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Service Envy: Branding Experience Instead of Stuff
Alex Steffen, 28 Jun 06

streetcar.jpgIf we want to reduce our ecological footprints, we have to use less energy and fewer materials. As engineering and design improve, we're seeing how our products, homes and infrastructure could be vastly more sustainable, but in order to truly engage in one-planet living we have to do better than just make our current ways of life greener: we have to redesign the way we're living, increasing our quality of life while reducing its impact.

One of the fundamental insights that's helping us re-imagine our lives in a brighter, greener cast is that most of the time, we don't want stuff, we want specific needs fulfilled or experiences provided; that, as Amory Lovins puts it, we don't want refrigerators, we want cold beer -- if there were a better, cheaper, cleaner way of providing cold brews, most of us wouldn't shed a tear to see our fridges go. Recognizing that this is true for nearly every product in our lives is revelation number one.

The second revelation in recasting our relationship to stuff is that owning a thing can actually be worse than borrowing it. Dawn likes to remind us that there's enormous waste in the ownership of things: that, for example, the average power drill gets used for ten to twenty minutes in its entire life. Because we've been convinced that not having our own power drill at hand when we need it might lead to disaster or at least embarassment, we have made and purchased millions of power drills which will go essentially unused. This is the epitome of unsustainable waste, involving as it does mountains of mined ore, refineries full of oil, and rivers of waste used to create nothing of value. What's more, those drills sit in our homes, cluttering our spaces, gathering dust and generally making few of us much happier.

In the case of drills, there is a simple solution: the tool library. They already exist in many places, and they're easy to start elsewhere. Why own a drill when you can own a library card and, with a small bit of planning (and we know that walkshed technologies are making planning like this easier every day), have the use not only of a drill but of a whole workshop full of great tools?

What's true of power drills is true of nearly everything.

Sharing clubs already exist for everything from cars to art. Working models for systems which substitute services for products (product service systems) abound, and more companies and community groups are jumping into the field every month. Better still, technical innovations which could support using-not-owning are proliferating (you'll find dozens on Worldchanging alone), dropping what was once a major barrier, the time spent finding, getting and using the service-things we want. We're a long way from frictionless service systems, but improvement and innovation are constant.

We're starting, in fact, to see the outlines of a way of living which is not only much more prosperous and attractive than the way many of us live today, but would allow us to have a fraction of the ecological footprint: bright green urban living, with technology and good design promoting a high quality of life and allowing the sharing of goods and services which were formerly thought of as luxuries. It may just be that product service systems are one of the lynchpins of a new way of living that delivers truly sustainable prosperity.

The big roadblock, though, is that we like owning stuff. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth of advertising taught to associate owning stuff with being successful, secure, sexy and safe. If we are serious about redesigning the ways we live, we need to imagine and share visions of living without owning that are at least as compelling. We need new visions, yes, but we may need new branding even more.

The British design firm Live|Work may have part of the answer. They've grown somewhat famous in bright green circles for their recent work, especially their campaign for Streetcar ("The self-service pay-as-you-go car") with the slogan "You are what you use... not what you own."

Now they've had the critical insight that while products tell the world a great deal about who we are when we own them (or at very least, in a cynical light, what marketing representation of ourselves we care to portray), services to which we have access are often culturally invisible

To that end

We can think of products as serving two basic needs; to perform the function they are engineered to do, and to confirm and communicate the owner's set of values. The second function is crucial. Products help us identify ourselves through a complex product and brand language. If we want to make people desire services more than products, then services will also have to communicate these values.
If we want to make people desire services more then products, we have to create services that help people tell each other who they are. Our major challenge is to enable people to express who they are through the use of services instead of through ownership of things. We must create "service envy".

I believe that's right. I think figuring out how to display, even flaunt, the networks and systems of which we are a part is a critical design challenge in this scenario of the bright green future. I don't know how -- reputation systems might play a part; other forms of social signalling might be involved -- but I have a gut feeling that figuring out how to display meaning, status, and group affliation when discussing intangibles is absolutely critical. We are, after all, hairless apes, and as rational as we'd like to think we are, our emotional needs (most of evolutionary origin) still color every thought we have.

We need to make the bright green city, in which we use instead of own, a place which makes us feel better, sexier, safer, more loved. If it doesn't, it'll never work, no matter how good the product design or how strong the wireless signal.

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Comments

"What's true of power drills is true of nearly everything." ... ummm... women?

Seriously, there is an industry that already specializes in service envy - the airlines. True, flying first class usually takes up more room and weight meaning more jet fuel / flyer, but think of all the other perks (first on board, first off, coat hanging, using the lounge at the airport...) - so everyone now belongs to half a dozen frequent flyer clubs and everyone wants to upgrade. Maybe this 'upgrade' lust should be looked at more carefully.

