Innovation: The Opportunity of Right to Repair
By Mark Prommel, Partner at PENSA
The United States Congress is reviewing a bill, referred to as the “Right to Repair” Act, which would have major implications for manufacturers, consumers, and our industrial design industry at large. Introduced to Congress in June, the bill makes it easier and cheaper to repair products by limiting manufacturers from barring self-repairs or third-party repairs. The legislation will also require manufacturers to provide all the information, parts, and tools necessary to make repairs when devices break. At the state level, bills with similar wording have been introduced in 25 states.
This legislation would require a transparency that has the potential to be a boon for mom-and-pop repair shops. It would also move us toward a more circular economy. Ultimately, Right to Repair should drive manufacturers to consider new business models that are more dependent on incremental, recurring revenue streams, compelling them to create lifetime products that improve with age. In July, President Biden signed an executive order that tasks the Federal Trade Commission with making third-party product repair easier.
Legislation is a good first step, which needs to be followed by consumer education, and ultimately by manufacturers recognizing this tremendous opportunity to get ahead of their competition in designing and delivering compelling, renewable product experiences. Some manufacturers are making strides to embrace Right to Repair. Last month, Microsoft committed to “study the environmental impact of making parts and repair information available to shops and individuals, and implement the findings of that study within the next year.” And in November, Apple announced the launch of a self-service repair program that would allow customers to repair their own devices using genuine Apple parts and tools.
It’s time we abandon the take-make-waste model that is growing our landfills by two billion-plus tons of garbage every year. As designers, our work has been dictated by perverse incentives for far too long. “Make it thinner. Eliminate any visible fasteners. Push engineers to squeeze all the components into an unsolvable, tiny Tetris-style puzzle so the product is as minimal and slender as possible.” This is the common thread in product requirements that we have accepted and abided for years. Thinner and lighter can, of course, be reasonable goals for products, but at this point, we are driving designs toward drool-worthy renderings at the expense of usability. Our fragile mobile devices are too thin to hold comfortably and cannot survive daily use without protective cases. Most importantly, and inextricably linked to all of these issues, accessibility for repair and upgrade is a topic that is rarely, if ever, discussed.
Our industry has been incentivized to operate this way since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, with value created by producing and selling as many products as possible, and the demand has always been there; we shell out hundreds or thousands of dollars for new smartphones, and other connected screen-based devices every year or two. Our world has an e-waste problem with 50 million tons of e-waste generated globally each year. We’re all guilty of contributing to the excessive production, extraction, and consumption that has led to a race to replace in manufacturing, and we’ve narrowed our creativity by anchoring it to disposability.
But we have the chance to reverse our course. I’m hopeful that as legislation passes, it will force a shift in priorities for consumers, designers, and manufacturers alike. People will be offered better product experiences with greater durability that can be upgraded and more cheaply fixed. It’s a future where we’ll view our purchasing habits of today as lunacy. We’re already seeing this shift in France, which will soon enforce a mandatory repairability index, requiring makers of certain electronic devices to tell consumers how repairable their products are (similar to energy efficiency ratings on appliances) to hopefully impel a change in consumer buying habits. This means that manufacturers will need to fight harder to win customers’ business, driving the creation of more innovative and meaningful product experiences. In some cases, manufacturers’ business models will have to shift to accommodate new revenue streams, as customers hold on to products for longer.
I see the Right to Repair Act as a massive opportunity for manufacturers, rather than a threat, that, if embraced, will spark a manufacturing and product experience revolution — creating a positive environmental impact. Beyond its immediate impact on technology giants such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Samsung, this movement should spread to other segments, such as transportation, industrial and agricultural equipment, and medical devices, to name a few. Without the option for planned obsolescence, designers will be uniquely positioned to embrace the opportunity to create product experiences that evolve with their user’s needs over time, to benefit people and our planet.
The important question that we must ask together is: “How can this product be a relationship that builds and grows with its user’s needs?” This legislation can push manufacturers to see the answers to this question as tremendous opportunities moving forward. We have always been guided by user experience, but we also need to be designing deep and lasting relationships, not just a series of one-night stands.
This is the first of a series on Right to Repair, which will cover how our industry can think about developing lifetime products, how business models will have to shift, and how we can design for more meaningful product experiences.
Mark is a partner and the design lead at PENSA, where he works alongside and mentors a diverse group of multi-faceted designers working at the crossroads of design, invention and brand. Throughout his 23+ years in product design, he has followed his passion for shaping the physical products that enhance everyday life.