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Delaying Obsolescence


This paper argues that those who emphasise that designers and engineers need to plan for obsolescence are too conservative. Rather, in addition to planning for obsolescence, designers and engineers should also think carefully about what they could do in order delay obsolescence. They should so this by thinking about the design itself, thinking of ways in which products could be useful and appealing for longer before becoming obsolete, as well thinking about the wider context in terms of the marketing of products, and also the social and legal. The paper also considers objections that these suggestions are unrealistically idealistic, failing to recognise the economic realities. I respond to these objections appealing to research in advertising, psychology, cognitive linguistics, philosophy, history, and economics, as well as drawing on the Statement of Ethical Principles developed by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering Council.

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  1. See, for example, (2014).

  2. Carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.

  3. My italics.

  4. See, for example, Smith (2013), Tofel (2013) and Kameka (2013).

  5. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, usually used to treat depression.

  6. Single lens reflex.

  7. Others may raise concerns about the economics, but not at the level of individual companies or individual products, but on a larger scale, worrying that my suggestions would be detrimental to the economy. I cannot address this in detail here, but will make two comments. First, my approach needn’t be in opposition to economic growth, but may instead focus more on a service economy (discussed in more detail in the following). Second, even if there is a conflict here, it is not clear that we should assume that economic growth must win over environmental concerns. See, for example, Jackson (2011) and Heinberg (2011).

  8. Also see the various discussions of the “welfare state” and a “safety net” throughout.

  9. From 1 min 20 s.

  10. Miles per gallon, or equivalent if we are including electric cars as well.

  11. The 25 and 65 mpg figures are based—roughly—on a Porsche 911 and a Toyota Prius ( 2013).

  12. Carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.

  13. Paragraphs 1, 4 and 5 (my italics), and also 39, 43, 46, and 47.

  14. And many would also point out that this is something that we are failing to do, already, because the needs of the present clearly isn’t meant to refer only to the needs of the present in the UK or USA and other wealthy countries.


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I am grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for the early career research fellowship, funding my project, “Climate Change, Ethics and Responsibility: an interdisciplinary approach”.

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Correspondence to Rob Lawlor.

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Lawlor, R. Delaying Obsolescence. Sci Eng Ethics 21, 401–427 (2015).

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