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Many Of The Most Important Innovations Adopt Old Ideas

We often think of innovations as brand new ideas, but many today actually look back

5Oct

When we see hipsters walking around the streets dressed like vintage lumberjacks, buying up old vinyl records, and riding retro fixed gear bikes, there is a tendency to mock the ideas they have as a throwback. It is certainly true that hipsters are deserving of some mockery, with the idea of style of substance they often give off, but the reality is that the idea of looking back to move forward is actually something that many innovative ideas are based on.

It may seem counterintuitive to say that we need to look at how things used to be done in order to make sure we are doing things better in the future, but it is true?

We have seen with the increasing popularity of the cradle-to-cradle model that moving away from modern manufacturing techniques can increase the chances of success and longevity in the products we create. Cradle-to-cradle is the idea that rather than simply creating something that can be recycled or even creating something from recycled materials, that products should be created with longevity as the primary driver. Milk bottles are a prime example of this. Thirty years ago the vast majority of milk bottles were glass, which were then returned to dairies to be washed and reused the next time milk was delivered. Today glass milk bottles are almost unheard of, instead plastic bottles dominate the milk packaging market. They are sometimes reusable and almost all are recyclable, but once they are recycled they become something considerably less useful, which is then recycled again after that's finished. Eventually everything recyclable ends up being thrown away anyway, recycling simply slows the time between first use and destruction.

As adoption for products that fit this design necessity increases, the need to look back to a time where things were built to last rather than mass produced or to be consumed quickly seems like a sensible idea. It is no surprise that companies like Patagonia, who create high-cost clothing that is designed to last for longer and be repaired, saw their profits grow during the recession, as when money is tight people buy quality over quantity. Again, this trend means that looking back to a time before mass produced, low-cost, low-quality items were commonplace.

Awareness of environmental issues has also pushed this idea too, with consumers more aware of the impact of their purchasing decisions than ever before. For instance, a big issue for many western countries is food waste, with up to 30% of fresh produce wasted in the UK and some estimates put this number at close to 50% in the US. Companies are fighting back against this though and both doing good and making money while doing so. Blue Apron (https://www.blueapron.com/), for instance, reduces food waste in the US by providing exact measurements of ingredients for specific dishes and sourcing them from local producers, which reduces waste and environmental damage. In the UK, Oddbox (www.oddbox.co.uk) buys misshapen fruit and vegetables directly from farmers which would otherwise be rejected by supermarkets, then sells them on to consumers, in much the same way market traders have done for hundreds of years.

There is also an increasing trend for smaller producers to create small batch, specialist or limited products of higher quality. For instance, the trend for street food in the UK and US has seen low output, high quality items become increasingly popular. In the UK, the Santa Maria 'What's Next In Street Food' report found that 96% of those asked planned to eat more street food in 2017 compared to 2016 and average spend on street food was up by around 30% compared to the previous year. The desire for this specialized service over supermarkets or long tail companies is not a surprise given scandals surrounding several larger companies, whether that's Amazon's tax status, Walmart bankrupting independent businesses, or questionable practices in food sourcing. These low quantity, specialist, high quality services are something that harks back to a time when if you wanted local meat you would go to a butchers, if you wanted vegetables you'd go to a greengrocers, and if you wanted milk you'd go to a local dairy.

We have many reasons to laugh at hipsters, but perhaps their adoption of some of these business models has less to do with style over substance and more to do with a rejection of the systems that have done so much damage since their adoption. Rejecting mass consumer models and adopting local, limited production, or higher quality goods makes economic and environmental sense, after all the number of hipsters doesn't seem to be increasing dramatically, but these kind of business models certainly are. 

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