Modular Design for Sustainable Development


“In a consumer society, there are inevitably two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.” Ivan Illich


In light of Donald Trump’s frivolous withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, receive further information on the official site, it seems ironic to talk about what we designers can do to avert an ecological and human disaster – but I’ll try. Fact not Fake: with ~5% of the world’s population, the United States – now an ecological pariah – produce ~25% of global waste, and behind China, we are the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide. In addition, American companies are contributing to pollution and abuse of workers in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Bangladesh (just to name a few) by outsourcing cheap copy-cat products – incl. Trump’s and his daughter’s businesses. America’s strategic outlook is that while China is working hard to improve – including education –, Trump put a climate-warming-denier and a semi-educated billionaire heir in charge of environmental exploitation and dismantling public education.

This conduct not only infringes on our citizen rights for life protection (14th Amendment) but it also goes against the United Nations’ mission to set seventeen measurable Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), ranging from ending world poverty, improving education to achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls by 2030 – formally accepted in 2015 by the UN General Assembly.

Looking at the 17 Goals of sustainable development defined by the United Nations, #12 is the one where we designers must contribute:

#12 Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

When we look at today’s consumer technology products and the usage behaviors attached to them we see rapid changes in styles and shapes as if technology turns in the same shifting winds as the fashion industry (also a big and exploitive offender against sustainable production). The difference is that the infrastructure of high-tech factories is much more complex than those of a clothing factory, and that results in more superficial changes, which again results in more waste.

However, fashion only is one reasons for premature obsolescence in electronic products – and soon also in autonomous mobility: the systemic one is asynchronous lifecycles of components, including hardware components (displays, CPU, communication modules, sensors, cameras, lidor systems, batteries etc.) as well as software operating systems, applications and monitoring.

Smartphones are physically small products but by their sheer numbers a good example. In the United States alone, 130 to 150 million mostly functional smartphones are disposed annually.

One million contain around 35,000 pounds of copper, about 800 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium. Recycling – still requiring energy – precludes the amounts for mining and processing, and also helps to prevent air and water pollution. However, the smarter way is to Prolong the lifecycle by a modular product architecture, which allows to change and replace components without to discard the entire product.

Interesting enough, some early tech products had a high degree of modularity. Many parts and components of the original Volkswagen Beetle were easy to exchange because they were designed for this and connections were made by accessible screws: fenders, doors, windows, seats, steering wheels and yes, even the engine could be replaced in 20 minutes. Dealers had generic parts in storage and if somebody needed a new fender, they painted it and next morning the fender was screwed on. As the air-cooled engines overheated in Summer and stalled in Winter due to stiff oil, the exchange engine was part of the ownership process.

Citroen then even expanded this modular concept by allowing to unscrew the entire body off the drivetrain and chassis. (Naturally, both cars weren’t meeting today’s safety requirements, but no car back then except a Mercedes came even close.)

There’s no doubt that designers are well positioned to change the current addiction to consumerism both in digital technology, consumer appliances and mobility, and to drive more sustainable design of products. I’d say we have to be a vital part of greening the industrial system because we’re in an ideal position to influence the early stage process before the mistakes happen. This requires that we have the knowledge and the competence – also in the business hierarchy – to create more sustainable concepts. Ecology at its core is not about constant new but about constant better and many designers find this very boring. It’s the kind of work that’s not as flashy as many designers prefer, but greening our societies is a slow and complex process and greening our industrial system is a huge challenge. Making an impact is going to require a much deeper understanding of our potential.

The process is threefold. First we have to start with the seeds of a concept or business plan, before any decisions are made. Second, we have to collaborate instead of thinking that we know better. And third, we have to get beyond the current naïve idea that visual design beautification and superficial innovation is a universal healing force. Instead of thinking that we can innovate ourselves out of our ecological problems we should look at the causes and effects.

Adam Smith’s version of capitalism has evolved into the prevalent economic system. Even as the flavors differ a bit from socially minded capitalism in Europe, to Asia’s consensus-driven, collaborative “CoEpetition” (as MIT’s Michael Schrage defined it), to brute Darwinism in the U.S., the global capitalist system should be driven by creating long-term potential, growth, and profits both for an enterprise and for its owners, investors, and shareholders. That said, as financial power all-too-often has superseded productive and creative powers, capitalism has now reached the point where building long-term potential has been mostly abolished. Greed is blinding people to our more pressing needs like a safe and clean world. Especially problematic is when finance and business corrupts politics at the expense of the environment. Now it got even worse as Trump and his republican minions went so far that even major American companies incl. Big Oil were fighting to remain in the Paris Agreement, because the future of industry is in new technologies. This means: politically, we designers must become activists. Professionally, we must reveal and dismantle the roadblocks to ecological progress following Steve Jobs’ mantra of “beating the morons” via economically successful sustainable design – also working hard towards goal #1 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

Eradicate extreme poverty by 2030 for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day. (not to forget the United States where 1.5 million households with 2.8 million children have to live on less than $2.00 a day).



United Nations Framework on Climate Change – The Paris Agreement

Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform – 17 Goals


Disassembled iPhone –

Volkswagen Beetle –

Citroen 2CV –


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