Internet of Second Hand Things

Adopting more sustainable patterns of consumption offers positive outcomes for improving personal wellbeing, minimising resource depletion and meeting environmental targets. However, changing consumption patterns is hard to achieve because our acquisition, use and disposal of material objects forms a central part of the cultural practices that give meaning to our lives. Our proposed research will explore how the associating of material objects, across an ‘internet of things’, with user-generated content can positively influence donors, shoppers, volunteers/staff and recipients of both goods and aid. The aim is not simply to provide people within the network of second hand goods with more information, but rather to foster new cultural practices with a view of instigating behavioural change around shoppers’ valuation of goods leading to increased sustainability and new economic models within complex patterns of consumption.

Our project will build on a prior pilot study conducted in partnership with Oxfam that adopted technology from the EPSRC Digital Economy TOTeM project. Smart phones and QR codes were configured to enable stories to be added to donated items. Stories and messages attached to secondhand goods could then be read by shoppers. Using the ‘Shelflife’ App to add stories added to their social and business value, resulting in donated items living on beyond their expected product cycles. Promoting sustainable living is one of Oxfam’s core objectives and the pilot demonstrated that adding stories to secondhand items increased the worth, longevity and reduced the disposability of donated items. Tackling the levels of consumption has is now be identified as the primary challenged posed by population growth. The Royal Society report People and the Planet (2012) highlights the increase in global population by a further two billion people over the next 20 years, and refocuses the key question from How many people? to How are they all going to live? The report concludes that in developed and the emerging economies, consumption has reached unsustainable levels and must be immediately reduced. The report claims that the increase in population will, ‘…entail scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions and the adoption of sustainable technologies. This change is critical to ensuring a sustainable future for all’.

Whilst internationally recognised for articulating the potential for a social dimension to an Internet of Things, the Shelflife product was not tailored to the complex chains of interactions in which second hand goods flow between donors, vendors, shoppers, recipients of the goods and the aid that the sale of the goods generates. Making visible the complexity of these value chains and developing appropriate interventions so that the parties within them retain connection, is a critical step in developing more sustainable methods of consumption. Through better understanding the second hand context and developing interventions that expose its conditions we can maximise its sustainable effectiveness and extend its applicability to other business arenas.

Chris Speed, University of Edinburgh / Eric Laurier, University of Edinburgh / Mark Hartswood, University of Ediburgh / Siobhan Magee, University of Edinburgh / Fionn Tynan-O’Mahony, University of Edinburgh / Martin de Jode, UCL / Andrew Hudson-Smith, UCL

IoSHT was funded through an EPSRC / Digital Economy Research in the Wild grant £250k 18 months