What is Circular Design?


Sustainability does not talk business, business does not talk sustainability. Enter Circularity!

When asked about “sustainability”, most executives will cringe. If you can get an honest answer, it might be on the lines of  “it’s costly. But we do it because we want to be a responsible organization”. This has limited most of the “sustainability” work to decrease the negative externalities of the organisation’s business to fit Corporate Social Responsibility reports. We still rely on a linear model in which we “take-make-dispose” finite resources. Cheap, un-recoverable and depreciating materials makes it easier to throw away stuff, than to figure out what to do with it.

Re-designing everything to fit a restorative and regenerative economic model is one of the greatest challenges and business opportunities of our generation (evaluated at €600 billion a year in cost savings and €1.8 trillion in additional businesses by 2030 by McKinsey&Co). Enter the circular economy. A circular economy aims at bending the linear model into a loop to maintain resources (products, components or materials) at the highest value and utility at all times. The following “butterfly” diagram, developed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, visualises such a concept. Left is the biologicalcycle for organic components (like cotton or wood) that can be reinserted into the biosphere; on the right the technicalone for all others that require reuse, repair, remanufacture or (as last option) recycle to be kept in the loop.

Why design thinking fits the task of connecting the two worlds

How should one innovate for new products and services that fit such an economic system? As Tim Brown of IDEO points out: “who we’re designing for has expanded from a solitary user to an intimately connected web of people spanning the globe”. The key of “circular design” is both considering the needs of multiple stakeholders across the whole supply chain as well as extending the design of the products beyond the end of their use. As a problem-solving method, design thinking thrives on complex challenges, and provides tools to appreciate it. Consider user-centered research, circular brainstorming or agile prototyping just to name a few (we recommend you check out the Circular Design Guidefor a nice overview).

Circular design works

While characteristics that make up circular design have been known for a while (e.g. from modularity to industrial ecosystems) or are sourced from other schools of thought (e.g. biomimicry or cradle-to-cradle), the recent momentum behind the circular economy supported the codification of existing examples into circular models. For example:

  • Cradle to cradle Using materials that fit primarily the biological cycle, both in the way they are sourced as well as how they can be disposed after their end-of-life.  For example, the Swiss company Freitag, after having been producing stylish bags out of old truck tarps, has recently started producing F-ABRIC, a locally-sourced textile material that is completely biodegradable.
  • Resources recovery as in the use of by-products What is by many considered waste could for others become a key strategic asset.  Besides the afore mentioned example of Freitag’s bags, another is the case for Bread Beer, where unsold bread is fermented into a most delicious drink.
  • Product life extension beyond point of sale The longer a product can be kept valuable for the user through repair, remanufacture or remarketing, the most effectively its resources will be used. An interesting experiment was conducted by The Agency of Design, in which they redesigned the ever-disposed of toaster 3 ways: the “optimist”, for long-term use and almost unbreakable; the “pragmatist” for an ongoing relationship with the customer enabling proper recycling by the manufacturer  through take-back; the “realist” for a cheap and non-destructive separation of materials. More established examples range from Fairphone toCaterpillar.
  • Sharing platforms to avoid idle capacity If a product can fulfil its functionalities 24/7, it delivers more value than by sitting idle in a garage. One of the original ideas around the “sharing economy” was centered around the drill, a typical object many of us feel they need to buy but that eventually sits all year long in a cabinet but for one or two days. Sharing it among neighbours make sense, and that is the idea on which for example PumpiPumpe’s community rides on.
  • Products as a service We want what the product does, not the product itself. Improved attention of customer service leads to also. Such is the thinking behind Hilti’s fleet model, where what the company delivers are “the holes, not the drill”. This model is being embraced across industries, from the partnership between Panasonic and Shiphol Airport in providing “light as a service” to “jeans as a service” by MudJeans.

by Giacomo Cattaneo, Business Consultant


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