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Inventor: Gadgets need green design revolution

"Genius grant" recipient Saul Griffith says the consumer electronics industry needs to build "heirloom" products that last decades and can be upgraded over the years.

NEW YORK--The solution to climate change boils down to industrial design, contends entrepreneur and inventor Saul Griffith.

Griffith gave the keynote speech at the Greener Gadgets conference here on Friday where he ran through a flurry of numbers on energy and climate change to argue that the consumer electronics and IT industry needs to make drastic changes to curb its significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.

The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and several patents, Griffith's "day job" is president and chief scientist of Makani Power, a company backed by to generate electricity from kites flying at high altitudes. He also co-founded other ventures, including Optiopia, Squid Labs, Potenco,, and HowToons.

Scientists are increasingly able to measure the carbon contribution of different activities and products. Having run the numbers on how much renewable energy can contribute to reducing carbon emissions, Griffith has concluded that the scale of industrial transformation is enormous.

"This is a lot like retooling for World War II when the U.S. made 300,000 aircraft from 1939 to 1945," he said, adding that refrigerator and auto factories were converted during the war effort. "The reality is that we can do it. We made 10 terawatts of power generation over the last 40 years. We need to do it again, a little quicker, but we have to do it radically different--not with pipelines and fossil fuels this time."

Saul Griffith
Saul Griffith has crunched the numbers on how different aspects of life have contributed to his carbon footprint. He argues that the consumer electronics industry needs to make longer-lasting products to reduce their inherent energy content. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The area of consumer electronics, in particular, needs to make a radical shift from products that are replaced every few months or years to what Griffith called "heirloom" products, like a Mont Blanc pen or Rolex watch that lasts decades. Long-lasting products have a significantly lower embedded carbon footprint, he said.

"We need to give products to consumers with one-tenth the power consumption and that last ten times as long," Griffith said. "That implies service economies (for refurbishing or repairing products). Those will be the business models of the future."

By exactly accounting for carbon emissions in his personal life, Griffith found that "stuff" that he owned was almost 14 percent of his total carbon footprint in 2007, which was pushed higher than the U.S. national average because of extensive flight travel.

After his talk, Griffith said that creating long-lasting products is significantly less polluting than recycling and take-back programs. "Recycling gets you maybe halfway there...but (designers) need to get out of their head that recycling is the full solution."

Asked how long-lasting products could possibly stay current in the fast-changing technology industry, Griffith said that the "cloud," or the Internet, could provide updates to chips and devices like cell phones.

His talk was a reprise of the one he first gave last year, where he crunched the numbers on his personal carbon footprint and calculated how much energy people need to consume daily to keep carbon concentrations at 450 parts per million.

There is debate how much is an acceptable level of carbon concentration in the atmosphere, but Griffith picked 450 parts per million--corresponding to a 1.5 to 3.5 degree Centigrade temperature increase--because it could avoid the "list of horrors," such as mass species extinctions and destruction of coral reefs. The level before the industrial revolution was 290 ppm and is now between 380 ppm to 390 ppm, he said.

"We can measure all these things now--carbon dioxide, energy, toxics--and the fact that we know the consequences will put a huge amount of pressure on the consumer electronics industry."

Perhaps the most important technology to reducing personal carbon footprints is videoconferencing, which would allow people at work to avoid polluting air travel, he argued.

After his talk, he said that designers have shown the ability to make more carbon-friendly products. But what's lacking is a deep-seated understanding of sustainability across the entire industry's supply chain.

"What we don't know how to do is design for complex, closed ecosystems where you have to consider all aspects. There are just no companies that are good at system engineering and sustainability design," he said.

Updated at 1:20 p.m. PT with corrected language in quotation.