How can businesses innovate beyond obsolescence?

By | February 25, 2014

Chris BalcombeMark Buckley is a 20-year-old product design student and won a place on the B&Q Youth Board as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has worked with Bradford University School of Management to develop the Innovation, Enterprise and the Circular Economy MBA.

It’s only when business leaders question the current ways of working, and take the bold step to rethink, that real innovation can thrive. Creativity is what keeps businesses evolving, current and profitable.

In 2011, I won a place on the B&Q Youth Board. The group consisted of nine individuals, between the ages of 16-19. We were set the challenge to rethink B&Q’s business, in a world with increasing raw material costs and waste disposal, to keep the company thriving in the long term and become business innovation ambassadors.

We were introduced to the idea of a circular economy, and were given full, unrestricted access to the business for research, interviews and questioning. I met with buyers, sat in on ‘range reviews’, and presented alongside Euan Sutherland (former Kingfisher COO) and Dame Ellen MacArthur at Retail Week’s annual Conference. We were each mentored by a Director on the B&Q Board, and had on-going support from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Creating a circular economy

We reported back a year later in a presentation to Kingfisher’s Group Chief Executive, Sir Ian Cheshire, Dame Ellen MacArthur and the B&Q Board of Directors with our vision for DIY in the 21st century. We proposed three closely interlinked proposals: a take back offer, a repair service, and a strategy for leasing products in a format that makes DIY a much easier process for the customer.Veronique

Under the system, customers would be able to hire the package of tools they would need to complete a particular job and then return them to the store rather than leaving them to rust in a shed or be thrown away.

These ideas identified opportunities which could fundamentally change the current working of B&Q, building better relationships with their customers and suppliers to become in the future, a business more resilient to the effect of volatile raw material prices – currently a great threat to B&Q. B&Q is actively engaging with this thinking and involving all areas of the business to pursue these proposals.


The B&Q Youth Board became business innovation ambassadors and provided fresh thinking for the company.


Business Innovation

I feel that the success of the Youth Board is gaining an external insight to see things anew.  The key to seeing fresh innovation is not having any experience of common practices or an understanding of the norm – this is what a younger perspective can provide. When the mind is swamped with the reasons why an idea is less obtainable, desirable, affordable or realistic, it means possibilities are filtered before given they are given the chance to work through.

Sir Ian Cheshire, commented: “I think the great thing about the B&Q Youth Board is they come from a completely different angle than the rest of the business. The perspective you have when you’re 16-18 is full of possibilities, you have this invisible confidence in the future, but you also ask some difficult questions maybe people in the business have stopped asking. They have taken a challenging topic of our longer term future.”

DrillWe self-select and rationalise ideas when in the ‘business as usual’ context. The British designer, Sir Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice President of Design at Apple, spoke about how Steve Jobs understood ideas “He understood, while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished”. It is about treating the process of creativity with care, which can be difficult in the everyday business practice.

Organisational change

We questioned the linear pattern of B&Q’s business, and if the one-way shift of goods to customers is really the best offer for customers, or even makes the best business sense. I feel when you are locked into this linear system, design can become a gloomy and daunting process, because whatever you design, regardless of your good intentions or careful design choices, you know that something you developed and nurtured currently has a high chance of ending up in a landfill or an incinerator.

Bradford University School of Management alumnus Dr Elaine Hickmott argues that a circular economy means every element of business needs rethinking to create a closed loop of material flow and says this should be at the heart of a successful strategy.

Certainly for me as an aspiring designer, the argument to use less, do less harm and be more efficient – which in the end, doesn’t really solve the problem – doesn’t satisfy me. So where does that leave me? With the goal of creating something that makes as little impact as possible?

Changing business behaviour

The next fundamental goal right now is to break this cycle of linear throughput and change the system through design – be that product or business model design.

It’s an opinion shared by Alan Moore, guest lecturer at Bradford University School of Management and author of  No Straight Lines: Making Sense of Our Non-linear World

The problem with this current model is that once the function of a product is no longer functional, broken or desirable; the parts, the materials, and the embedded energy are of no value to the consumer, they become an inconvenience. Whereas, when products always belong to the manufacturers, returning to their creator (be that manufacturer or retailer), they are no longer just valued for their purpose. The materials, components, embedded energy regain their value. It’s here that a new approach to business needs to be undertaken to capture these assets, which can hugely benefit business and users.

When a product never permanently leaves its creator; whether rented out to hundreds of customers, or designed to be returned after five years of service for upgrade, retailers and manufacturers suddenly have a much bigger invested interest in that product.  It changes the dynamic because it puts care back into the design brief, and creates the right conditions where obsolescence no longer dominates the possibilities, or hinders the design.

Corporate social responsibility

Buckley concept

Mark Buckley scooped praise for his closed loop garden shredder concept.

I was featured in the September 2013 edition of Elle Decoration for my closed loop garden shredder design as a joint winner in their British Talent Search 2013. It was the benefits of shifting from access to ownership that I explored in my entry.

I believe that access is better than ownership, and that the next wave of innovation will be when retailers and manufacturers take on the responsibility of their products, unlocking a new wealth of opportunities to design better, waste less, become more resilient and create better customer relationships.

It’s a huge challenge, so I ask, what are the hurdles retailers and manufacturers will find to shift their business model from customer owning everything to gaining access to well made, well designed products of the future? I’d welcome your thoughts.

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