Back to the future: why business should upcycle old technologies

By Matt McGeehan CA

3 July 2017

Consumers have a huge appetite for anything vintage. Matt McGeehan CA examines the cycle from new to collectable and highlights the advantages for businesses of going back to the future and upcycling existing technologies.

Technological change is happening at such breakneck speed that the cycle between shop window and dustbin is shrinking all the time.

In the past we would throw things away when they stopped working; now we discard perfectly functional items on a whim, driven by relatively minor product changes.

The mobile phone market is a good example of this. How many of us plan on ditching our iPhone 7 for the eagerly anticipated iPhone 8?

But set against this is consumers’ growing appetite for all things retro.

We increasingly hanker for items that exude bygone style from cars to cookers, fireplaces to fridges and radios to radiators. Perhaps we have a retrospective appreciation that their design aesthetic and build quality represents something we have lost in our headlong technological sprint.

It’s time to break the marketing cycle

The trouble is that our classic product cycle starts with purchase and simply ends with disposal. Our marketing culture guides us to replace rather than repair and to dispose rather than upcycle.

This is true of both our personal purchases and our business investment decisions. By the time we appreciate something, it has become hard to find and the price of recapturing it has rocketed. This not only hits our pocket but also hits the environment massively in terms of waste.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could go back to the future. If we could anticipate what might become vintage or retro in years to come and appreciate the design aesthetic of what we have before we throw it away so casually? Maybe we would do more to upcycle and preserve existing technologies and save ourselves, and the planet’s resources, a fortune in the process.

How business can benefit

Clever businesses have already started to go back to the future in everything from production to distribution.

The Manchester Ship Canal has been open since the 1890s. Many businesses such as Kellogg’s, Princes Foods, Kingsland Wine, Tesco, Typhoo and Regatta have realised that it is more efficient to revive this century-old distribution route, and transport goods by barge, than to clog our over-crowded roads with yet more vehicles.

In her article “Technology Re-Emergence: Creating New Value for Old Innovations” Carmen Nobel examines how a return to old technologies has reinvigotated industries such as watchmaking, fountain-pen manufacture and bookselling. She concludes that “a new technology is not always the only way to get ahead of the curve when older technologies or industries appear to be reaching the end of their life”.

The key to preserving or upcycling existing technology is often to redefine its relationship with the customer and change the way it competes; for instance by emphasising style over functionality.

Often old technologies can reclaim ground that was previously lost to technical innovation in the way that the Swiss watch industry overcame the challenge of cheap quartz watches.

Upcycling is the way forward

So, before we discard possessions in our personal lives, or existing production processes in our business lives, we should stop to consider whether we can go back to the future.

Creating value for ourselves and our customers is not always about the pursuit of ever more marginal technological functionality.

Upcycling existing technology can utilise resources and reduce our environmental impact in everything from waste to transportation.


  • Sustainability

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