A Better Way to Re-use – BETTER REnew
Social Venture ENLIGHTEN
The “BETTER REnew” experiment is an experiment to change the world using science technology. You might think of Artificial Intelligence but this one does not involve such a high technology. In fact, the technology that is used here is so simple that it is the one that people tended to regard as an old-fashioned one which is not in use anymore; A new value was found in the old existing technology. That is why this experiment is very valuable.
The “BETTER REnew” experiment is an attempt to revive and return the necessary technology which was hidden by the force of capital to the citizens. Giving the technology back to the citizens opens new possibilities. By taking a step away from being consumers who are used to the profit making enterprises, now people can make a different choice as citizens who are aware and concerned about the future of the neighbours and the community.
ENLIGHTEN was the only social venture among the organizations that were selected. As it is known, social ventures are the organizations that pursue both economic profit and social value. The participation of a social venture that has a specific business model had a great meaning as this can broaden the horizon of social innovation and also ensure sustainability of the project. That is why their challenge was very welcome.
Making the world that lasts longer, “BETTER REnew.”
A project to revive old technology and value
“Where did all the town electronic stores go?”
When we were younger, there were many electronic stores in every town. It was a small store full of all sorts of broken electronic domestic appliances such as TVs and radios. A master who could fix anything was there, giving the image that he would revive any machine by giving life to them. Soondol’s father, a character in “Three families under one roof,” one of the popular Korean dramas in the past, was also one of those masters.
However, it is difficult to find those stores nowadays. Where did all the electronic stores go?
Here we have the ones who are trying to revive the new concept of town electronic stores and the masters. The social venture ENLIGHTEN is leading the project BETTER REnew with the support of Seoul Innovation Park’s Living Lab. This is an experiment to give a new life to the electronic devices and returning them to the citizens to make a world that lasts longer.
“Wouldn’t it be possible to prevent throwing away devices not in use if the batteries are exchanged in a more economic and easier way?”
Their experiment had its beginning in this question. They didn’t want to see the cases where the electronic devices that can be easily fixed and used longer, especially the wireless mobile tools and vacuum cleaners were being thrown away because of their short-lasting batteries.
“The batteries of the wireless domestic appliances need to be changed after a year, but the AS centers usually charge about a half of the price of a new product for this service. So people tend to choose to buy a new product which causes unnecessary consumptions. We exchange the cell in the battery pack to the new one using the battery refill technique for half the price, improving the function even more at the same time,” says Kiyong Shin, the CEO of ENLIGHTEN who is leading the project. If a wireless vacuum cleaner is used one cycle longer, it is possible to reduce the emission of CO2 caused by making a new product and getting rid of the old product. He explains that this is equivalent to planting four trees.
The technology that ENLIGHTEN uses is changing the cell in the battery pack of the wireless home appliances, which does not involve much training or expensive high-tech machines. However, this technology is not widely in use because it can be a hurdle for profit-making. Most of the enterprises think that it is more profitable to let people use the appliances only for a period that the battery lasts, so that they keep buying new products. Therefore, this experiment asks us a fundamental question; for whom should science technology be used?
Kiyong Shin, the CEO of ENLIGHTEN, pursued an integrated major in design and engineering. He developed a bicycle for rehabilitation using the “universal design” (a design that can be used regardless of age and disability) for his undergraduate graduation work and also studied Product-Service System Design for social innovation at his graduate school. He had a particular interest in social innovation. During his studies, he realized that economic inequality is caused by energy disparities and decided to develop a new kind of a “solar lamp” to be sent to Africa. His love for energy started from there.
A team of like-minded people gathered together and developed a solar lamp of parallel-connected PV modules, which won the grand prize (in global section) at 2013 National Social Venture Competition. He decided to establish ENLIGHTEN instead of finishing the studies at the graduate school. He was determined to light up the world.
Nevertheless, the life of startup was not easy. A solar lamp was not enough to make a sustainable business model. He decided to look for more problems to solve nearby to gain more experience and that was when the smart phone batteries that were thrown away caught his attention.
Having worked for days and nights with his friend, he developed an upcycling battery BETTER RE which makes it possible to reuse the discarded smart phone batteries. At the end of 2014, BETTER RE became a Design Concept Winner at 2015 Red Dot Design Award, which is one of three most prestigious design awards in the world. With this award, ENLIGHTEN gained another momentum to move forward. In 2015, BETTER RE won the first prize in ‘Idea Track’ at Samsung Tomorrow Solution Contest. This proved once again that ENLIGHTEN is a social venture that has both solid technology and social value.
