In this episode, Will Harrison of Synapse Product Development shares his thoughts around how to build sustainability into all types of products from the beginning stages of development. To achieve Net Zero, eventually every one of the products we use on a daily basis will need to be carbon neutral. But how do we get there?
High profile companies like Amazon, Microsoft and IKEA have pledged to achieve Net Zero well in advance of the goals set by the UN Paris Agreement on Climate Change. To do that, they’ll need to put these goals into the center of their product development systems. Sustainability — which is lower carbon emissions but also lower resource consumption, lower toxicity and a better solution than a landfill when the product is at the end of its life — requires commitment from the earliest stages of innovation.
Will shares some tools and resources that product developers and their leaders can use to assess sustainability and identify ares that can be improved. But the real solution is the demand signal — the pull — that demands sustainability from consumers, investors, public policymakers and activists. When that demand signal is strong enough, it’s easier for engineers like Will to make decisions around sustainability even when it costs more, or compromises performance in some way.
Sustainable Product Engineering Lead
Synapse Product Development
Will Harrison is a Mechanical Engineer, working in multidisciplinary engineering teams to realize the ideas and concepts of our clients. He previously worked at Cambridge Consultants, Synapse’s parent company, and can draw on the experience gained there from early stage R&D to transferring designs to manufacture in China.
Working on engineering projects from industrial robotics, to high performance sports equipment, to consumer electronics, Will has gained experience through a broad range of technical and commercial projects. Alongside developing novel engineering solutions, Will’s rewarding partnerships with clients have come from effective communication of project challenges, trade-offs, and successes.
More recently, Will has focused his efforts on developing Synapse’s skills and capabilities in sustainable design, leading our clients in product development strategies to result in more sustainable products and systems.
Will is a Chartered Engineer with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, and holds a MEng in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Cambridge.
Will Harrison’s TEDxLacamasLake presentation on YouTube
Katherine Radeka (00:03):
Welcome to Accelerate Net Zero, the podcast dedicated to the acceleration of the technologies we need to address climate change. My name is Katherine Radeka, and I've been accelerating innovation for a long time in a number of different industries. And nowhere is that acceleration more important today than in the renewable energy materials, food production, transportation, and other programs to limit carbon emissions so that we can stabilize our climate. So if you are working on these programs as a technologist, as a manager, as an investor, a public policy maker, an activist, or just a concerned citizen, then you have come to the right place to learn how we can eliminate obstacles and put more momentum into these programs so that they can begin delivering the impact on carbon emissions sooner. And we can reach Net Zero faster.
Katherine Radeka (01:01):
The race to Accelerate Net Zero is going to eventually touch everything that we interact with on a daily basis. The obvious things like the cars that we drive, the food packaging that we bring into our home, but also some less obvious things like the shoes that we wear and the cellular telephones that we carry around. Everything is going to have to be redesigned from the perspective that it must achieve carbon neutral emissions throughout its life cycle. From the moment that it starts being built until the end of its life.
Now, if you're not directly involved in product development, you might think that you can just skip this episode because you know, you're not a person that's directly involved with that, but I would encourage you to keep listening because our guest, Will Harrison does a nice job of explaining what it's like to be a product developer, trying to make these decisions.
And these decisions are ultimately, what's going to determine the fate of our future. So if you're investing in these programs or you're a public policy maker, or you're even just a consumer, then you were doing something to create demand for sustainable products.
And I think that when you understand how your demand signal gets translated into action at the development level, that helps you make more informed decisions so that you give a clearer signal to the people that you're working with.
Will Harrison has been thinking deeply about this in his role as the sustainable product engineering lead for Synapse Product Development. Synapse is a design engineering firm. This means that they basically take ideas from clients and then turn them into products that can actually be manufactured at scale. So he's been thinking deeply about how you can incorporate sustainability into those decisions from the earliest stages of product development, all the way through to the end.
