Circular arguments

The call for abstracts has recently opened for 2017's World Water Week in Stockholm. I love this event - had the opportunity to give a talk this year to a gratifyingly full room - and you're virtually guaranteed to make at least one meaningful connection while you're there. Plus, it's a pretty cool city. So, I'm keen to go again, but it's tricky for me to justify the time out unless I'm presenting something, so I've been scouring the themes to see what I might have a punt at. Right now, I'm keen on doing something relating to the circular economy, so my antennae have been twitching at connected stories.

On the radio this morning, the head of Dixons claimed that people increasingly don't want to own TVs, washing machines etc., but instead want the entertainment that TVs provide, the laundered clothes from the machine, etc. In other words, it's all about the service rather than the asset. And then, when I got to my paper, I read that Google yesterday spun out their driverless car project into a new entity called Waymo. Again, the press stuff around this focused on the car as a functional service provider. So this the zeitgeist - the brave new world where we eschew assets in favour of services.

But it makes me wonder, how brave or new this world actually is. Readers of a certain generation may recall, as I do, moving into student digs at University and then wandering down to Radio Rentals in the high street and taking out a contract to rent a TV. We did this because it was affordable, reliable and short term. Once we left college and settled down, we tended to buy the stuff we wanted. The model served me better than it evidently did Radio Rentals who, went from over 2 million UK customers at its peak, to ceasing trade - a victim of globalisation and the rapid fall in price of reliable electronics. And yet, this is the pretty much the model that Dixons et al. see for the future.

Of course, lots of stuff has changed. We don't need to walk to and from the laundrette anymore - technology and cheap labour has taken care of that. And the idea of visiting a high street store to rent stuff seems positively anachronistic. But it all does give me pause. A model where individuals don't own assets but continuously pay for services builds in its own volatility. It actually might risk exacerbating vulnerability for those least equipped to manage contingency. For some services (such as the treatment of waste water perhaps), the model is probably optimal. But I think some critical engagement is warranted,