“Does it fit, will it work and can standards help?” was the subject of the workshop organized by the ISO Committee on consumer policy (ISO/COPOLCO) in New Delhi, India, on the 26 May 2009.

At the opening ceremony of the ISO/COPOLCO workshop in New Delhi, from left: Mrs. Madhulika Prakash, Deputy Director General (technical) BIS; Mr. Sharad Gupta, Director-General, BIS; Mr. Y.S. Bhave, Secretary, Department of Consumer Affairs, Government of India: Ms. Jai Ok Kim, Chair ISO/COPOLCO; Mr. Alinda Chandra, Additional Director General, BIS.  
(Photo: S S Studio).

About 100 participants from consumer associations, public authorities, businesses and from the national standards bodies of some 30 countries came together to discuss how consensus-based International Standards can help meet consumer needs for interoperability of goods and services.

Asking questions like “Why can’t I install my new software properly” or “Why do I need so many different remote control devices”, the workshop looked at areas where lack of interoperability poses safety risks to consumers and restricts their access to a full range of goods and services, fair prices and information.

Interoperability requires compatibility of spare parts, accessories and components among different models, product lines and brands of, for example, household appliances or electronic goods. It also concerns service areas such as insurance, banking and healthcare, notably regarding transparency of information and service delivery. Interoperability is also an essential enabler of effective information and communication technologies.

Ms. Jai Ok Kim, Chair of ISO/COPOLCO, emphasized in her opening speech the current gap in interoperability of products such as sockets, plugs, chargers and batteries. Apart from convenience and comfort, interoperability in this area is important for reducing e-waste. One expert explained, “In the European Union alone, about 40 000 tons of e-waste are produced every 20 months!” Standards for labeling (e.g. for recycling of products) were also seen as a key consumer need.

Focusing on some of the consequences of a lack of interoperability (including for consumer access to knowledge and information, and safety risks linked to counterfeiting), the workshop looked at how International Standards can help achieve consumer expectations in terms of cost savings, longer product life, greater convenience and reduced waste.

Presenters also addressed the challenges posed by market barriers and intellectual property, which can contribute to the proliferation of incompatible models.

Among the issues raised is that interoperability is often understood differently by consumers, business and other stakeholders. Participants therefore called on consumers to be more active in letting organizations know the features and services they would like to see, as well as for consumer representatives to continue to be involved in standardization. Currently, an expert from India argued, there is a trend for consumers to simply "adjust and make do" when interoperability is lacking, and the result is money spent less wisely, lost productivity and lost goodwill.

International Standards, suggested participants, can help by disseminating best practice and facilitating innovation – allowing businesses to better channel research efforts and to market new technologies.

This workshop is one among a series of meetings organized annually by ISO/COPOLCO on consumer issues and standardization. Mr. Sharad Gupta, Director-General of the ISO member for India, the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), who is hosting the event, welcomed the initiative “These workshops provide a forum for ISO/COPOLCO to develop recommendations for action, policy statements, guides for standards writers or proposals for new areas of standardization.”

The workshop preceded the ISO/COPOLCO plenary which takes place on 27-28 May 2009 in New Delhi. The plenary will review current consumer priorities in standardization and agree on the roadmap for future progress. Both events are hosted by BIS.