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Donning the green mantle

A couple of opportunities to compete in 'green design' competitions were announced this week. Distributor Farnell has announced its second annual international green design challenge. The LiveEdge green electronics design contest offers a first prize worth up to $100,000 to move a green design with potential towards production. Meanwhile, Freescale has launched a competition inviting engineers to find creative ways to use less energy, limit the environmental impact of existing products, and create new products that help improve the world we live in.

Electronics designers have long had the opportunity to be at the forefront of the 'green' revolution. Some designers have taken up the mantle, resulting in some obviously 'green' products like the Freeplay wind-up radio and the Prius hybrid petrol/electric car. But increasingly, electronics engineers have the opportunity to contribute in more subtle ways. For example, whilst metering systems for gas, water, electricity have been in existence for many years, new technologies such as Zigbee, with its potential to create sophisticated home monitoring networks, hold great 'green' potential. Zigbee could help consumers manage and minimise energy consumption, although its rarely talked about on those terms.

It mustn't be forgotten that the electronics industry has played an important part in bringing green issues to our collective consciousness. The mounting evidence of climate change, provided by advanced monitoring equipment and satellite imagery has helped scientists gauge the extent of the global environmental crisis and relate the realities to the masses through the media.

The result, in the UK at least, has been that 'green' ideas have gained a certain respect ” indeed green products have now achieved a certain fashion status. It would appear the same is true across the US. A survey by Forrester Research found that 12 percent of adults (some 25 million Americans) are willing to pay a premium for consumer electronics that use less energy or come from an environmentally friendly company.

So green, so good then? But there are two issues that bother me. Firstly, I can't be the only one to have noticed a certain 'hijacking' of the green agenda by canny marketeers? Consumer good's marketeers have some thinking to do. So far, theirs has been a pretty banal response to our global predicament – don't buy less, buy 'green'.
Secondly, whilst individual manufacturers have been proactive in driving the green agenda, collectively, the industry has been slow to react. The industry is still pursuing a practically 'disposable' price agenda, churning out constant iterations of ever-cheaper 'stuff'.

Now that 'green' products and eco-friendly practices are emerging as important purchase considerations, the electronics industry has the catalyst to make these central tenants of the design process. This requires us to face some important decisions. In addition to recyclability, sustainable material usage, energy and waste reduction, the industry needs to embrace the ethos of durability, by building in upgrade potential for example. Truly green design cannot be done in a piecemeal fashion – it requires a holistic approach.

Ultimately, green design will require a complete change of attitude – the end of design management signing off a feeble broadband router, a 'disposable' mobile phone and its proprietary charging equipment, the laptop with a maximum lifetime of a couple of years.

So whilst I applaud Freescale and Farnell's efforts, I hope sincerely that the value achieved from their design competitions lies beyond PR and is about more than creating brand new 'green' stuff. And likewise, when I hear that CES donned a green mantle this year, offsetting carbon emissions and handing out recycled paper flyers, I am more willing to applaud efforts to promote 'green' design from the ground up.

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