Transparent: The tech industry is broken — here’s what it takes to ”heal” it
”The biggest irony of it all is that it doesn’t have to be like this,” says Per Brickstad, co-founder and creative director.
By JOHAN MAGNUSSON
September 09, 2022
For Brickstad and his team in the up-and-coming Swedish audio brand Transparent, it is not only about the design or the sound quality but the products themselves embody a vision to become the first circular tech brand.
— This potential is built into every product, he says.
”My own domain, industrial design, is often part of the problem by making a bad product look great”
You’ve said that you aim to ’heal the broken tech industry’. What do you mean?
— The system is indeed broken. These problems have their roots deep in the traditions of industrialisation and in capitalism itself. It’s fundamentally about an inability to consider a lifecycle or circular perspective at the core of the company strategy. It is about product obsolescence, directly or indirectly planned. This idea that all of us somehow accepted that tech products should inherently have a short expiration date and be replaced every other year or so. This leads to overconsumption, the destruction of ecosystems and depletion of resources, massive waste creation and pollution, and climate change. There is a lack of a real recycling and repair culture, meaning an integrated, efficient, and truly circular one. There is a huge problem with greenwashing and other forms of deceitful marketing that encourage us as consumers to buy new stuff. In fact, my own domain, industrial design, is often part of the problem by making a bad product look great. The biggest irony of it all is that it doesn’t have to be like this. It’s just very difficult for companies out there to break the habits that have been established for such a long time.
And how do you work to make it better?
— We believe it is possible to make a shift to a completely circular tech industry. This means products that come from recycled raw materials and that are never thrown away. We don’t believe people need to settle for a mediocre performance in order to care for the environment, quite the opposite. We also believe, based on our own experience, that a circular product system can be profitable.
How do you know that? What are your experiences?
— Our 2021 number was recently released, where we can see an 80% year-on-year growth and a 10% profit margin. Our ’circular product system’ is not complete as of today, we still have a lot of work to do, but we have been able to prove some key circular success factors so far. We have found that even when we choose a complex construction that is completely modular and thus enabling easy upgrades and repairs, and even when we choose high-quality, durable, ’real’ materials that age well, and when we choose an increasing amount of recycled raw material that is more difficult to source, we can still offer products at a reasonable price and still make a profit. And not to forget, the better we become at offering our circular services the more profitable these units will become over time, says Brickstad, continuing,
— And we are already putting this philosophy into practice. Our products are designed for this circular system and we are busy building what we call ’Circular Services’ around them. We have started in the audio or home entertainment category but, ultimately, our ambition is to prove this model works across the board. So, our vision is to become the first circular tech brand and inspire all tech companies to also make this shift.
Have you already been in touch with other tech companies about working together on this?
— Not anything worth mentioning, I don’t think we are there just yet. We want to prove our ’circular recipe’ on a large scale and we are still a very small fish in the tech sea. I expect that within 5 years if we continue to grow like planned we are big enough to be a voice in the industry that the big old wasteful tech giants will need to mimic.
When working with circularity, Brickstad continues, he and his team look at both the origin and destiny of a product — where it comes from and where it is going.
— One great tool for understanding the origin of a product is of course a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). We use this tool as a starting point for all our products to understand the impact and properties of all parts and materials. Then we work on all products to eventually achieve a 100% recycled origin of the raw materials. Since we make products that are meant to stay both in people’s lives and in our range for a very long time, we can gradually take these steps in the right direction for each production batch we make, part by part. Our products are actually far from perfect as of today. It takes a lot of work to achieve 100% circularity. So, instead of proudly saying ’hey look at this product, it has eco materials!”, we say: “hey, look at this circular system in which the product exists, it is the only way forward”, says Brickstad, continuing,
— We often talk about ’timeless, modular electronics’. It has been like a catchphrase for us describing what we do. And we take this very seriously. Anyone can talk about a ’timeless design’, but we have very strict criteria for it. Our loudspeakers are designed with a sound quality that will last for a long time. The expression is extremely minimalistic and functionalistic with the ambition to show the high-quality components and the real materials for what they really are. But in order to be called timeless, the product also really needs to be modular. Modular construction is the key to a lot of the circular traits. It means all parts can easily be taken apart by screws. This makes the product forever repairable and forever upgradeable. It means the product is flexible and can be equipped with different tech modules. Wireless technology is what is changing most frequently nowadays. Every year there is a new Bluetooth format or Wifi multiroom standard coming. By being modular, the same product can work as a simple stand-alone unit, or as part of a bigger home ecosystem, depending on what wireless module is used. We are offering Transparent Speaker customers from 10 years ago to upgrade to the latest wifi multiroom tech, by just changing a small part with the size of a matchstick box, in a dedicated compartment in each speaker.
— This is what I mean when talking about the destiny of the product. For us, the relationship with a customer does not end at the transaction, that’s where it really begins. We offer Circular Services to repair, upgrade, extend, or in other ways optimize the ownership over time. In fact, traditional ownership might not be the best model either. We are investigating subscription or rental models, currently in beta mode. I actually believe that some kind of non-ownership model offers the best circumstances for circularity going forward. We of course see a lot of companies offering HaaS these days, but it is only really efficient and attractive as a business model when the products being circulated are built for circularity in the first place.
Transparent, Brickstad continues, has always been a very international company and the biggest current markets are Japan, France, the UK, South Korea, and the US. However, the team thought that it was about time to also have a presence on the home turf. So, they opened a Sound Room.
— It works well to see and purchase our loudspeakers online. But to get the full experience they need to be heard. We opened the Sound Room to offer people the full brand experience. It has an 8-channel speaker installation and offers immersive music-listening experiences and other soundscape installations. The space is also the home to our first Circular Center. It’s a more technical space behind a glass wall where we offer circular services to our customers. Anyone can bring their speaker and get help to upgrade — or other tech support.
You also have a certain room where you work with robots and robotics. How?
— We are investigating automated manufacturing, robot assembly, and disassembly of our products, but we are also training the robots to play musical instruments. They are becoming really good actually… I think we might host a live performance soon!
This September also sees the launch of the Transparent Speaker in a white version.
— It has been a long time in the making — we are very meticulous about the details. For example, we developed a woofer — the bass driver — that uses a special Japanese white rubber material from the yacht industry with unprecedented UV resistance properties. For ultimate longevity, of course, says Brickstad. He adds:
— We also plan to finally present the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) data of our products on the website in a special way. There is so much work behind the scenes in this project and we believe it’s the right thing to do for any tech brand, not only if you’re called ’Transparent’… This will be the first important step towards becoming fully traceable and circular, which is a very big undertaking. Compared with, for example, a piece of clothing, that has a handful of different raw materials in it, a tech product can consist of more than a hundred. As you can hear it’s a big undertaking all of this but it is not only possible, it is happening!