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Designing For A Meshy World

A new business model focused on sharing requires products that are durable, flexible, reparable, and sustainable. Does your product fit?

By Kim Ukura, Associate Editor, PD&D

I just recently finished reading The Mesh: Why the Future of Business is Sharing by Lisa Gansky, which looks at a new business model -- The Mesh -- built on the idea that some products are better when shared. Products that best fit the model are those with a high cost of ownership that are not used very often by an individual.

Cars are one of Gansky’s examples. The average driver uses a car for just a small part of each day, yet the personal cost for buying and maintaining a vehicle is quite high. New car sharing services like ZipCar make it easy and affordable for a person to borrow a car when needed, changing the way we think about personal transportation.

Over the last several years, models like this one -- which rely heavily on social media and sharable physical goods – have emerged across industries. Expensive jewelry, books, travel, home improvement, and transportation all offer opportunities for mesh products and businesses.

The chapter I found most interesting was Gansky’s take on Mesh design -- what does it take to design a product that works with this new, Meshy business model? She suggests mesh design is:

  • Durable. Products that many people use must be safe, well built, and longer lasting.
  • Flexible. Products accommodate different users with design that is modular, but easily personalized.
  • Reparable. Standardized parts and transparent design allow products to be fixed and reused, rather thantrashed, encouraging a culture of repair and reuse.
  • Sustainable. Design that reduces natural resource destruction and waste, which is even more expensive, improves efficiency, and reduces overall costs.

Given these ideas, the Mesh changes the way one might think about designing products. More durable products are probably more expensive, but the higher cost is spread among many users, which means being more expensive isn’t necessarily a problem. Since many people will use a single product, it needs to be easily adjustable or easily personalized for different users. More modular designs can help make that possible.

Products that are going to be repaired rather than thrown away should be built with standardized parts and open and agreed-upon design standards. Thoughtful product design that take environmental impact into account can even help lower the overall carbon footprint.

In exchange for mesh-friendly products, consumers often give up a huge amount of personal data. Businesses use this information to provide customers with more personalized service, but it can also be used as direct (and free) feedback to improve the product. As Gansky explains it, a mesh business model is good for everyone.

While not every product works in a mesh system – it doesn’t make sense to share cheap products, or the things we use everyday – I think mesh design principles make sense more broadly. On the surface, it seems obvious that it’s better to make products that last longer, work well for more people, can be fixed easily, and that don’t harm the environment. But what are the subsequent challenges? Can all products fit this model, or does it really only make sense for high-cost, low-use items? I’m not a design engineer, so I am curious what you think.

How well does your product or service fit into the mesh business model? How can a product be tweaked to be more durable, flexible, reparable, and sustainable? Share your thoughts below or e-mail [email protected].