Katherine Radeka (02:43):
Will Harrison is a mechanical engineer. He's a chartered engineer with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and he holds a Master's in Engineering from the University of Cambridge in Mechanical Engineering. He has worked on a wide variety of projects, everything from industrial robots, high performance sports equipment, and consumer electronics and alongside developing novel engineering solutions. He's been working on partnering with clients around communicating project challenges, trade-offs and successes that makes him pretty well suited for understanding what it takes to incorporate sustainability into programs from start to finish. Tell me a little bit about the work that you've been doing around sustainable design.
Interview with Will Harrison
Will Harrison (03:24):
Most of the work recently has been focused on updating our design process to really put sustainability at the core of that. So making sure that every stage of the design process, everything from concept generation through all our design decisions and development, all the way to manufacture we're including sustainability factors in our design decisions. We're all engineers working on this. So we all love to have quantifed data to work with. It's always the case of making decisions, using numbers. So I've been really putting at the core of this, how we quantify our sustainability impact, which for now has been focused mainly on environmental sustainability and to get those sorts of numbers to quantify the impact we've been using the life cycle assessment tools, which allow us to include the input and the outputs from manufacturing products and the energy they use through their life cycle. And what happens to them at the end of life to produce quantifiable data on the impacts they have on the environment.
So whether that's the greenhouse gas emissions they produce, or the toxic chemicals that are used and emitted it allows us to focus on those things and quantify that data to compare whether it be concepts or just materials. When we get later on in the process, it also helps us focus on what's important for our clients, or is most important in that industry. So for everyone we're really pushing for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and being carbon neutral as soon as we can, but in some industries, it's chemicals and toxicity that are a big concern.
We can make those visible to the key decision makers as priorities that we're considering. So it's been put into an update to our design process. Before our design process was so focused on reducing technology risk looking at product costs, really hitting what our clients are asking for, but some environmental costs were being missed or not included. So that's where we've been updating our design process to make sure that is included.
Katherine Radeka (05:41):
I was interviewing a guest for this podcast who's going to be in about two episodes and she's done a lot of work on looking at the societal impact of a product, so for example, some products like solar energy have a defined goal of reducing carbon emissions.
Right? And so for them, it's important to actually have as a quantifiable goal. You know, this is how much emissions we're going to be reducing and to be able to measure that. And yet at the same time, they also have to be thinking about sustainability for themselves around entire lifecycle of the product from manufacturing, you know, all the way through end of life. So what are some of the major decisions that, that come into play early on in a product that can really govern how sustainable that product will be?
Will Harrison (06:26):
I mean, I think the biggest that we're trying to focus on as a product development consultancy is the full business model: For the client or the product owner, how they're looking to sell or market their product. Is it going to be a service? Can they basically provide the same quality of service to that customers with using less hardware or reduced energy because they're sharing that product or hardware between a greater number of users? Or can they make it so they continue to own the hardware over time and can take it back when the customer is done with it and then recycle and reuse, reprocess that.
I think that's where we are seeing a lot of opportunities that can sometimes be missed, particularly with where we typically sit with it is in the product development, solving technical challenges. We're making sure that we're really questioning. Does it need to be a product that is sold to a consumer who are using it and then throws it away at the end of the line where it might end up in landfill? Making sure we're seeing all the different ways that you could fulfill the need and solve the problem a client is trying to solve whilst having a smaller environmental impact.
So I've seen a few examples of this recently, and they're using circular economy principles, or just trying to produce less waste as that's been such a hot topic recently. So Loop, who does grocery deliveries has been producing products that have partnering with some of the big brands like Unilever and others to provide some household goods in reusable packaging. So they essentially have zero packaging because it's in nice reusable packs that get taken back at the next delivery to be reused, cleaned, and refilled. It's just a good example of a way that you can update your business model to still have a high quality product, give the customer really like premium experience and reduce your environmental impact as well.
