Innovation That Matters

Fight to repair: part one

Features

Creative technologist Jude Pullen explains how we can unlock innovation by breaking down silos

What happens when a pair of your headphones break? For most people, buying a new pair will be the answer. This throwaway mindset is one of the main reasons why e-waste is the fastest-growing solid waste stream in the world.

Casually chucking away broken gadgets causes big problems as only a very small portion of the electronics we discard are destined to be recycled. According to one study, of the 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste produced around the world in 2019, only 17.4 per cent was documented as fully collected or recycled. Most e-waste ends up in landfills, incinerators, or unsafely stored in warehouses and homes as devices are informally recycled via environmentally unsound techniques.

One person pushing back against our single-use attitude to electronics, however, is creative technologist Jude Pullen. A veteran engineer who has worked at Dyson, LEGO, and Sugru, Jude today helps companies to think differently about a range of topics and has previously contributed to our Future 2043 report.

When his headphones broke, Jude picked up a screwdriver and decided to see what he could do to fix them. What he thought would be a quick repair job led him down a deep rabbit hole that ultimately became A Fight To Repair, an in-depth investigation commissioned by DesignSpark of RS Group PLC, in which he explored why things are so difficult to repair today.

Springwise was excited to have the opportunity to sit down with Jude to discuss his findings and their broader significance. In this three-part series, we explore how the mixture of art and science can kindle lateral thinking, ask why no-one repairs anything anymore, and discuss what needs to happen if we are to move towards a ‘repair-first’ mindset.

Where art and technology meet

‘Creative technologist’ is not a job title you come across every day, so I was keen to begin our discussion by asking Jude to explain what it entails:

I grew up in Cumbria and was always fascinated by nature and how things work. I ended up not faring especially well in school, because a lot of the time I didn’t want to obey the silos of the education system. I had always really appreciated the truth that science quite often enables art, but art often gives science meaning, context, and story in our lives. At school, I felt that they teach it as ‘now you’re learning art, and this is science,’ but I had always wanted to find a way to see the connectedness between things. A creative technologist’s role, jumping forwards, is a career that justifies that belief in trying to look for connectivity and seeing a broad horizon of opportunity – rather than just being a specialist.

The mixture of art and science is certainly intriguing. But what does a creative technologist ‘do’? In other words, what is Jude’s methodology?

My approach was born out of a mixture of things. Dyson really taught me how to de-construct things and understand how to look for the critical factor that gives a product a unique selling point or technological advantage to build a story around. What LEGO then taught me, by contrast, was how to essentially ignore the boundaries and see everything through a playful lens.

Being a tech scout and creative technologist now, I might one day be working on a medical product, but it could be something that I picked up from agriculture that gets pulled across to help develop that product and enable it to go faster. I don’t believe anything is original, I think you just combine things in original ways. You’ve often heard that phrase that great artists steal, but great creative technologists steal from different industries – that’s the secret sauce of what I do. There was a phrase in LEGO of ‘never before seen in play’. The key thing is that this doesn’t mean ‘never before seen on the face of the planet.’ You can go ‘hey, automotive has been doing this really clever thing, but if we just put it inside a toy, that would be really new and transformative and radical.’

My methodology, therefore, relies on the ability to ignore classification, boundaries, and ‘staying in your lane’. But that curiosity then needs a critical process. It’s like being a writer or a painter and having all that spontaneous, frothy, bubbly stuff, but then changing gear to be a really critical editor. You have to be brutal about asking those tough business questions: ‘Is this going to make money? Is this going to have product-market fit? Is this actually desirable, viable, feasible’. You have to bring that to bear on the work that you’ve done.

Looking across industries for inspiration is at the heart of what we at Springwise do through our library, so I was keen to dig into the kind of problems that Jude works on:

I work on the stuff that I think companies are fearful of; I work on sustainability, I work on diversity and inclusion, I work on AI and ethics, and I work on disruptive tech.

What’s exciting about working with the ‘fear’, is that a) you can provide a useful service by reducing it, and b), by virtue of the fact that you’re at the bleeding edge, it’s just extremely interesting and exciting! You’re not going through the old rulebook of ‘well this is how you sell pork pies and we’ve been selling pork pies this way for a hundred years and we’d like to sell you another pork pie.’

Instead, I’m looking at MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) sensors and what the ethics and ramifications are of having surveillance of our bio-signs, location, and every breath, step, and movement we make. I feel that this is the best job in the world because I get paid to be a student, but then I’m also someone who can bring experience in industry to bear when actually delivering something.

Recently, I’ve been trying on this concept of ‘applied journalism,’ and what I mean by that is the acknowledgement to a client that I’m going to go down the rabbit hole, but I’m going to discover some stuff and behave like a journalist and report the interesting bits back to them. The difference is, I’m not just sitting on my computer speculating, critiquing, and being snarky, the ‘applied’ bit is that I’m going to build/prototype it and see if it works. It’s not enough to say hey, why isn’t everyone doing the ‘green’ thing – let’s see how hard it is to do the green thing.

Jude has just become a ‘Technologist-in-residence’ at the Royal College of Art. I had no idea that the RCA had such roles, so I asked him what it was all about:

The title ‘Technologist-in-Residence – Ecological Citizens’, is a bit verbose. I’d describe it down the pub as ‘technological eco-warrior’! It’s a really exciting role that feels like it’s born out of this time and place. There are many technologists out there, but the imperative to focus on not just the environment, but also the citizenship that binds together that vision of sustainability, is different. It’s ironic that technologist is the first word, because in terms of hierarchy, it’s the last word that matters – technology is the tool through which we can understand our humanity and our collectivism through a goal of trying to be more sustainable and more sensitive towards the planet. I don’t know anyone with this title, in any other places, and I sincerely hope it’s something that becomes normalised, because I think this is a universal problem, whether you’re working in automotive, making little LEGO bricks, growing crops in a field, or anything.

‘Circularity’ is a concept that we hear a lot about and is a theme that will run through this series, so I asked Jude to define what it means to him:

It’s the idea that you are basically responsible for what you create. In the truest sense of the word, you are the parent to the child. You are the company that ‘birthed’ a product or a service. You are no longer just kicking it out the door and job done, you are responsible for the totality of its existence, and – to exhaust the metaphor – ‘rebirth’.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with repairability. But before digging into Jude’s findings, I felt it was important to explain the context of how he thinks about issues – and also to lay out his credentials. Read part two of this series to find out how a pair of broken headphones led Jude to one of the UK’s biggest recycling sites and hear his reflections on why companies are reluctant to embrace circularity.

This article is an extract of a conversation between Jude Pullen and Springwise commissioning editor, Matt Hempstead. The text has been edited for length and clarity.

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