introduction to research field
Innovation and design
Guidance on how to prioritise
Decisions are critical factors
Who makes the choice and how
Lean Product Development
Method for Sustainable Product Development
Guide measures towards sustainability
As evident from, e.g., the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA-Report 2005) the potential of ecosystems to sustain civilization is declining on a global scale. Humans have made unprecedented changes to ecosystems in the recent century to meet growing demands for, e.g., food and energy. This has improved the quality of life for many, but it has also weakened natures long term life supporting capacity. Natural resources are currently overused and natures waste assimilation capacity is exceeded. Socio-economically, a strong polarisation between industrialized and developing nations has also developed and this has weakened the social fabric of many societies. Such symptoms of unsustainability are rooted in the very design and operation of the modern industrial society.
Innovation and design
A particularly critical intervention point in the transformation of society towards sustainability is the innovation and design of products. Overuse of resources and socio-ecological impacts of production, distribution, use and disposal are evidence that current methods of decision making for innovation and design are insufficient. In many cases, the majority of a products social and ecological impacts are already committed at the design phase. Thus, it is imperative that rigorous, practical and readily shared methods and tools are developed to bridge the gap between todays innovation and design approaches and tomorrows global needs. Businesses taking a leading role in this development are likely to become increasingly more competitive.
Methods and tools that support integration of socio-ecological sustainability into the strategic planning process should include guidance on how to prioritise and make decisions. This type of guidance is sometimes also called risk (and opportunity) assessment.
Sustainability-related decisions can be critical factors in determining the future of a company and the market success of its products. It is therefore relevant to understand both what types of decisions are made during product development and manufacturing processes and how these are made. There are many elements to consider in this context and frequently choices have to be made between a range of competing alternatives. In order to make a decision, the product developer needs to consider different criteria for each product or product concept, e.g. price, quality, product life-span, materials, maintenance and environmental performance characteristics. This often leads to trade-off situations, in which a sacrifice is made in one area to obtain benefits in another. It is usually impossible to optimise all areas at once. For example in the case of a car, in order to increase the fuel efficiency the material content in the product is often reduced but this might at the same time decrease the passenger safety.
It is difficult to say, in advance, when and which trade-off situations will occur during the various product development phases, as it is a complex, unfolding process overall with many different aspects to consider. The question is, who makes the choice and how? How can trade-offs be identified, avoided or solved satisfactorily? How are decisions made at senior management level connected to the decisions made at the product development level? It is important that there is a clear, informed and constructive relationship between the companys top management with its strategic course on the one hand, and design teams with their innovation of new products and services on the other. If a design team considers developing a new product then it is of strategic importance to set project parameters in a way that makes it possible to develop further towards sustainability. Such consideration can be of critical importance because of expected market expansion, or perhaps expected increases in product investment for instance. To make such considerations without executive level sponsorship is meaningless.
In this context it is suitable to mention a concept called Lean Product Development which has become a model within product development. This concept suggests taking an interdisciplinary approach, in parallel, following up and/or reconnecting with previous work. It also prompts a relatively high investment of effort early in the development process to enable prediction of product characteristics. This can help to minimise the risks of more costly redesign or problem solving at a later stage and can also increase awareness of relevant decision making. We propose that this concept is further developed to involve a clear strategy for making decisions towards sustainability throughout the entire product development process, whilst including suitable support tools for risk assessment and prioritisation at each stage.
In our previous research we have undertaken extensive reviews of methods and tools for product development and ecodesign (Byggeth 2001; Byggeth & Hochschorner 2005). Based on this, and in cooperation with numerous companies, we have developed a new approach to a Method for Sustainable Product Development (MSPD), with the aim of integrating social and ecological aspects of sustainability within a strategic business perspective (Byggeth et al. 2005). The method combines backcasting from basic principles for sustainability (Broman et al. 2000; Holmberg 1995) with a standard model of a concurrent engineering development process (Andreasen & Hein 1987; Ulrich & Eppinger 2003; Ullman 1997). It includes a modular system of guiding questions that were derived by considering the aforementioned principles and the product life cycle. Initial testing indicates that this MSPD works well for identification of sustainability problems as well as for generation of possible solutions (Byggeth et al. 2005).
The MSPD method includes elementary support for prioritisation among the generated alternatives. However, this is where we now want to do more comprehensive studies to enhance the methods ability to guide short and medium term measures along the most viable pathways towards sustainability. We also want to look at the decision making process in terms of how sustainability aspects are taken into consideration during the whole product development process, examining how this takes place on different levels of authority in companies. We want to analyse, evaluate and develop existing tools further to support this process and contribute to an increased market penetration of sustainable products.