Katherine Radeka (08:38):
Circularity is something that I'm hearing more and more about as a way to reduce impact. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Will Harrison (08:44):
So we're also seeing that come up more and more. I'm seeing how it's really the principle of making sure that you're part of a cycle. Part of everything that into your product is sourced from something that you're gonna be able to renew. You want to be able to use these renewable resources and that particularly comes into account with plastics. So if you can have a plastic that is recyclable at the end of life or repurposable, and then you're using that recycled plastic as the source for your product.
You've got a closed loop where you're not requiring extracting resources from the Earth and then depositing waste. You having something that is constantly reprocessed. I think there are all the better examples in chemical processing or food waste where some of the byproducts can be used for a feedstock for a different process. And that's where you can really see these three circular flows of material and nutrients and feedstocks, but it really relies on a renewable energy source because all of these processes require energy input. And if that energy input is not for a renewable source or a low carbon source, it sort of breaks that circularity — sort of circular flows and materials, but then above this, you've got this nonrenewable and sustainable energy source that's going to cause climate damage itself.
Katherine Radeka (10:17):
One of the key themes I've also been hearing about is that one of the things we have to do, if we're going to reduce greenhouse gases is to basically electrify everything and convert electricity generation to renewables as a way to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of just about everything.
So I'm working right now on a project of converting, basically small gas powered engines to electrical engines. And that's very much the goal, but is there a way to account for the fact that the transition has not happened yet? So if I was looking at doing an sustainability assessment of that particular project, what would I have to be looking at, to really understand the true impact of doing that in a world where the electricity generation is still very mixed.
Will Harrison (11:01):
We've actually been doing that in a sort of recent assessment for a client where we're looking at ways we can reduce the impact of their product. And some of the components that go into the product are really energy intensive. And the initial baseline assessment was done assuming a sort of balanced energy mix. So in your assessment, you can consider the energy sources. So they took the sort of global averages of some fossil fuels, some renewable, some nuclear, and you could understand what the baseline greenhouse gas emissions associated with the manufacturer of that product are.
And we sort of pushed it on looking at different ways we could reduce the impact. And one of those was to use renewable energy. Some of these manufacturers that they're using are large enough, they have solar panels on their own factories and could actually pay an additional amount to source purely renewable energy. And it really showed that if they switched from their current energy mix to a hundred percent renewable energy mix, they would reduce the associated greenhouse gas emissions by, I think it was 75%.
Katherine Radeka (12:10):
That's a big difference.
Will Harrison (12:11):
Yeah. It's really one of the big levers that could be pulled here to reduce the impact of the products. The challenge comes with making sure that it's not just an accounting mismatch, like someone's not just saying, Oh yeah, we're going to use the renewable energy from the grid. We pay a slight premium, but it just means the rest of the grid has slightly smaller percentage of renewables in it. It's really trying to incentivize the production of more renewable energy, and making sure that we're bringing down the overall greenhouse gas emissions, as well as global warming.
Katherine Radeka (12:48):
They're looking for facilities that have their own renewable energy source or in countries where a higher percentage of the mix is renewable. What are some of the most important things that technologists need to know if they're going to look at a program from a sustainability perspective for the very first time?
Will Harrison (13:05):
Wow. It's such a broad area that there's always going to be some research involved, but I think knowing there are a lot of resources out there is probably a good starting point. And then knowing that you need to consider it from the start and really set up what your goals and objectives and requirements for your product or system to include that, to include sustainability as a factor.
And that's part of the process we've put together as saying, okay, identify what the objectives are at a high level. So does the company wants to be carbon neutral by 2030, or is it that you want zero waste to landfill? So you understand what these objectives are at a high level and then break them down into what the goals are and then use that to produce requirements for an individual product.
So if you know that you want to be carbon neutral by 2030, you know, the product you're making now needs to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and maybe that you can only emit two kilograms of CO2 equivalent per product. So that's when you can really implement it early. And just putting into the requirements means is you're going to consider it all the way through, and it's going to be something you have to verify against.
