Not More Products – Uncovering Local Networks

by Andy Polaine on April 13, 2010

in General

I spent a day last week with Lavrans and Ben from Live|Work putting our brains together for a project we hope will help spread lots of ideas about service design. During our discussions, Ben mentioned a piece he’s just written for the Live|Work site about their involvement in The Big Rethink, an Economist / Design Council conference discussing the future of business. The disappointment is evident in the opening sentence, “Not more products, please”. Ben quotes Hugo Spowers from Riversimple who points out that, “less unsustainable is still unsustainable.”

Not more products, indeed. I had forgotten how bombastic London advertising is until I spent a couple of days there again. It leaves you either drooling at every shop window feeling poor or leaves you feeling like a vegetarian locked in a slaughterhouse storeroom.

I’m just about to run a six-week project with my students in Luzern called “Undesign Your World,” based loosely on Tibor Kalman’s plea for designers to make a difference. Put simply, how can you develop a service that means people use less, not more? How do you create virtuous systems that encourage positive behavioral change (like the Swiss rail usage? In this post credit-crunch time most governments are exhorting the populous to go out and buy stuff to help get the economy back on track. It’s hard not to feel this is like asking us to plug the ever widening crack in the dam with our finger.

Serendipitously – and via the magic river of Twitter – I found out about the service in the video above called NeighborGoods. It might be an awful pun, but it’s an excellent example of post-product thinking. Of course, the examples in the video are all people borrowing products and I’m not advocating no products, ever. It’s clear we’ll still need things. But it is an example of servicing a need for doing something, rather than a need for a product. You don’t need a drill, you need holes in the wall.

It’s also a brilliant example of using a global network to reconnect at the local level. There are experts and people with interests (and, yes, products to be borrowed) all around us, but most of the time city life makes us oblivious to that. We might have 500 Facebook friends from across the planet, but we often have no idea if someone really interesting is living next door. My experience of living in a small town in Germany is that I know most of my neighbours and have done for some time. And it makes a difference on both a social and practical level.

So far it’s US-based, but they have plans to ‘be everywhere’. NeighborGoods.net will live or die by its community and hopefully it will be self-managing enough to avoid it getting choked up with spam (I already saw an offer of a dog on there, ‘slightly dented’ – UPDATE: the dog post is from one of the NeighborGoods team). I also wonder if they will take it the obvious next step and have categories for people offering services.

I leave you with this quote from Buckminster Fuller quoted in Allison Arieff’s NY Times article:

“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time.
Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time.
Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It’s time we gave this some thought.”
— R. Buckminster Fuller

It’s time indeed.

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