Consumer culture has disconnected us from the things we own. We are immersed in a cycle of buying commodities and producing waste. Replacing and/or buying new things instead of fixing, reusing, and making has become the obvious solution. In this project, my partner Sie Gal and I aimed to bring back these ideas by confronting individuals with the waste they produce and to motivate them to rethink their role in a sustainable future. Through a co-creation process with five-year-old Devon and his family, we created an interactive object named Jobo. Jobo is an assembly game that allows users to practice upcycling in which plastic bottles can be connected to form structures. It gives used products a second lifespan and introduces children as well as adults to Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture. The project aims to present the concept of upcycling in a fun and engaging way to people of all ages, allowing them to rethink the role of waste in their everyday lives. In this paper, we examine the process of creating and implementing a behaviour-changing design through co-creation. The paper also reflects on the effectiveness of existing methods for teaching sustainability and proposes the implementation of an educational system driven by products.
After proposing a series of broad concepts and directions to Devon’s parents and a design studio class led by Christian Blyt at Emily Carr, we found that the most popular concept was one where we would incorporate an upcycling aspect into our interactive object because of the educational quality. Sie and I started our research into existing activities and designs aimed at the same goal. We researched innovative activities in the DIY community as well as recently popularized designs that incorporate upcycling. Additionally, having experienced some DIY activities in our youth that promoted upcycling, we were curious to understand what made some of these activities and designs more successful than others.
Designs that have efficiently implemented elements of upcycling are often popular online and frequently featured on design blogs, such as old magazines stacked to form stools and recycled plastic bottles assembled to form chairs and planters. There was a wide variety in terms of materials used and approaches taken; we focused on the connection these concepts and designs created with their users. Although these objects were featured on blogs and may have become popular online due to their innovation, there was undoubtedly an aspect missing that kept them from becoming mainstream. In an article by Sheryl Nadler, who writes about the process of creating DIY wearables, she discusses the satisfaction that is gained from expressing individuality by wearing something created through personal creativity and effort . This aspect is what is missing from upcycled furniture seen online—these objects are either completely dependent on the user’s existing skills or they are limiting and allow no room for the user to exercise their creativity.
Another issue is that most of the results from upcycling- themed projects have a rustic appearance to them. This may be another reason why existing designs have failed to flourish. When done poorly, upcycled objects are often seen as junk, which is less socially acceptable when the object is used as a children’s toy .
On the first day of our meeting, we began with some drawing activities to understand Devon’s interests. An open-ended activity helps people make things that express their thoughts and feelings . We learned about his interests in drawing, sports, and playing videogames. After discussions with his parents, we also learned about their values and hopes for a children’s toy. We went through Devon’s toys with him as well as with his parents, discussing what they felt was successful and what was not. From Devon’s parents’ perspective, they hoped for a toy that is not only educational but that also allows for family involvement. After a meeting to discuss their expectations, limits, and desires regarding toys, we began to gain greater insight into their lifestyle. We determined the life cycle for the average children’s toy in their household and, more importantly, what happens to old toys. We learned that whenever a new toy or game is bought for Devon, he has to choose one of his existing toys to be discarded. This can mean either donating it to a local thrift shop, to other family or friends, or simply throwing it out to avoid clutter. The toys that have survived this elimination process and the factors that helped Devon make these choices intrigued us the most.
Although it was difficult for Devon to express the factors that help him determine which toys to keep, we identified that while his remote control cars, as well as some modular assembly games, have lasted the longest, an important reason for keeping some of his toys was that the whole family could enjoy them together. When we proposed our concept of creating an activity that embraces upcycling to Devon’s parents, we were surprised to learn that they had not heard of this approach to sustainable design. After explaining the concept to them, they were very enthusiastic about introducing it to Devon and having a new activity for the whole family to enjoy.
When sustainable designs that incorporate upcycling require crafting skills and special tools from their users, they begin to fail as products and act more as systems that encourage their users to learn the tools and the craftsmanship, often in the form of a kit or community. While these products still achieve their goal of educating users in sustainable design, the specialization of tools and skills drastically diminishes the size of the user group, as they lose appeal to the general public.