Will Harrison (14:15):
One area that I really, I really want to push is to make sure that it's not an afterthought. It's really there from the start of the product design process. And then it's how you consider it throughout the product design process. You make making sure that when you're evaluating different concepts, you evaluate them with sustainability as one of the criteria you're measuring against. And knowing that you can look up different resources for how you measure the impact, what the associated greenhouse gas emissions or chemicals or other impacts are of a given material or a given component that you're going to use.
Katherine Radeka (15:06):
It sounds like it's like one of the most important things to do is to kind of establish what your goals are for sustainability for this program early on. So that those objectives get incorporated into the requirements, specifications into the design and then, and then into the product itself, as it's realized.
Will Harrison (15:24):
Yeah, that's exactly right. And then once you'have those,you can look things up and you can see, see where you can make, make impacts and make changes to reduce your impact, sort of how you can go about changing your design. So we talked about circularity before, and there's the Ellen MacArthur foundation that has a great website with a huge number of resources that make people rethink how they go about product design or particular areas of the design process. You have free tools online like Ecolizer which allows you to measure the environmental impact of your product, and basically do a life cycle assessment of your product or the concept online. So there's all these tools out there that you can use . At Synapse, I worked with some colleagues to produce a sustainable design process design guide, which sort of incorporates some of these principles, but stays at a high level of "here's, how you can go about incorporating all of this into a design process."
And here are some strategies you can then implement to make your products more sustainable. And that's now freely available. We published it on our website and made it something that's out there. And that's something we're really trying to push hard is this collaboration. Everyone was wanting to make their products more sustainable, and it's not something where we want everyone to be keeping their secrets and their technology as proprietary. It's really something where open sourcing that and knowledge sharing is going to be really important. It's great to be on this podcast to be able to share this and hear more from others and really work to have the biggest impact.
Katherine Radeka (17:10):
We will definitely put a link to that guide in the podcast show notes. So you'll be able to go to our website and get that from you. Let's say that we have a product that we've decided to incorporate a sustainability goal — say, our company has the goal of reducing carbon emissions. And so we've recognized that we need to reduce carbon emissions for this given product. How do we understand the current state and how far the gap would be to close? What would be some of the, some of the kinds of things we'd have to look at?
Will Harrison (17:44):
So yeah, this is where sort of the measurement of the life cycle assessment is really important. So here you will be basically inputting the materials you're using the processes you're performing on those materials. Then what the lifecycle of the product looks like, how much energy is used through the product lifetime and what happens at the end of life. And there's also the transport. So where the product is manufactured and the shipping to its final destination. something that is used to transport, then that's part of it's use case, and that's where you're using fuel throughout. So using those in the life cycle assessment, it'll highlight hotspots, you'll be able to see, is it the materials you're using or manufacturing that are having the biggest impact over the full lifetime? Or is it that they're actually a really small impact and it's the energy you're using in the lifetime?
That's the biggest impact. So could be a dishwasher or something, whereas actually the water and the electricity is uses over its full lifetime may have a significantly bigger impact than the materials used to start with, and then you know where to focus your design efforts. So this is where we're advocating for you do. So the next part of design process, where you look at that, you find your hotspot and then you make a design change or produce a design concept that either increases efficiency or uses less material, or you use recycled materials, and then you can update your life cycle assessment to see the amount of impact and to see whether that's really able to help you hit your goal, or whether you need to do something more extreme and go back to really looking from a system level and seeing whether you could change something about the whole system to reduce your carbon emissions.
Katherine Radeka (19:42):
One of the ideas was really intriguing to me from the countdown event that happened last week, was IKEA talking about making furniture as a service, because one of the biggest impacts that they have of course is the amount of the furniture that ends up in landfill, at the end of its life. And so them taking responsibility for figuring out what to do with the product when it's finished, instead of placing that burden on the customer, as one of the areas that was the biggest impact for them.