“This is also an experiment which revives the value of town electronic stores and the engineering masters that disappeared nowadays.”
The challenge of this experiment is to bring back those engineering masters to the sites who used to repair electronic devices and exchanged the batteries at Yongsan and Saeun electronic stores but lost their job because of lack of demand. At the “Revival Factory”, an engineering master in his 50s is working together with the crew. It is in the plan of ENLIGHTEN to have more masters back at work for the interaction with the citizens.
They are also trying hard to create new interactions; the interactions between the residents who do not know each other, as well as the interactions between the engineering master and the citizens that used to be in place. A new type of electronic store, the “Revival Factory” and the Flea Market that sells revived devices are expected to serve as a bridge for new interactions between them.
At the “Revival Factory.” it is very easy to encounter an elderly who brings broken electronics. Some bring kimchi or eggs to express their gratitude.
The company also plans to fix the discarded electronics and give them as Christmas presents to the elderly of the neighbourhood. They expect to revive the relationship just as the products.
ENLIGHTEN gathered around 70,000 USD in a month through “Kickstarter”, a US crowd funding platform, with the “external supplementary battery” in 2015. More than 700 people participated from 41 countries. Now they are developing a product for mass-production in cooperation with Samsung Electronics. Despite the possibility to make more money in a much easier way, the employees of this company decided to take a difficult road to make a better world. We would like to give a warm applause for their efforts.
The title of this experiment, BETTER REnew, might sound like “Battery New,” which means making the batteries new. However, it is meant to be “Better Renew” referring to better revival. The naming ability of the employees are remarkable reflecting their expertise in design.
“Other environmental issues are also very important, but we would like to show that this kind of small efforts can gather together and make our society a better place to live.”
Changing batteries just like planting trees
Right after being informed about the selection, we rented a working station and prepared the tools and instruments for the work. Reflecting the name of “Living Lab,” we found a working place at the house in a resident area of Seongsu-dong where a cozy garden and a jujube tree was right in the middle. The reason for choosing Seongsu-dong was not only the close distance to the office, but because this was the area which became popular again recently after being forgotten by people for a long time and this was somewhat similar to our experiment. Seongsu-dong seemed to suit quite well to the word “Renew.”
Seongsu-dong was a quasi-industrial area in 1960s where steel, dyeing, plating factories were located, which continued to be a place for wig industry in 70s, sewing industry in 80s, and then shoe and printing industry in 90s. In the end of 90s, many factories moved out looking for new locations with lower wages, leaving behind the area with empty factories and warehouses.
Fortunately, people started to come back to the area after the “Seoul Forest” was developed by the city of Seoul. Young artists came and made use of discarded warehouses while many social ventures who wanted to change the world started to gather at this place. Designating this area as a special area for hand-craft industry by the District Office of Seongdong in 2012 also played an important role. There was increasing number of cases where factories and printing shops were renovated to new cultural spaces such as cafes, galleries and work stations. With more “Social Ventures,” the area was also called Social Venture Valley.
ENLIGHTEN started its experiment right here at Seongsu-dong.
· Business Plan
An average smart phone usage cycle of Korean people is 1.2 years. This means that people tend to change their phones earlier than two years, which is an usual contract period given by the service providers. However, the efficiency of the batteries of the smart phones remains at 80% of its efficiency even after two years. This means that the batteries are wasted because the product usage cycle is shorter.
There are also some opposite cases like wireless vacuum cleaners and laptops, which can be used for a longer period, but cannot be, because the batteries last short. As the efficiency of the batteries get lower, these devices cannot be used and often discarded. So the gap between the life of battery and the product cycle can cause the waste of either side.
ENLIGHTEN had been working to solve this problem. It developed upcycling supplementary batteries “BETTER RE” to revive the used smart phone batteries and also started “BETTER REnew” service to prolong the usage of electronics through battery refill.
Kiyong Shin, the CEO, and Jeongsik Kim, the design engineer are both engineers. They decided to take a challenge to get into the new area of “service” beyond their expertise of product manufacturing. This was a challenge, but they were determined from the beginning. CEO Shin was in charge of project planning and designer Kim was in charge of website construction and content making. The basic preparation for the service management was ready in just a month.
The problem now was in gaining the skills and advertising the service. As both of them were engineers, they could gain the skills relatively easily by visiting electronic stores in Yongsan and Saeun. They bought broken devices through online websites for transaction of used goods and resold them after fixing and changing the batteries using the skills that they gained. They made sure that the products looked brand new by cleaning them thoroughly.
