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6 Rs – Six principles for sustainable product development

How can you design solutions that make sense, add value, save resources, and enhance the quality of life of your users? Our 6Rs will help you do just that. Learn how to use the six principles to lay the foundation for developing sustainable products and services. The 6Rs provide you with guidelines on how to consider ethical, social and environmental aspects in development.

Sustainability is no longer a niche. More and more consumers, but also B2B companies, are asking for sustainable solutions. More and more companies are anchoring sustainability in their values. That's why the topic is right at the top of the agenda for many manufacturers. Sustainability is often equated with "good for the environment." However, this is only half the story. Sustainability in development is much more complex and focuses on three issues that are closely linked:

  1. Economy: How do you create useful, value-added products and services that are designed for long-term success, not just rapid growth?
  2. Social issues: How do products and services enhance the quality of your users’ lives?
  3. Ecology: How can products and services help save and restore resources?

All three aspects are important when you develop products and services. Our 6 Rs – 6 principles for the sustainable design of products and services – will help you to do this. They do not replace classic design processes such as the human-centered design process. Rather, they should complement it with ethical, social and ecological perspectives. The 6 Rs provide you with guidelines on how and where to integrate aspects of sustainability into the development process. Some 6 Rs are not new – you probably know principles like reuse and reduce for example from the circular economy or private context. However, we have transferred them to the digital world and supplemented them.

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Rethink: Rethink and reconsider

Question habits and break away from the traditional way of thinking: In the spirit of digital ethics, question the values that define your company and your work. Raise awareness for sustainability – in yourselves, in the company and in society. Use, for example, processes such as design thinking in ideation and prototyping to find new, sustainable approaches. For example, what ideas can you exploit to help users change their behavior to live healthier or more sustainably? This includes making green options visible for now or offering them as default.

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One example: The Hamburg subway designs the stairs leading to the platform as a sprinting track. This should motivate passengers to take the stairs instead of the escalator to do more exercise. Another example comes from our research: We devoted a project to the question of how can we break through patterns of thinking about nutrition: How can we move away from ever-expanding monocultures and back to more local, self-sufficient agriculture? One approach: Lower the barrier to entry for those with limited space and experience. We have developed an intelligent herb garden that is almost completely self-sufficient thanks to sensors.

Research: Creates a knowledge base for decisions

To make the correct and sustainable decisions in the development process, you need a solid knowledge base. You can create these in different ways: This way, you can specifically ask for expert knowledge so that you can truly assess the impact of your decisions. Also gather knowledge about the needs of your users and the context of use. This is the only way you can understand the usage of your product or service and identify the needs of your clientele. This includes, for example, testing ideas and concepts with users as early as possible. This feedback allows you to focus on the ideas that resonate well with your clients. You can save on products, services and features that no one needs and thus minimize resources. Also, consciously consider ethical, social and ecological aspects in your research. Even if your project has nothing to do with artificial intelligence or big data, there are still often points of contact with ethical issues. Taking this ethical perspective is often not so easy and needs to be practiced.

In the inDAgo project, we investigated how to support mobility in public spaces as we age. For this purpose, we interviewed senior citizens about public transport. This revealed that senior citizens perceive ticket vending machines as unsanitary. They worry about illness and are reluctant to use the vending machine. One thing was obvious: They only perceive mobility as carefree if it is possible without physical contact. This resulted in two main questions for us in product development: 1. What technological alternatives are there to the traditional ticket vending machine? 2. How can we preserve user values such as privacy, self-determination and security?

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Reflect: Question the impact and make bold decisions

Based on the results of your research: Question how your product or service impacts individuals and society, and communicate those impacts transparently: Does the solution harm the environment – for example because it consumes a lot of energy? Is the product safe? Does it affect the health of the beneficiaries? Does it preserve their privacy? Can everyone participate equally? This last question was aimed at the issue of accessibility. Accessible means that all people can use a software, app or website – regardless of whether they are impaired or not. Impairments can be permanent limitations such as blindness, motor deficits, or farsightedness in old age. But accessibility does not only concern this target group, but all of us: Situational circumstances can also temporarily impede use. Examples of this are a loud background noise, blinding sunlight, or when users only have one hand free. Accessibility therefore benefits everyone – people with, but also without, disabilities. Because barrier-free design means maximum user-friendliness for everyone.

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To systematically record and overview the ethical and social aspects, tools such as EVA (Ethical Value Assessment) are used. With the interactive tool, you create solution variants. For dimensions such as profitability or data protection, you evaluate the opportunities and risks associated with these for your stakeholders. In this way, you can track decisions transparently and ensure that decisions that are not sustainable also have to be justified.

Reduce: Saves resources

Those who develop according to the human-centered design process do something for the environment at the same time. Because human-centered products and services make it possible to work more efficiently: Users can complete their tasks faster, spend less time with the application, and thus consume less energy. Digitalization also offers enormous potential for saving materials and energy. Let's think of the many remote concepts that Corona has given a boost to. With their help, business travel can be reduced, for example.

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At the same time, increasing digitalization is causing new CO2 emissions – primarily through the use and development of software. However, with efficient programming, you can counteract this and reduce the energy consumption of your software. From choosing the right technologies to backward compatibility and minimal data transfer – a guide from Bitkom gives you practical tips on how to do this. Since 2020, those who develop sustainably can also have this certified with the “Blue Angel” and thus officially confirmed to the outside world.

Reuse & repair: Reuses existing resources

Whether libraries and frameworks via reusable modules, the separation of logic and view, DevOps for various industries or patterns for workflows – software development knows many "methods" to reuse existing things. Unfortunately, these are often more myth than living reality. Living style guides also enable more efficient development and ensure a consistent look and feel within the product and a product family. For example, in our TRUMPF project, we documented all UI components including code snippet in an HTML style guide based on the atomic design principle. Always up-to-date, available at any time, quickly adaptable – living style guides have many advantages compared to their static counterparts. They are better suited to the dynamics in multidisciplinary teams.

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Digitalization is shaping more and more areas of our daily lives and work. The 6Rs support you in developing sustainable products that meet the growing need of users for more sustainability. This not only lays the foundation for long-term success. At the same time, you are contributing to a future in which we would like to live.