The Green(er) machine

Product designers are struggling to include an environmental aspect to their work, but industry interest is noticeably lacking. Gaynor Williams laments the slow response to Green innovation in the UK compared to other countries and urges manufacturers to

Summertime, and the living is easy. Fish are jumping, and the grass in your garden’s chest high.

It’s far too hot to do anything about it, and deck-chair gardeners sigh as they look about them at the mid-summer mayhem. If only… if only somebody had the foresight to invent a machine that mowed the lawn for you.

Someone has. A student called Jurgen de Vries has designed the perfect gardening product – a nifty little chap called AL, controlled by a micro-processor, which charges around the lawn kindly chomping the clover while you have a crafty snooze.

It goes almost without saying that industry hasn’t yet leapt at the opportunity to develop this great idea. It excited the press, and the gardening fraternity even more. I’m sure that it would have a guaranteed international market. But AL, like most of the other designs which are the fruit of the Product Design Engineering BA course run jointly by Glasgow School of Art and Glasgow University, is still looking for a manufacturer. Same old story, eh?

Significantly, a lot of the Glasgow students’ ideas and innovations this year were either environmentally-friendly or environmentally-chic. Take the child’s bike that “evolves” and grows with the owner, for instance – extensions are bolted into place

as the child grows. Or the FreeDome lightweight trailer, whose inter-connected domes give six people sleeping space and nearly all the mod cons, including running water. In the meantime, at the New Designers exhibition in London’s Islington, one

of the best things on show was a “well”, or portable water de-salination unit, by Andy May of Brunel University: another was a “cold” light. So it’s obvious that students are still turned on by Green thinking. But what will happen to all these ideas, and all that hard work?

Global mean sea level may be rising at a rate of 1.8mm a year, but the UK will no doubt proudly cling on to its convictions and do too little, too late, about the environmental imperative. I say this because even the Department of the Environment seems to admit it.

The DoE is now forcing manufacturers to change because of European legislation. The new energy labelling scheme for domestic appliances began this year with fridges and freezers: all of which are measured on a scale of A to G, with A being the most efficient.

Free market dogma here means that this sort of thing is an anathema to the Government, and to UK manufacturers too, according to the DoE. Most of the fridges that have succeeded in getting into the energy-efficient A category are from the Continent. In other words, UK manufacturers are only responding slowly to the directive. Perhaps they are still relying on low price to win orders – but it doesn’t take too much grey matter for buyers to figure out that low-energy means low running costs. In the end, the low-end G category goods are bound to lose out. The environmental imperative is becoming a commercial one, too.

According to the Open University, Green design projects achieve a higher proportion of exports – an average 25 per cent, compared with 19 per cent, and a higher gross profit margin – 40 per cent compared with 37 per cent.

Although Green issues may have dropped off the agenda in the UK, this is not true elsewhere. Japan, which by popular belief is one of the filthiest polluters of the developed world, has brought in energy-use regulation where major companies report publicly on their energy-saving record.

Other countries – Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Holland among them – are looking at the idea of “market transformation”. This is a way of pushing the pace of innovation. Government purchasing power is used to give domestic manufacturers guaranteed orders, giving them the time and breathing space needed to pursue new “environmental” product ideas to win exports.

In the meantime, there are lots of good ideas out there that are simply being wasted. However, all is not gloomy: despite it being summer, most of the Glasgow students have jobs, temporary design contracts, or at least some positive signs of commercial interest. This could well be due to Glasgow’s industrial design department making the crucial decision to devote some of its precious teaching funds to the creation of a post for part-time industrial liaison officer Lynne O’Neil. And as she admits: “It’s hard going out there.”

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