After a few months of repetition, they got used to the skills. They also got quite popular in the online communities with the increase of customers. The effect of disclosing the whole process of the work on the blog was very big. The number of visitors of the blog also increased day by day.
When a number of customers reached 20 a day, they opened the “Rivival Factory.” They also recruited someone who could be in charge of service management and marketing. They were all determined to work hard and spend their youth in a “start-up.”
· Gaining Skills
Kiyong Shin, the CEO, studied mechanical engineering, electrical electronics and human engineering during his undergraduate studies. But gaining new skills was not that easy even for him. He asked questions to the engineering masters of electronic stores of Yongsan and Saeun. Obviously, many said harsh words and some even discouraged him saying that they won’t make it anyway. But fortunately, there were also some who provided help so that they could learn much in a short time.
Even if they managed to learn the skills, the next problem was with the lack of devices to practice. There were too many kinds of devices if they were to buy all of them and it was also impossible to practice on the customers’ devices. There were even some incidents when they broke the devices of the customers at the beginning. There were two cases where they had to buy a new product as a compensation. CEO Shin laughed and said that they considered this as their R&D investment.
He said that he got to know how a doctor might feel through this experience. He became upset when a product did not work even after fixing it and on contrary, felt so happy when the product started working.
· Constructing Infrastructure
From the first week of September, the tools and materials for the experiment were prepared and the engineering masters and masters-to-be to work together were sought.
They decided to recruit masters-to-be from Seongsu Engineering Highschool and contacted the school. The teacher in charge of recruitment of students came to CREVISSE where the office was located with two students after few days. They talked for a long time and recruited one of them to work together.
Now, the problem was in finding the engineering master. They carefully asked the masters who they met at Yongsan electronic stores and Saeun stores, but it was not easy. This situation continued for a while.
One day, an engineering master in his 50s that they got to know through the online cafe for transactions of used devices contacted them. They could not miss the opportunity so they decided to meet him right away. They explained the business and vision of ENLIGHTEN and carefully proposed to work together. They met several times after this day. The master started to open his heart as they continued to talk about many different stories of their life and finally made a decision to work together with them. They managed get over this difficult situation once again.
After working here for two months, the master said that he got to learn new values that he did not know for the past years of his life and that he is more than happy with this job.
From October, a team of experts are also working to exchange the batteries of electric kickboards, electric wheels and electric bicycles. When the number of cells in a battery pack increases, it is more difficult to find the balance among them, but now, this team can be in perfect charge with appropriate technology and tools.
· Starting the Service
“BETTER REnew” is a service that enables people to exchange the batteries of wireless domestic appliances in a more economic and easier way. When a customer who wishes to change the battery fills in an application form for an exchange at the internet homepage (http://betterre.co.kr), ENLIGHTEN sends a safety box where the customer can put their device and send back by post. The device is returned by post to the customer after being fixed.
In the beginning, they focused on wireless vacuum cleaners. The main customers were mothers of small children and owners of pets.
With the growing popularity of the service through word of mouth, the number of customers kept growing twice every week. The company was overwhelmed with a pouring number of products to fix and pack, including the phone calls to answer. There was even a time when 100 devices were waiting in line to be fixed.
This is why “service reservation system” was implemented. As you still have to wait even if you send it early, you can send the product on the day when it is reserved so reduce the waiting time. They also started a “rental service” for vacuum cleaners so that customers can rent and use during the period when their device is being fixed.
With the introduction of “service reservation system,” a team of seven employees were working together.
· Implementing Cleaning Service
As the name “BETTER REnew” reflects, they regard “finding a better way” very important along with reviving things. They believed that providing a service that customers love lies in the core of making this service sustainable.
When the number of customers exceeded 500, they realized that their main customers were mothers of small children and owners of pets. They sometimes communicated with them through an online messenger service and one day, they were asked what kind of detergents they use. This was the time when the case of toxic humidifier detergents arose as a serious issue and people were very worried about the usage of chemical products.
We held a meeting immediately. We changed all the detergents to eco-friendly ones and decided to develop a “premium cleaning service” that uses natural detergents such as baking soda and citric acid.
Surprisingly, the reaction of the customers was very welcoming. Now, nearly all the customers are using the “premium cleaning service.” Also, there are some who wish to use this service without exchanging the battery and even those who want to use the service on regular basis. In November a new employee was recruited who would be responsible for this service.
