to work on prototypes and concept projects that they’d long shelved due to shortfalls in technology. That’s innovation from 10 to 20 years ago, or more. The line between what is technology and what is innovation is a bit of a gray area, but if you imagine technology as the “how” and innovation as the “what and why,” it’s becoming clear that technology has not only caught up with that innovation from 10-20 years ago, but has greatly surpassed it, leaving companies scrambling, developing quick-hit products without clearly identified — or fully developed — problems and solutions.

The idea of innovation lagging behind technology is perhaps most apparent in the rapidly expanding Internet of Things market. Mike Loukides touched on this in a recent post in relation to wearables, arguing that “wearable computing isn’t about Glass, it isn’t about the iWatch, it’s something bigger that we haven’t invented yet.” Jim Stogdill similarly lamented the lack of connected car innovation:

“Too much of the emphasis in the ‘connected car’ market so far has been about staying in touch with your Facebook friends while you’re driving. There may be stupider uses of technology than that, but no examples spring readily to mind.”

Innovation lag is apparent, too, as we watch companies simply make things that already exist “smart” — who really needs a $219 connected toothbrush? Or how is building “the next Facebook” or the “Netflix for X” innovating? And seriously: a smart toaster that begs you to make toast, “or at least to give him a reassuring pat,” and will sell itself if neglected for too long; Kyle Vanhemert notes in a story about the toaster, named “Brad,” that the idea evolved from the question, “What if the smart objects of the future aren’t just smart, but also potentially jealous, petty or vindictive?” The “what and why” are pretty big questions here (and I’m sure we can come up with more meaningful “what if” questions to inspire creativity); we’re not only living up to Sturgeon’s revelation that “90% of everything is crap,” but seem to be doing our best to surpass it. (Loukides had a similar revelation, and wrote about it relation to the culture war between Google and Apple.)

These types of products illuminate a key issue: the speed of technological advancement is fostering a rush to market as companies struggle to keep pace with product cycles and consumer demands for “the next big thing.” (Smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi might be the exception here, as the company has managed to achieve a one-week product cycle, releasing a new phone with updated hardware and software features every Tuesday.)

This rush to market can also be seen in emerging connected-home technology as companies race to connect everything from air conditioners to light bulbs to locks to pets — you name it, someone has probably connected it to the Internet, without too much concern for the actual problem the product addresses. The lag in innovation here isn’t in the connectivity, but in the inter-connectivity; as Alasdair Allan points out:

“Our things might be becoming smarter, but they’re also becoming selfish. Your light bulbs aren’t talking to your media centre, your media centre isn’t talking to your blinds, and nobody is talking to the thermostat. Instead of talking to each other, everything is talking to you. … Each device manufacturer creates a separate application to talk to their thing, and there’s an app to talk to your thermostat, another to your lights, and another to your weather station. None of the things talk to one another.”

The entire point, Alasdair notes — the actual problem to be solved — is to reduce friction in users’ lives. “If making our light bulbs smart makes them harder to use, rather than easier — if it takes more thought to turn your lights on and off than walking to the light switch — we haven’t succeeded.”

The lag in innovation together with the increasingly rapid pace of technological advancement is nurturing a culture of disposability, where product life cycles grow shorter and shorter as innovation struggles to catch up. Consumers installing connected-home gadgets today will almost certainly need to replace them in a few years’ time (or sooner) as the products and ecosystems develop — and good luck moving to a new house. This level of disposability — whether it’s a new phone every week, constantly updated connected-home gadgets, or even an “upgraded” house every 10-15 years — is unsustainable, economically and environmentally.

I’m not suggesting that we temper our advancements in technology — and there are certainly innovative, meaningful products being developed, even a connected washing machine that almost makes sense — but we need to step up our innovation game in general, and it might be in everyone’s best interest to start with the basics and work on stuff that matters.

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