Hints towards a non-extractive economy

18.48, Friday 18 Sep 2020

There’s a movement called the circular economy which is about designing services that don’t include throwing things away. There is no “away.”

For example: CupClub (which we invested in during my time with R/GA Ventures).

CupClub provides closed-loop coffee-cups-as-a-service to cafes. For example, the cafe in an office block. Reusable cups are dropped, by customers, into special bins. The bins are collected, and the cups washed and recirculated.

And then there’s this other thing, another hint, the Engage:

It’s a fully operational Game Boy and can play any of the console’s titles, from Tetris to Super Mario Land. It harvests energy from five small rows of solar panels on its face and from button presses made by the user. In its present state, that’s enough to power the Engage for around 10 seconds, depending on the game.

That report on CNET is a pretty good long read. The Engage is a research prototype right now.

But you know… energy harvesting? I’ve talked before about putting voice control in everything, and with super low power embedded machine learning, and energy harvested from RF/solar/kinetics, maybe we could have voice control for even single purpose, intermittently powered devices?

Another datapoint:

In the news this week: Google is not just carbon neutral (that happened in 2007) but it has now offset its entire carbon debt back to when it was founded.

From that same article: In January Microsoft revealed plans to become ‘carbon negative’ by 2030. (Which is a term I hope we hear more of. Corporations going carbon negative is a marketing battle I’d like to see.)

Net zero carbon is great. Better to produce less in the first place, of course.

And carbon is proxy measure to just one non-renewable: fossil fuels. There are many other materials that we extract from the earth, use once, then throw away.

A non-extractive economy is going to look very different to today’s economy. These points feel opposed somehow but they are part of the same movement:

  • With CupClub, it’s all about infrastructure.
  • With the battery-free Game Boy, it’s untethered from infrastructure: once manufactured, no nationwide electricity grid is required to play.

We’ll need better tools to track and measure. There will be new patterns for new types of services. New technologies to build new products. New language. So it’s fascinating seeing the pieces gradually come together.

But I wonder what the major enabling technologies will be? What are we still missing?

And if the totemic form of the internet economy has been the captured marketplace (Facebook, bringing together advertisers and audiences; Uber, bringing together riders and drivers), a model that somehow conceals the material itself – what will be the form of the non-extractive corporation?


Jasper de Winkel, Vito Kortbeek, Josiah Hester, and Przemyslaw Pawelczak. 2020. Battery-Free Game Boy. Proc. ACM Interact. Mob. Wearable Ubiquitous Technol. 4, 3, Article 111 (September 2020), 34 pages.

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