“Design frequently emerges as a cut-price way to solve problems that require much more substantial investment”
An Interview on Meaningful Consumption and Time To Think
Q: How would you define Meaningful Consumption?
Woudhuysen: This is a contradiction in terms. Meaning comes from production and from achievements in art, creation and innovation. It doesn’t come from eating, playing and shopping.
Q: Why is Meaningful Consumption so much in focus at the moment?
Woudhuysen: The first reason is related to manufacturing shifts. The more production and innovation has moved East, the more we in the West talk about consumption. We leave making things to others and talk ourselves up by dignifying consumption.
The second point is to do with meaning. All the things we used to believe in – church, trades unions, royal family – have receded and we invest more meaning in the act of consuming.
Finally, don’t overlook the rise of the Conspicuous Unconsumption brigade, looking for ‘save the planet’ credentials by putting a windmill on their house roof even though this makes little positive energy contribution. Issues such as climate change are being invested with religious significance and these people are looking for the feelgood factor that comes from believing they are doing their bit.
Q: In what ways do you think consumption is driven by consumer experience?
Woudhuysen: It seems clear that most people would rather have a holiday than a new washing machine, but there’s a wider point, which is that experts tell us we should value personal happiness and personal experiences more than economic growth.
At the London School of Economics, Professor Richard Layard argued recently that the UK government should train 10,000 therapists. The argument runs that because economic growth has increased and happiness has not, then economic growth must be bad. This confuses the trend correlation with the trend causation.
Q: Why do you think we have moved from product-focused consumption towards cultural consumption – and what are the key social drivers behind this shift?
Woudhuysen: We haven’t moved that way. In place of implementing investment and production programmes, governments have talked up culture. The hype surrounding improved attendance at museums and galleries is greater than the actual shift.
Culture has also been given a catholic definition. It’s Big Brother and lads’ mags alongside Beethoven, with no distinction made between them or discussion of which is better.
Q: Who would you single out as leaders (both people and companies) in Meaningful Consumption?
Woudhuysen: In manufacturing James Dyson, because he introduced a genuine innovation that brought benefits in technology and efficiency and meant less time doing the housework. That has meaning because it makes a difference to people’s daily lives.
My other nominee would be Virgin Galactic because I do want to go to space. It may be expensive and elitist but we should all strive for this. I’m behind George Bush on this one – space should be full of tourists and we should visit Mars quite simply because it is there.
Q: What will the future impact of Meaningful Consumption be for brands, services and products?
Woudhuysen: There will be more irrational feelgood factors – so expect those windmills to appear on supermarket roofs.
Conversely there will be more avoidance of the feelbad factor. In the UK Cadbury’s recently recalled its chocolates because they had 0.3 salmonella cells per 100g – despite the fact that the unsafe level is 10 cells per 100g. Other personal experiences, for instance ‘getting better’ from homeopathy, will override objectivity and scientific fact and dictate public policy. In an Apocalypse Forever culture, any remedy can be regarded as a case of ‘It works for Me, Me, Me’.
Q: What lifestyle changes do you think will be the most important in years to come?
Woudhuysen: People will be discouraged from moving beyond their locale. By that I mean don’t burn fuel flying, don’t buy blueberries from Chile and don’t enter a city by car unless you are prepared to pay taxes. Already we have a government walking policy and nationwide cycling initiatives. Fine for those who can easily get around this way, but bad news for anyone who needs a car in Norway or the Highlands of Scotland.
Q: What is the biggest challenge companies face in the future?
Woudhuysen: Get off the back foot about scientific and medical panics and stick to your guns when you are right about something and public opinion is misguided. We are currently living under the ‘precautionary principle’ – Cadbury’s chocolates is a prime example of this.
Questions On: Time and Meaning…
Q: How has modern society changed your notions of time?
Woudhuysen: Not much. General perceptions haven’t changed much since 19th century thinkers came up with subjective notions of time. In most people’s experience time is often ennui or nailbiting stuff – and sometimes within the same minute.
Q: What is your definition of ‘quality time’?
Woudhuysen: This is such an overused phrase that it has almost lost its meaning. People say they had quality time with their children when what they mean is that they went to the fair.
My definition would be: research, experimentation, creation, diffusion of creation and learning from that. Quality time is about having time to think and using it to make a practical difference. And whether you are designing a vacuum cleaner or writing a concerto, it is hard, productive work that produces quality time.
Q: Why do people today feel they have less time?
Woudhuysen: Primarily because there has been an international campaign to get everybody to do more parenting – something which never used to be a verb. We are continually being told that children are the future, so parents get strung out trying to keep them occupied and educated at all times. Whatever happened to children being bored? When they are bored they are encouraged to find an interest for themselves.
We also feel pressured by work. But although there may be more pointless meetings and brainstorming sessions to occupy us, it’s unfair to blame employers without looking to home-life factors such as parenting.
Q: How do you feel the 24/7 culture has impacted on brands, products and services?
Woudhuysen: We do not live in a 24/7 culture, as anyone who has tried to get a taxi at 3am will testify. The rhetoric is certainly bigger and there is increasing demand for convenience, but round-the-clock living is still a promise rather than a reality.
Q: Convergence technology is supposed to save us time. Is this your perception?
Woudhuysen: It may save us time in individual instances but the aggregate effect is that we don’t feel we are saving time. Rather than being grateful to have so many contacts, people complain about their email inboxes being full, so the overall perception is not positive – even though email is an advance.
Q: Has technology improved our quality of life or made achieving work/leisure balance more stressful?
Woudhuysen: Yes, absolutely, technology has made things better.
Q: Can you give us a speed conclusion on Time and Meaningful Consumption?
Woudhuysen: Time to think, act and think again – rather than consumption – is the way to achieve meaning.
Interview: Questions by Kjaer Global for the Time to Think Conference (UK), July 2006
Keynotes on James Woudhuysen
* Advises clients on mastering new trends and implementing major shifts in corporate strategy, marketing, branding and design.
* Published in German, Danish, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese.
* Helped install and test Britain’s first computer-controlled car park in 1968.
Profile: Physics graduate, columnist for IT Week and Professor of Forecasting and Innovation at De Montfort University, James has a knack of registering trends long before other people – and then offering surprising and usually counter-intuitive proposals on what to do about those trends. The only things James steadfastly refuses to forecast are the weather, the stock market, the horses and your own personal destiny.
Anne Lise is a futurist and keynote speaker working across the world