Last week the information and communications technology world converged on Las Vegas for the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where there was more cool tech than you could shake a selfie stick at. I was there to brave the flashing lights and tedious lines to report on sustainability and technology. While CES featured a lot of innovative and exciting technology, it was also clear that companies have an opportunity to do much more to manage the sustainability risks and opportunities of these emerging technologies. Here are five tech trends and how companies can seize related opportunities for sustainable innovation.
1. Fulfill the sustainability potential of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
VR and AR were ubiquitous at CES, and truly delightful experiences. I tried AR glasses that project instructions for industrial repairs inside the glasses, a VR wellness rig with a heart rate monitor that coached me on meditative breathing, and VR demos that transported me to the far reaches of outer space and the intimacy of a rural home in the developing world. While companies highlighted sustainability applications in many of their demos, the key will be developing those applications beyond good marketing and into innovative, complete, and scalable offerings with benefits for science and education, health and wellness, industrial safety, telepresence, employee development, and more.
2. Plan for end-of-life for wearables.
CES featured smart eyeglasses, rings, belts, watches, and fitness devices. Creating whole new classes of high-tech consumer electronics portends an explosion of e-waste. Worse yet, recycling wearables is complex, difficult, and low-value, and most companies have done little to plan for responsible end-of-life. I asked several wearables exhibitors about end-of-life handling and was mostly met with confusion and uncertainty—and in one case hostility from a smaller exhibitor. Tech companies will have to think carefully about designing for disassembly and repair-ability, promoting consumer recycling, and working with recyclers to ease proper disposal of the devices. Why? Consumers won’t be happy with fragile devices, there will be opportunities to engage consumers through take-back, and companies should prepare for regulatory action on e-waste.
3. Avoid rapid failure and obsolescence for connected appliances.
Several companies are pushing “smart” appliances to replace historically “dumb” white goods like refrigerators and washers. As I examined a smart refrigerator with a giant built-in touch screen, all I could think about was an old smartphone I used, which was so slow after a few years that it was barely usable, couldn’t run new applications, and was no longer supported. That sort of obsolescence is frustrating for a phone, but a potentially huge problem for refrigerators, washers, or vehicles. While one company claimed it would support its refrigerators for 10 years, it’s unclear how well the appliances would function at that point, plus it’s significantly below the typical 13-19-year lifespan of a refrigerator. Companies will need to design smart appliances to avoid rapid failure and obsolescence, and for proper disposal. There may also be opportunities to detect and prevent costly breakdowns, push over-the-air updates that can improve performance (like Tesla recently did), or to tap circular-economy thinking and develop new service- or upgrade-driven revenue models.
4. Change consumer behavior with smart home tech.
Many of the industry’s heaviest hitters featured smart home technology, which often included sustainability information such as energy or water usage. Companies should go beyond simply providing information and controls in the background, however, to encourage and educate consumers on more sustainable (and cost-saving) behavior. Features like tips, targets, gamification, and benchmarks could be powerful opportunities for companies to drive positive sustainability impacts and support “net positive” outcomes.
5. Be smart on 3-D printing.
3-D printers make it possible for consumers and businesses to do rapid, decentralized, small-scale production. The potential environmental, economic, social, and health and safety impacts of 3-D printing are still emerging, which we noted in our November 2015 report “3-D Printing: Sustainability Opportunities and Challenges.” As companies roll out this technology, they should focus on how sustainability issues fit into these products.
And finally, an important health and safety note on CES. Of the myriad exhibitors that wanted me to strap some device to my face, wrist, fingers, and ears, only one bothered to clean things off. Kudos to United Healthcare for using the alcohol wipes.
We are entering a new age of exciting technology. As an avowed tech geek, I was excited to see it, firsthand and hands-on. But as the technology sector touts innovation for good, it has a lot of work to do in managing the sustainability risks and opportunities of the next generation of consumer technology.