On the other hand, when a design is too simple and neglects user-involvement, it also fails as a successful product. These features shorten the product’s lifespan and grant it early entrance into the landfills. Throughout this research process, the key lesson we learned was that the most successful product designs typically are ones that drive a system. And, vice versa, the most successful system designs are ones typically driven by a product. In these cases, products do not necessarily have to be tangible physical objects but can also be apps, websites, posters, or advertisements. The design of both the product and the system become equally important in reinforcing their goals and intentions.
It was critical that we create an interactive object for Devon to learn about upcycling through play. It was also important that we determine the ideal educational system for this product, specific to Devon, his family, and those in other contexts such as elementary schools or educational toy markets.
In Chris Haas and Greg Ashman’s article, “Kindergarten Children’s Introduction to Sustainability through Transformative, Experiential Nature Play,” they demonstrate the process of educating kindergarteners about sustainability by having them frequently spend time in natural outdoor settings . Using this logic, it made sense that if the goal of Project Jobo was to make users rethink their waste impact on their environment, the design should somehow force users to interact with their “waste.”
Moreover, it was important that our design allow for user involvement in order to form a connection with the object in the DIY sense that Nadler describes. The process had to be relatively effortless so that even a five-year-old, such as Devon, could achieve the intended purpose. Sie and I decided that our design also had to create a new perspective and system in which the reused material would no longer be seen as waste, but as a resource instead. We wanted to normalize the confrontation between individuals and the waste they produce so excessively. We had to make the process of upcycling fun, engaging, and desirable.
Upon deciding to focus our upcycling object on polyethylene terephthalate (pet) plastic bottles due to the abundance and variety of this type of waste, we began our prototyping process. We developed a concept of car tracks that Devon could then connect the bottles to in order to create obstacles for his remote-controlled cars. Although he enjoyed this concept, he was not old enough yet to have the cognitive skills required to control his remote control car through the obstacles steadily. Instead, we went with a design Devon liked, which is based on a simple modular connector for the bottles. When he first connected two bottles together, he thought of his creation as a hammerhead shark. When a third bottle was connected, he thought of a gun. He enjoyed making these physical connections and mental associations; creating these abstract forms stimulated his creativity.
Through two additional meetings with Devon and his parents, we were able to further prototype the design, and have it proposed, approved, and then finalized. Worrying that our design would be too hard for someone so young to figure out right away, we were surprised by how quickly Devon understood the function of the connectors with little to no guidance. We manufactured each connector using a complex lamination process of seven layers of wood veneer. Each connector tube, as a result, is extremely durable and lightweight, with the manufacturing process producing barely any material waste.
Having a physical product to drive the educational system of upcycling had a lot of impact in the end, even though the manufacturing of the connectors took effort. Having a physical product that doesn’t function by itself, and only works in the presence of plastic bottles will motivate Devon and other users to rethink the role of waste in their everyday life. The Jobo connectors act as constant reminder to individuals to ponder their role in producing waste in our community.
At a young age, Devon understands the concept of upcycling, and that not everything instantaneously becomes garbage the moment it finishes serving its intended function. Through rebranding the identity of waste into an entertaining children’s toy, Devon is more aware and understanding of his impact on the environment.
I would like to thank my Project Jobo partner, Sie Gal and the course instructor, Christian Blyt. In addition, I would like to thank Eugenia Bertulis, Nico Jan, Grace Leung, and of course our amazing co-creators, Devon and his family.
-  Haas, C., and Ashman, G Kindergarten children’s introduction to sustainability through transformative, experiential nature play. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 39 (2), 2014. 21-29.
-  Nadler, S. Whowhatwhere: The brighter side of upcycling. The Hamilton Spectator, 2014. http://www.thespec.com/living-story/4648272-whowhatwear-the-brighter-side-of-upcycling/.
-  Sanders, E. B., and Pieter J. S. Convivial toolbox: Generative research for the front end of design. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2012.
-  Stevens, C. Kirstie calls it ‘upcycling’, I call it ‘filling your house with junk’. Daily Mail Online, 8 Jul 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2685327/Kirstie-calls-upcycling-I-call-filling-house-junk-christopher-stevens-reviews-nights-TV.html.