Will Harrison (20:07):
Yeah. And I think that's, hopefully you're going to see this become more common with big household appliances where at the end of life, there's this huge thing that has a lot of valuable components in it. But as an individual consumer, there's no value to yourself and you're already paying someone to get rid of it. So these brands are going to take ownership. They might be able to extract value from things at the end of life and also massively reduce the impact they have on the environment. I'm really hoping to see more regulation on that as well. Basically, brands being responsible for what happens to their products at the end of life. - not producing something that is just landfill waste and having to be having to be able to do something with that.
Katherine Radeka (20:54):
So what are some of the obstacles that you see that get in the way of people doing this kind of work?
Will Harrison (21:00):
I think a lot of it is what the driving factors are for the product and the design process. A lot of the time, the focus is the triangle of costs, features, and time. And you're always being pushed to reduce cost. You're being pushed to get things to market quicker and to have more features. And in that you're then pushing out any other considerations. So you're pushing out the time for making design changes that could make the product more sustainable, or maybe right now, things might be slightly more expensive to use a more sustainable plastic or a bio-based plastic. So you get pushed on the cost. And that's really where I see some of the challenges.
And also, I think some of it is perception. People perceive that if you have something that's environmentally friendly or green, it's going to have fewer features. It's going to cost more and it's going to take longer to develop, which isn't true a lot of the time, because one of the great ways of making something more sustainable is to use less material.
So if you're making something with lighter weight, you're using less material. So it's going to cost less in the first place because you're using less of that material to start with , and less to dispose of at the end, shipping is going to be cheaper because the thing weighs less, and there's probably gonna be higher performance in many areas because it's lighter weight So some of it is perception. Some of it are cost and time factors and habit. So people are used to designing things in one way and they know what's worked in the past and they will continue to go back to the same materials or the same processes or the same design principles, because that's faster. It may not be the best solution cost or quality wise, but it's a known. And I think that's where some of these design tools and design processes can help is making these new processes, new materials, more accessible to people, and then letting them be able to make more informed choices by choosing those materials that are more sustainable and more, and having a greater understanding.
Katherine Radeka (23:20):
And it sounds to me like knowing what I know about innovation programs that the direction it needs to be part of the direction of the product from the beginning part of a strategic imperative from the company from the very beginning so that they can overweigh those considerations of costs. Usually, you know, it's usually cost really right and time to deliver new features. Like, do I take time to make this a more sustainable design? Do I take time to implement this additional feature? So that those decisions can be made from a more balanced perspective so that it doesn't all come down to cost and ROI and speed to market. And they are given the resources, the time energy that they need to go off and pursue these things. And then I think I just said something really important, which is that a lot of the work that's being done here is actually available and people have resources that they can draw upon that are being built so that it doesn't have to be something that you have to figure out all on your own. You are able to access resources to help you climb up the learning curve on this.
Will Harrison (24:19):
Yeah, definitely. I think there are more and more resources out there now that are becoming more available and you're seeing big companies lead the way. They're being able to put their efforts behind that and show that they can be leaders in this area setting really ambitious targets and working to actually meet them. I think you make a really good point on the, it has to be a focus from early on in the design process, because if it is, it often doesn't need to be additional time or cost or effort because it's just something you've included in your design decisions. It becomes a time add or a cost add if you only consider it towards the end of your product design and you've got your design as it is. And then someone goes, Oh, have you considered sustainability? Or how do you consider your greenhouse gas emissions? And then you consider it. And it's just too late in the process.
Katherine Radeka (25:18):
Exactly. You have very limited options about what to do, if you can do anything by that point in time, this consideration has to be in place before you reach those levels of convergence on the product design.
Will Harrison (25:29):
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that was definitely a big focus of our, how we're trying to work now is making sure it is something that's considered all the way through. Like if you don't consider cost all the way through you get a design to the end and then go, Oh, this it cost twice as much as it should. We need to redesign it. You just wouldn't get that because you've thought about it all the way through. If you do the same with considering environmental costs, you won't get to the end of your design process with your design emitting twice as much carbon dioxide or needing twice as much energy as you budgeted for because you've included it all the way through.