On the car thing, I've often wondered if in the US a commercial outfit could be made profitable by offering fractional day car rentals as being part of a club, with lots of small parking lots all over with a variety of vehicles... Enterprise Rental Car is about 1/3rd of the way there I think - they just need a few more locations in some major cities and the institution of a club program for frequent rentals and fractional days. I do believe in the US that the small electric hybrid on the street type of rentals will find limited acceptance - sometimes I really have needed a pickup and would love to had rent one for 4 or 5 hours. Home Depot and others have hourly rentals of larger trucks... but the pricing is prohibitive except if one is truly building a house, etc.

There have been for many years rental places for specialized farming/gardening equipment, etc. What the world now needs is to scale down the bar defining the rent/own relationship.

At this point in my life I am now a bigger believer in the idea of owning less ... I just wish there were more borrowing-type of institutions available.


Posted by: InJapan on 28 Jun 06

It's almost all heading toward an "Experience Model" anyway, imo. The technology and the masses are pushing everything that way... at least from the signs I've been watching.

And there are plenty of people ditching their belongings. Seven years ago I gave away all the furniture I'd accumulated; I just didn't want to pack it up again (and with everyone being job-mobile, that has to be how a lot of people are feeling). Since then I've never replaced those things and am mostly free to leave when I feel the urge. That's a liberating feeling. And from something I recently read, there's a growing number of people just like me.

And all this seems to be coming to a crossroads. It's definitely going to be interesting over the next ten years or so to see how all these threads tie together.


Posted by: csven on 28 Jun 06

We've been slowing getting rid of more and more stuff, especially as our cross-country move approaches. But we do own a drill and a jigsaw that rarely see the light of day. You've inspired me to start our own little lending tool library after we move!

Groups of friends have always done this, but it makes so much more sense to involve your neighborhood or community. Lately I've been reading about couples and families who, missing the sense of community they grew up with, create home improvement clubs or dinner clubs with neighbors. I love the double-duty of such a service club, and I can't wait to get to our new neighborhood to join or start one!


Posted by: Heidi Burns on 29 Jun 06

I think this centralization of services (the lending library for tools) runs directly counter to the so-called American Way of Life and needs to consider the cultural surroundings it attempts to occupy.

The reason why we pollute so much, own so many cars, and neglect public transportation in the suburbs is in a way because Americans need to feel as though they are in control of their own lives. Why create more envy and individualistic tendencies instead of working to Americanize the co-op?

It seems like a dirty word but along with redefining the way we live, perhaps we need to redefine terms like Americanize to now mean: "The method of branding a worthwhile, sustainable idea to accomodate one of the most actively selfish societies in the world."

In Bob Herbert's op-ed today there's reference to the idea that "history has [no] storyline and that America has [no] distinct role in it. [...] There is no essentially American culture - no transcendent thing we Americans share simply because we happen to inhabit the same nation-state." Now we do have a common strand--American culture is rightfully being blamed for perpetuating unsustainable practices. And service envy doesn't seem like the right answer.


Posted by: coogan on 29 Jun 06

"On the car thing, I've often wondered if in the US a commercial outfit could be made profitable by offering fractional day car rentals as being part of a club, with lots of small parking lots all over with a variety of vehicles... Enterprise Rental Car is about 1/3rd of the way there I think - they just need a few more locations in some major cities and the institution of a club program for frequent rentals and fractional days. I do believe in the US that the small electric hybrid on the street type of rentals will find limited acceptance - sometimes I really have needed a pickup and would love to had rent one for 4 or 5 hours. Home Depot and others have hourly rentals of larger trucks... but the pricing is prohibitive except if one is truly building a house, etc."

Hey Injapan,
We have such a service in Portland, OR! It's called flexcar and for a small membership fee, I can go online and reserve a car that has a permanant parking spot in my neighborhood (actually it's a pickup). They are located all over the city and are mostly high mileage hybrids. They charge an hourly fee ($9) and an annual membership fee ($40). Well worth it considering they pay all the fuel, insurance, maintenance and it is incredibly convienent.


Posted by: Ron on 29 Jun 06

In a way, this is nothing new. Tool rental is a long-standing business model.

The difference in (and implicit goal of) Alex's vision would be to tweak the existing model to include smaller hand tools. The existing business is more oriented toward power equipment and larger hand tools. Not a big leap, however. And I'll bet the market is there waiting.


Posted by: Thomas on 30 Jun 06

I think the need for making services a more conspicuous form of consumption is completely unnecessary for most people- as long as the services provide significant savings over ownership.

People who can't afford to bling out every aspect of their life (the majority of U.S. citizens, that is) will consciously decide which aspects deserve the most attention. On top of that, they are aware that HOW they spend money conspicuously is just a much an expression of who they are as the fact that they spend money conspicuously in the first place.

Wal-Mart wouldn't be doing as much business as it does if everyone in the U.S. was only interested in buying things that set themselves apart as individuals.

Me, I'm thinking about all the snappy designer clothes I could buy with the money saved by selling my car and using ZipCar instead.


Posted by: Robin on 1 Jul 06



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