Is Planned Obsolescence Innovation?

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Planned Obsolescence is nothing new. The thought of it being actual innovation is. But is it really? Or ist it just a another way to fit consumer's needs?

One day I went to Starbucks. This was no ordinary day. You see, I do not frequent Starbucks anymore, having tapped into an almost ancient taste for Turkish coffee, a real love of café con leche, and a Trinidadian craving for black tea with massive amounts of evaporated milk. However, this day I had the flu, needed some quick café Americano, and actually had a Starbucks member offer for a free breakfast sandwich. I went into the closest Starbucks. It turns out that the registered Starbucks card tied to the sandwich can only be accessed via the App, and not my hard copy. Ok, so I go to the App. The omnipotent App tells me that I cannot update it, since my Android version would not let me. Long story short, in order for me to get the $4.00 sandwich, I need to entirely change my adequately working Smartphone.

The Idea Of Planned Obsolescence

Let us rewind to the 1950s. This is the post World War II era and we have a problem. There is no global war to finance anymore, the troops have gone home, yet, the new industries created by war need to be continued at the sped-up pace of the 1940s. What can be done to continue mass production? Create an uneven demand for consumption! Top economists looked to the idea of ‘planned obsolescence’, coined by Alfred P. Sloan Jr., GM’s CEO in the 1920s. The idea stemmed from upping auto sales during the Great Depression, which was understandable. However, planned obsolescence was now to be systematized through all industries, products and services. Planned obsolescence works well when the manufacturer or service provider becomes a monopoly or oligopoly.

What About The Consumer Demand?

Case in point: Apple and the iPhone. How important is it really to one’s livelihood to change from an iPhone 5 to an iPhone 6 in one month? Very important to consumers!

So, if the consumer demand is strong for the product and services, doesn’t it make sense to continuously improve on the product or service at lightning fast speed? Isn’t this what innovation is all about? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines innovation as “a new idea, method, or device; the introduction of new ideas”. So, there are portions of innovation in planned obsolescence. Fair enough. The problem here is the intent to innovate in order to make a perfectly fine creation obsolete simply to have a short term increase in the bottom line. And what a strong intention this is – it drives our entire business world. The bigger picture therein is purpose. When the sales increase, the business expands, the consumers consume, what is the ultimate aim? Is it to create more jobs from the expanded business, to provide higher overall wages, to build a community?

The Higher Purpose Behind Obsolescence

It is no secret that most Venture Capital investment flows into tech across all industries: high tech, energy, healthcare, education etc. I would say this is becoming the case even in Angel investing as well. Therefore, it is no surprise that many entrepreneurs will gravitate towards creating products and services with a strong tech component. This is the trend, and so be it. What I ask and what I definitely would need to see is a higher purpose. That this thingamajig can turn wood into glitter in outer space just does not cut it for me. Nor does it suffice that I need to change my phone to get a free breakfast sandwich at a coffeehouse.

I need the higher purpose and the bigger picture intention especially when it comes to startups and budding entrepreneurs. Why? Traditional industries are already patterned after planned obsolescence, and whatever innovation that has come out of such has formed the foundation for astounding development without having to focus on pushing consumers for quick bottom line growth anymore. This message is especially for younger Millennials. The types of products and services that sped-up innovation has brought to later generations in the developed world are astounding! There is no need to reinvent the wheel or the Smartphone per se, but to find better ways to provide a higher purpose to them. Look outside, into the world. While we now have hovercrafts, more than 50% of this world has not seen basic electricity. No, not even one light bulb. Think of what amazement the basic Flashlight app on any Smartphone would cause!

It is time to make planned obsolescence obsolete, and have planned purposeful innovation.



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