Katherine Radeka (26:06):
The closing question that I'm going to be asking everyone on this show, we could do one thing to accelerate the progress towards Net Zero. What should we do?
Will Harrison (26:16):
Wow. I think voting is probably one of the biggest things and voting for the parties that are pushing for a greener economy that are pushing to invest in clean energy and are going to be building jobs in this area. I really think that's probably the biggest thing you can do right now because it needs to be at a global level as much as I think that is a role for every individual and every company to make, have that impact and do things in a more sustainable way. I think the biggest impact we can have is by having global leaders that put this as a priority.
Katherine Radeka (27:03):
Yeah, because there's a lot that that the government governments can do to either pull sustainable technology or push sustainable technology away that needs to be done if we're going to hit the climate goals that we need to hit.
Will Harrison (27:17):
Yeah, definitely. Definitely.
Katherine Radeka (27:20):
All right. Well thank you so much, Will for joining me today, I really appreciate it.
Katherine Radeka (27:24):
So the big takeaway from the interview with Will is that sustainability is a decision and a decision that a product development team needs to make very early in the life cycle of a product. If it's going to make a difference because it impacts so many of the other decisions that a product development team has to make on the road from idea to launch and out into the world. So what this means for us, if we're consumers or makers or investors, is that we can tell these companies that sustainable products are what we want. We do that through the purchasing decisions that we make.
Every time we choose a product that is more sustainable instead of the product is absolutely the lowest cost, we send a signal that sustainable products are what we care about. Every time we choose to invest in a company that has set sustainability targets and is actively working to meet them then we set a signal that that is important to us. And when we, as policymakers make regulations that make it easier for consumers to make the sustainable choice and less easy for them to make the unsustainable choice. then we're also sending a signal that there will be increased market demand for sustainable products.
And all of that makes it an easier decision in early product development to prioritize sustainability over other things. Now, if you're working as a product developer, you have all of these same opportunities, but you also have another one which is to help ensure that you understand, and that your teams understand what exactly these trade offs look like. How much more expensive is it today to choose a material that's sustainable versus one that is made with a high carbon footprint? How easy is it to offset carbon emissions for your distribution channels versus just do things normally without taking that into account and therefore not accounting for the true cost of your distribution? By understanding these trade-offs and then making that knowledge visible in your organization, you make it easier for them to make the right decision because you'll identify for example, places where it doesn't really matter where the sustainable option is the same price, or maybe even lower than the unsustainable option, you might make it visible to them.
Then when they say a product is sustainable, they know this is exactly what they're signing up for in terms of the trade-offs between costs and sustainability or between sustainability and performance. So as a product developer, that's one of the more valuable things that you can do is to make that knowledge available and then make it more visible so that it can be used more effectively in making decisions.
Sustainability is something that all of us have to think about from the beginning stages. When we have an idea all the way through to when we have a product that's out in the market to our choice about whether or not we use that product, whether or not we purchased that product versus another option that may be less sustainable, whether or not we invest in the development of that product, whether or not our regulatory environment makes it easy for that product to reach the market or makes it more difficult for that product to reach the market.
If we want to Accelerate Net Zero, what are the most important things that we can each do on a daily basis is to ensure that our choices send the demand signal that people like Will, and their leaders need to hear in order to build the products we need for a more sustainable world. When we make choices that send demand signals that say that sustainability is a priority, that should be at least as important as other attributes of the product, then we make it easier for will. And people like him to make the right decisions that will lead to the products we need to Accelerate Net Zero.
Katherine Radeka (31:21):
Thank you for listening to Accelerate Net Zero. For resources, transcripts, and additional information about this project, please visit our website, acceleratenetzero.com. The Accelerate Net Zero project is sponsored by the Rapid Learning Cycles Institute. We help innovators change the world faster. To learn more about the Rapid Learning Cycles framework, and how it can help you accelerate innovation, visit rapidlearningcycles.com.