The product-service-system (or PSS) is a new term for an old idea: emphasizing access over ownership, it's simply about sharing products among people, and recognizing that bright green systems are just as important as products. Since we already take part in them - video rentals, laundromats, libraries, gyms, and taxis being obvious examples - we only really talk about PSS with regard to things that many of us don't usually share, like cars, appliances, tools, or clothing. Breaking past some of the cultural barriers that equate affluence with ownership may still be the greatest challenge, but what if alternative is cheaper, more sustainable, doesn't clutter your home, and connects you with your neighbours?
Ezio Manzini and Francois Jegou's online exhibition, Sustainable Everyday: Scenarios of Urban Life, is a picture of an urban community knitted together by their network of services. Making daily living more sustainable at the systems level, the scenarios focus on enabling the DIY spirit, and extending the home by externalizing some of its functions. The community shares access to little-used workspaces like professional-grade kitchens and workshops, leases connections to distributed green energy, and uses a mobility network that includes car-sharing, buses on demand, assisted hitching, and bicycle networks. Questioning why every house needed a separate lawnmower, Victor Papanek argued for tool-sharing thirty years ago; by observing that most power drills get used for no more than 20 minutes in their lifetime, Manzini and Jegou fit this scenario into a modern context.
"The exhibition deals with the future of “dwelling”... It does not focus on new ways in which technology could redefine traditional functions, but rather centres on the new “living strategies” that are emerging, becoming possible and, for some at least, desirable today. These are living strategies which result from social and system, rather than technological, innovation. It is these forms of social innovation that are at the centre of attention paid to new visions which are emerging and to the possible futures which could derive from them."
While some proposals, such as clothes-sharing, are unusual, it's worth recalling that designer handbags are being shared over the internet as readily as DVDs, and design students at TUDelft have been playing with these ideas for a decade. Sustainable Homeservices, an EU-based project, catalogues a whole range of mobility, security, and repair services available in European cities. As Jegou says in an interview in Dwell last year, "These solutions already exist in various forms - "Sustainable Everyday" merely brought them together. There's nothing sci-fi about it. For example, from Beijing we took the idea of the Lift Club, a sort of safe hitchhiking service organized by way of mobile text messaging. In Milan, we found a scheme among mothers so that kids can walk, rather than ride in cars, to school... All these things are banal locally, but when we introduce them elsewhere, they are innovations."
Much of Manzini's recent writing has outlined his hopeful observation that these kinds of systems are emerging organically within communities. Rather than predicting whether they will succeed, he's encouraging designers to shepherd them forward, improving their visibility and effectiveness.
What's new about product-service systems is that they're being seriously considered as an emerging business model, most famously by companies like Xerox and Interface. When a European policy organization like SusProNet works on PSS, it's to ensure that they're economically, as well as ecologically, viable. They're also describing a top-down approach that's much more arm's length than communal, but equally geared toward businesses taking responsibility for the impacts of their products.
UNEP's publication, Product-Service Systems and Sustainability (by Manzini and others, PDF download) breaks these ideas down exceptionally well: successful examples range from a Sicilian solar heating service, to Toronto, Canada's excellent AutoShare program, and GreenStar's solar-powered community centres. It also looks at PSS from a number of vantage points, including its potential pitfalls and - most excitingly - its leapfrogging potential in the developing world.
Great article - which prompted some research on my part into co-housing. Its really unfortunate that the average person (here at least, probably not as much in Europe) immediately associates such a concept with rag wearing, carob-muching, red-eyed hippies - that is to say, its not an idea that's penetrated the main stream. To much stake is currently placed in those posessions for them to be shared; common ownership would be equivalent to a drop in status for the average sub-urbanite...
Perhaps, as you've mentioned, the adoption of PSS as a business model will allow the idea to percolate its way into the wider North American conciousness....
In any event, thanks for an interesting, insightful read.