“There’s little point in efficiency without purpose”

3rd April, 2014 by Anna Simpson

Anna Simpson asks whether there’s a new role for robots as the debate on efficiency moves from production to purpose.

Last week I found myself gazing in admiration at a robot. I was standing in the middle of Europlant, a huge manufacturing site near Amsterdam, where the likes of Duck and Mr Muscle (among other brands by family company SC Johnson) roll off the production line.

The object of my attention was flat-packing cardboard boxes. With the grace of a yogi, it would twist to grasp a box, whip out its third dimension, and lay it neatly on the pile. ‘Neat’ isn’t quite enough: the precision was immaculate. I was impressed – a reminder that I’ve not seen enough of the cutting edge in the robot world: this one was already five years old. 

Thanks to the robot, that box would be re-used at least 30 times, before being recycled. Minimising waste is one of SC Johnson’s priorities, with a goal to reduce its global manufacturing waste by 70% by 2016. As part of this, Europlant has sent zero waste to landfill for over a decade. Wastewater is also reused – to the extent that the factory’s effluent treatment plant became redundant and has been decommissioned.

As for energy, an 800kWh wind turbine, installed in 2009, provides over 50% of the site’s annual electricity needs (including a fleet of electric forklift trucks), with surplus sold back to the grid. Payback on this investment is anticipated in 2015. A transition to 100% LED lighting is underway, and should be complete by the end of the year. To demonstrate how much electricity this would save, the site manager asked me to pedal a Dutch bike wired up to a row of LEDs and a row of fluorescents. My thighs can now confirm that LEDs make for much lighter work, although in theory I was already convinced.  

While I was impressed by this slick approach to industry (a far cry from last century’s blackened chimneys), I couldn’t help wondering, but what is it all for? This for me is the crux of the matter. There’s little point in producing something efficiently if it only adds to the endless range of unnecessary products cluttering our cupboards. Air freshener is a bugbear of mine: perhaps what we really want is better access to fresh air?

The real problem comes when products don’t only clean, but also pollute. Far too many cleaning products are guilty of this, containing chemicals that harm our water systems and aquatic life. As Lucy Siegle writes in the Guardian, “Bleach does the job, but what is the job and is it necessary?” Is it worth killing all the germs in our toilets, only to find traces of organochlorine compounds in our breast milk...? 

The question of purpose dominated discussions at a roundtable on energy efficiency I attended earlier in the week, hosted by GE Lighting under the banner Illuminated Minds. The premise was that the potential of innovations in efficiency to transform our lives is really very great – but we’re not yet seeing this transformation at scale. 

Agustino Renna, President and CEO of GE Lighting EMEA, described a major shift in industry from analog to digital. “You can do things with sensors that weren’t possible before”, he remarked, his eyes glimmering with the 56 million street lights across Europe that could be put to better use. But too often barriers to finance get in the way, he said. “Municipalities have no money to invest; new products present a risk; before you do anything, you have to ensure the business case is sound…” 

So how do we prise open the potential? “It all starts with the real needs of the customer”, said Serge De Gheldere, Founder of Futureproofed: “Efficiency is one trend; moving from linear to closed loop models of production is another; the next has to be selling the results, not merely the stuff…”

Such a shift, from efficiency in production to efficiency in purpose, demands a new way of thinking. For large corporations, this means ‘intrapreneurship’: driving fundamental change from the inside. It’s no small challenge. “It’s important to keep starting over, keep it fresh”, said Claude Grunitzky, Founder of the transcultural magazine Trace and now Chair of True, a consultancy which uses emerging media to help brands and institutions innovate. “I try to untrain and unlearn a lot of companies, help them get out of bad habits.”

Of course, even if you can change how the people in a business think, changing how they behave is no done deal. Perhaps strategic decision-making is a place where technology might eventually offer some help. Robots can already outwit the human mind at chess; could they help to identify the most efficient paths for a company to deliver its mission? I can already hear a dismissive ‘bleep’ when a new product bearing no relation to a company’s purpose tries to make it into production…  

“The future is a man-machine symbiosis”, said Gundeep Singh, Founder & CEO, The Change Initiative, UAE, also speaking at the Illuminated Minds roundtable. “We can input a lot of data and get insights. But can a machine ask a smart question?”

Not yet, reports Oliver Morton in the Economist. Perhaps that’s something we all need to master.  

Anna Simpson is Editor, Green Futures and author of The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire.

Photo Credit: SC Johnson

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