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The Rapidly Growing Magic of the Washing Machine

Alice Griffiths

24th January 2023

After ten days without a working washing machine, yesterday, a new machine arrived! I’m tempted to watch it like TV, such is the positive impact it has had on my family already. Momentarily gazing, proudly, at its melodic churn, I was reminded of Hans Rosling’s witty and informative TED talk The magic washing machine (2010).

In 2023, Hans’ talk falls into the category of ‘an oldie but still a goodie’ as he explains how the world is and will continue to transform, despite the challenges of meeting growing energy demands and the climate crisis. I’ve used this talk with Year 13, to bring focus to the Population & the Environment topic, but also as a farewell point for Year 9s. I wanted students not taking the subject on to GCSE to go away with an understanding of at least one thing – that the world is changing, and we can’t hold it back… but we can adapt.

Sales of household washing machines has grown since Hans’ talk, just as he predicted, with sales in China alone growing by 10% in the five years from 2016-2020, from 64.1 to 70.4 million units - according to Statista. Today Asia Pacific is the largest region globally, in terms of the value of washing machine sales.

The global 'household laundry equipment' market is expected to grow from a lucrative $101.4 billion in 2021 to a whopping $150.9 billion in 2026. Such projections demonstrate how important moves by manufacturers to reduce the carbon footprint of each machine are. One market report published in 2022 cites the rise in energy-efficient machines as attributable to ‘stringent government regulations’, with over 80 countries around the world now having eco standards.

Although my new machine is part of the so-called ‘Internet of things’, with WIFI and remote control capabilities, the basic, automatic wash cycle – which frees up time to work, read or rest – is still one of the greatest technological disruptors of the 20th Century (not least for women); and an object of desire that in emerging economies will purchase for the first time in the next few years.

If you watch Hans’ TED talk via the Gapminder website, the organisation has added newly-designed graphics to aid student understanding of the way he describes the world’s billions that live above and below the ‘airline’ and the ‘washline’.

Hans Rosling co-founded and was the chair of the Gapminder Foundation, promoting the use of data (and data visualisation) to explore development issues. See also the excellent second website by Gapminder, Dollar Street – ‘photos as data to kill country stereotypes’.

Alice Griffiths

Alice has taught Geography over a period of twenty years. She is a published author and editor of a wide range of A level resources and has also created award-winning, online content for younger students. An occasional presenter at the GA’s annual conference, she was head of department at an 11-18 school until 2020.

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