From our clothes, to our health, to our daily behaviors—our lives will be increasingly intertwined with technology in the coming years, as products at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) illustrated. As someone who relies on technology (a wireless insulin pump) for health, I often wonder how these tech ideas actually serve a greater good, or at least have the potential to do so. Technology is and will continue to be in every facet of our lives, so, to continue pushing boundaries, this progressive industry should be further integrating sustainability into their products.
At CES, smart-home technologies such as smart kitchen equipment (like an oven that can prevent fires), personal assistants like Alexa and Echo, and even voice-controlled toilets were featured. Layering environmentally sustainable behavior into these products could be a next step. Already, apps like GoodGuide and Free2Work allow users to scan a barcode and receive the social and environmental sustainability of a product in the store.
What if you could tick off a “sustainability preference” with your personal assistant, so when you add a product to your shopping list, the most sustainable options would automatically be listed for you? What if a smart sink could tell you how much water you used, and a smart trash bin could state how much you threw away this year or could even help you figure out what items could be recycled? Admittedly not everyone wants to know the carbon footprint of their every activity, and maybe this abundance of information would be overwhelming, but there should at least be options available for consumers to attain this information.
Moving beyond smart-home products, making smart cities and integrating technology with urban infrastructure are the next steps that some companies are looking into. Products like street lamps that could detect air quality and river censors to detect water pollution were just some ideas presented. The idea behind smart cities and pollution-detecting products is providing a network of sensors that could help create a healthier and more environmentally efficient city.
Tech-enhanced shopping has also come to the forefront with the Amazon Go grocery store. Chinese companies have been working on these ideas, as well. The self-driving pizza delivering cart seen in an episode this season’s “Black Mirror” has already been proto-typed and tested in Shanghai with the name Moby Mart. It was a joint project between a Swedish start-up, Wheelys, and China’s Hefei University of Technology. A company called BingoBox has already created 150 automatic cashier-less shops in China, and Alibaba will test a pop-up café without cashiers in the summer.
Enhancing user experiences in an increasingly online world is driving this innovative shopping phenomenon. The death of shopping malls has led the remaining shopping centers to rethink how they operate. Many shopping centers are now focusing on the shopping experience rather than selling material products. Malls in the United States are hosting art exhibits; book stores and interior design galleries are offering wine tastings and catered events. Focusing on experience rather than consumerism could possibly be a step towards reconfiguring consumer patterns—getting people to consume less. Redesigning consumer patterns could be particularly useful for controlling the environmental damage of China’s exploding consumer market.
Similar to shopping malls, tech companies are also focusing on enhancing and improving user experiences, so that everyday actions are a little easier and more enjoyable. Some might say that even technology deemed unnecessary, like a ping pong-playing robot, enhances the human experience by bringing joy and reducing stress so people can lead happier, more productive lives. Maybe these products even contribute to our cultural development.
One concern is that too much emphasis is placed on trendy products, like personal assistants or smart watches, which may soon end up in a dump. How can we make sure the tech industry does not repeat the fashion industry’s environmentally destructive “fast fashion” phenomenon? How can we ensure that mass production of tech products will not quickly clog landfills? Trendy products can be fun, but sustainability should be more integrated into the production and use of these products.
Technological innovation has driven the development of renewable energy, electric vehicles and other green products. Hopefully tech companies will continue to promote sustainability by creating more long-lasting products that help us lead more sustainable lives. It seems like we are at the beginning of a new era—the Tech Era. There is so much potential to redesign our behaviors and mindsets towards technology, so in these first steps for making new products and systems, we should ensure that sustainability is fully integrated. If we wait too long, it will be harder to insert sustainable processes into completed infrastructures.
If only it was as easy as saying, “Alexa, please order a new planet.”