What do SCORAI members think of Planned Obsolescence?

Harald Wieser

I used the term design in a very broad sense, comprising both fashion and technology/engineering. In so far, I don’t think that the decisions made by designers and engineers are governed by different logics regarding product lifetimes (probably by different interests though, as many engineers regard designing for durability as a virtue).

In some cases, manufacturers provided justifications for compromising the repairability and durability of their products, also in some of the cases of supposed planned obsolescence you mentioned. Their justifications are not always convincing, but it is important to remind ourselves that their are no objective criteria for evaluating the legitimacy of their justifications. From the perspective of a critic of planned obsolescence, pretty much every innovation that compromises durability without notable reductions in costs is considered a deliberate act to shorten replacement cycles.

If you want to read more about cases of supposed planned obsolescence, I would second Maurie’s suggestion to read Giles Slade’s book. Some more recent debates are touched upon in a report commissioned by the German Environmental Agency, which is currently being translated to English. You might also have a look at a recent review.

Robert Rattle

There are some particularly challenging issues with electronic devices and especially digital communication devices (ie. computers, mobile devices, etc.) through which obsolescence is as much a structural issue as a consumer or producer matter. For instance, the need to ‘patch’ and update programs/algorithms often leads to the reduced effectiveness, and sometimes absolute obsolescence of devices and processes. Similarly, the need for increased efficiencies (energy/materials/costs) and the increasing demand for interoperability with new and emerging data and systems, often which link with economic growth policies, help drive obsolescence, despite in most cases that these devices continue to retain some basic functionalities.

Paul Nieuwenhuis

The concept of ‘planned obsolescence’ is an interesting one and much of the issues surrounding it have already been covered in the debate. The car industry – which is my primary research focus – has often been blamed for introducing the concept and there is certainly an interesting contrast in the 1920s between the approach taken by Henry Ford (“I want the man who buys one [his Model T] never to have to buy another”) and that of GM under Sloan. Ford thought the GM approach was immoral.

However, just because a product has been ‘designed’ for a particular lifespan does not mean it suddenly falls to bits after that time has been reached. In fact, there are plenty of examples of products that have lasted well beyond their designed ‘obsolescence’; Walter Stahel’s Toyota is a classic example covered in the literature, while I have a car from 1971 that was designed for a 10 year lifespan, but that is still perfectly roadworthy. In fact, some of its components have lasted a very long time. I have only just had to replace the windscreen washer pump, for example.

Some people have pointed out that in many cases the problem is more about the owner ‘falling out of love’ with the object, rather than any technical issues. The role of the designer would then be to make products that are ‘loveable’ over a long period of time by ‘growing’ with the owner in some way. I have explored how classic cars are a nice example of that sort of thing.

Jean Boucher

I dont know the research, I can only speak from personal experience as a one time new product engineer. I operated from a constant frame of trying to achieve cheaper and more efficient production and materials while trying not to compromise quality. That being said, we also considered that quality was defined by the customer; in other words, we would not make something better than what we understood a customer needed. So this is where any planned obsolescence could easily play a role depending on the understood nature of the product and customer (and all within capitalist competitive tensions).

Reid Lifset

A core strategy in addressing obsolescence is modularity.  Unfortunately, in a way that somewhat parallels Harald Wieser’s comments, there challenges to modularity.  See

Agrawal, V. V., A. Atasu, and S. Ülkü. 2015. Modular upgradability in consumer electronics: Economic and environmental implications. Journal of Industrial Ecology: 20(5): 1018-1024. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/jiec.12360.

Lynnette Widder

There is interesting work in the context of architecture and preservation on the layering of life cycle amongst different component elements of a building. Because each component has a different expected lifecycle stipulated by material longevity, use, technology and market demand, the interface amongst those components becomes the determining factor in planning for obsolescence. Interior fit-out has the shortest life span, building structure has the longest. There is an excellent book I can dig out if you are interested that designates the “seven shearing layers” of life cycle in buildings.


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