The service got evolved to ensure more satisfaction for both ENLIGHTEN and customers by closely listening to the demands and taking quick actions accordingly. Through this experience, it was possible to realize that the most important thing is to interact with the customers and listen to their demands.
· Customer Reaction
The reaction of customers was much better than expected. The reviews posted by the customers were very helpful.
“Our customers leave so many good reviews. We feel so proud when we hear that they are so satisfied not to buy a new product. Some even sent a hand-written letter encouraging us. The customers also feel very proud to be part of the project to make the world a better place to live.”
Obviously, not only good things happened. We introduced a service that provides a fast-track fixing at an extra cost of 5,000 Won, but got a severe complaint that this is unfair. We were planning to do an extra work after finishing the work designated for that day and that extra 5,000 Won was meant to be a compensation for this extra labour, but the customer misunderstood that we were about to give priority to the ones who paid more. We tried to explain that this is not the case, but he shouted aloud that it is unfair to provide better service for those who are paying more money and we ended up closing this service down.
10,000 Trees were planted for the past 100 Days
Around 1,200 wireless vacuum cleaners were fixed during the past 100 days. As using a vacuum cleaner for one more year is considered to be equivalent to reducing the emission of CO2 by planting four trees, it meant that we made an effect of planting around 5,000 trees. Since we were able to make a mountain in mere three months, we could even make a mountain chain full of thousands and ten thousands of trees.
“Wouldn’t it be possible to prevent throwing away devices not in use if the batteries are exchanged in a more economic and easier way?”
The initial question that they asked themselves was right. 1,200 customers who used the service of BETTER REnew for the past three months prove that this is true. This number is more valuable, because it was achieved without much advertisement, based solely on word of mouth.
Also, as we have a service that people are willing to pay for, the first step of the business model can be considered to be successfully achieved. The growth rate is also enormously fast, so this can be seen as an attempt which properly responded to the demand of the society. This served as a perfect prototype.
This experiment was introduced as one of the top news of “Ohmynews” (“The “Magic” of young entrepreneurs; Converting the used vacuum cleaners to a brand new one,” 2016.11.27) on Monday morning after the weekend of huge candlelight rally where about 1.5 million people gathered at Gwanghwamun because of the Choi Soonsil Gate. On this day, the server of the ENLIGHTEN homepage was down for a long time, because of the massive number of visitors. This shows how much the interest of people was in this project.
There is still a long way to go. There is a remaining challenge to make more interactions between the engineering masters and the citizens. We only took a small step forward during this experiment.
ENLIGHTEN has a vision to gather more engineering masters and to increase the their interactions with the citizens. They want to go beyond the platform of reviving the electronic devices and develop a service for domestic appliances and home care. They are also planning to move the “Revival Factory” to a more spacious place where masters and citizens can freely cooperate and work together.
“We say that this is an era of Internet of Things, but actually, this is an era of Battery of Things. Every product has a battery. We are now making a small success but we still have a long way to go ahead of us.”
A valuable challenge made by a social venture to change the world using the existing technology
In today’s world of 4th wave of industrial revolution which is influencing the human life, the experiment of “BETTER REnew” makes us contemplate what we should do for the mankind and why we need technology.
High-tech developments such as AI are very important, but this experiment shows that an “old technology” which seemed to be out of fashion can be also re-used in a very valuable way to make the world a better place to live.
This is also in line with the methodology that social innovation pursues.
“The similarity in these projects is that they use the existing resources (from social capital to historical heritage, from traditional craftmanship to accessive advanced technology) to create new innovative models to achieve the social goals.” (Ezio Manzini, “Design, When Everybody Designs”)
It also has a big meaning in the sense that they are opening new opportunities for the engineering masters who were in danger of losing their jobs. This only showed a small possibility, but considering the number of engineers who are facing the similar situation, this attempt might help revive one industrial section. This can also serve as a benchmark for other industries that are losing their competitiveness.
On the first day when we met CEO Kiyong Shin, we asked him how designs can help social innovations. He answered proudly that “good designs make a good society.” He still dreams of a “good design.”
“We tend to recognize only the fancy designs that attract consumers as “designs.” Based on the information that we can collect through reviving domestic appliances and providing the care service, I would like to make a circular business model where a very good design of electronic devices are integrated with the service. My ultimate dream is to make a sustainable industrial system.”
Just like the dream of ENLIGHTEN to make the world that lasts longer, we hope that their challenge continues to be bright for a long time.
8월 03, 2017