Greener Gadgets Conference Tackles the Feasibility of Green Tech

On February 27th I attended a conference called Greener Gadgets put on by the CEA in cooperation with Marc Alt, Inhabitat, and Core77. The full day symposium has multiple purposes including understanding the environmental, business and social implications of “greening” consumer electronics products tackling all elements from design to disposal. One of the highlights I really enjoyed, the audience deciding Greener Gadgets Competition.
Keynote speaker Saul Griffith who is an absolute energy-phile, should there be such a term, is the inventor and founder of multiple companies including Makani Power and SQUID Labs. His obsession with charting his own carbon footprint was absolutely awe-inspiring, if not a little terrifying. Griffith was surprised when in the tracking exercise found he was a “planet fucker” when it was determined he consumed roughly 30% more energy than the average American – this despite his aware lifestyle and sustainable practices. Griffith pointed to his travel (both business and personal and to be fair the man is from Australia); his love of wine (big energy consumer/carbon emitter), and even his love of meat as contributing to his increased carbon footprint. Intent on making the world a better place while awaiting the birth of his son, he has set out to reduce his consumption in 2009 by making changes across the board including cutting back to just 2 glasses of wine per night from three. (Sacrifices!) His extraordinary example did not go wasted, his exploration of the global impact of how we consume energy at an alarming pace combined with the carbon emission of that which we consume sent us on a path of understanding how the consumer electronics industry must break the cycle of disposable devices and start thinking in terms of “heirloom products”.

This is not and will not be a quick or simple. Sitting there, I’m thinking this all makes sense but what about the industrial and business implications of driving longer product cycles? How does this concept affect manufacturers? I was thinking in terms of jobs (this would impact every piece of the production process from raw materials to finished goods), retail, marketing, advertising…the entire industrial process becomes stymied by our environmental concerns. One suggested solution was developing a consumer culture of maintenance and repair. Though this may help on the retailers and service providers, I wouldn’t say either Dell or Panasonic were applauding the idea in their cradle-to-cradle panel which was later in the day.

David Thompson, director of Panasonic’s Corporate Environmental Department who spent a bit of time on the hot seat from Engadget’s EIC Joshua Topolsky, defended Panasonic’s business cycle noting that technological advancements have driven TVs that last longer, consume less energy and have less raw materials. Thompson noted the “enormous pressure on electronics manufacturers to change products to be environmentally conscious” and Panasonic’s leading role on that path. Topolsky, not satiated by the answers he was given, kept on Thompson until I got bored and started reading Business Week. Topolsky did cite in his closing that Engadget needs products to keep coming to make Engadget business model work so I’m thinking maybe he’ll start Engadget Green to ease his conscience.

As companies look for ideas to reduce both the energy they consume and the energy its products consume, the way they approach product design will be essential.  My favorite panel discussion was “Green Design for Good”. The lively, insightful discussion reviewed how products designed for underdeveloped countries have inspired sustainable design elements that make products last longer, power themselves and serve purpose. Mark Bent, president and CEO of SunNight Solar, and his team have engineered flashlights that use PV (photovoltaic panels) to power the devices in places like Africa and the Middle East. His BOGO (buy-one-get-one) approach inspires people like me to buy the flashlight, and the free unit gets donated to a family in need. The flashlights collect energy from the sun all day to power a 10 x 10 room at varying hours based on brightness. What this means in Africa is light at night; light to read by, light for security, light to deliver livestock. His design considerations, and the lifecycle analysis of the flashlight, drove a better product designed for its audience. It can be done and hundreds of young designers showed their best ideas at the end of the day.

The day concluded with the Greener Gadgets Design Competition. The contest asked designers to seek ways to minimize the environmental impact of consumer electronic devices at any stage in the product lifecycle. The top 50 entries were published online for voting and commentary with the final ten judged live by the audience.  The competition brought the ever-interesting Saul Griffith back to influence our clapping (yes, the top 3 were determined by a clap-o-meter after heated debate). My personal favorite and second place winner was the Power Hog, a plug-in “piggy bank” that tracks power usage for devices that are plugged into it. Designed to sensitize children to energy costs, the kids have to put money into the bank in order to power the XBOX or Wii. First place winner and hands-down audience favorite was the Tweet-a-Watt, a “shame on you” device that measures its owner’s power usage and Twitters the figure to followers who judge you for your consumption in 140 characters or less.

Overall the event was stimulating. It gave you a lot to think about and an opportunity to network with some of the leading minds in the movement. Do I think we’re closer to Greener Gadgets? Not yet, but I have hope.

Posted by KDL |follow me on Twitter

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