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Designing circularity — new design priorities for the coming circular conomy

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By Ian Chalmers

· 10 min read

“Everything is a resource for something else. In nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another.”

- William McDonough & Michael Braungart

Cradle to cradle: remaking the way we make things

At the inaugural international Design Declaration Summit held in Montréal in October 2017, delegates of 22 associations of designers, architects, urban planners and landscape architects from over 90 countries gathered to affirm the fundamental role of design in creating and shaping the world now and in the future. They concluded the two-day event by signing the Montréal Design Declaration, formally recognizing the leading strategic role of design as a vital dynamic force in shaping a global environment that will be “environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially equitable and culturally diverse.”

The summit also acknowledged the universal truth that design is a dynamic discipline, changing and constantly growing. Over the years, it has gone far beyond the traditional concept of the visual or tangible artifact into interaction and experience, even in transforming whole systems. Design now has a significant stake in shaping our world and how it functions. Critical choices that determine this landscape are increasingly being made with the help of designers in the creative process. Essential choices and decisions govern our interaction with products, how we value and use them, and, above all, what happens to them once their useful lives are over.

Choices have consequences. Will our design choices become waste, another casualty of the flawed linear economy? Or do they have a future as part of something better, an extended life in another corner of the circular economy, where waste is a valued commodity and intentionally redeployed as a valued component within an endless loop?

Linear legacy

Our current economy is linear, part of a linear mode of production that extracts raw materials out of nature and processes them into usable goods to satisfy human needs. Then it discards them when they are no longer useful. At that point, they go back into the ground as waste where they came from in the first place. What’s remarkable about this is that it is the exact opposite of all the other natural systems that have existed on Earth for millennia. Systems with lifecycles that are circular, regenerative, restorative and devoid of waste. Unlike all other living organisms on this planet, we’ve designed a broken system for ourselves that constantly makes waste and dilutes economic value. We have a linear economy that is out of step with the circular world around us.

As many commentators have pointed out, a modern linear economic system is deeply flawed. It’s founded on a self-defeating value chain that has profit maximization and limitless growth as its end goal, whose main side effect is the degradation of the planet. Our “take-make-waste” system is inherently wasteful and inefficient because it uses up scarce raw materials indiscriminately and in isolation from the other crucially relevant fields, such as our habitat and ecology. In this linear system, conservation is not the priority, and it cannot be sustained in the long term.

In just over 200 years, our society has gone through three Industrial Revolutions. It is now working on our fourth, which means we’ve evolved from being dependent on nature for our survival to being able to exploit it as we see fit. However, treating our precious resources without a care for their scarcity comes at a very steep price. Consider that in 2019 alone; we extracted over 92 billion tonnes of raw materials out of the ground for processing, which constituted about half of our global CO2 emissions and over 90% of our biodiversity loss and water stress.

What does this all mean? Simply put, it means we’re not doing nearly enough. We’re putting back or “reinvesting” less than 10% back of what we’re taking out of our planet. That alone should tell you that what we are doing is unsustainable and cannot last. And if we keep doing it, we will hit the point of no return — irreversible damage to the planet — pretty quickly, in around ten years. Sticking to the linear status quo and maximizing the profit motive above all else isn’t a winning strategy.

The inescapable conclusion here is that the linear economy is not viable as the dominant economic system if humans want to keep inhabiting Earth for generations to come. There is a growing urgency for change that’s never been more pressing than it is now. Our coastlines, oceans, ice caps, glaciers, forests, harvests and cities are increasingly at risk and left alone and unchecked; they will deteriorate at faster rates over the next decade.

So, the clear message is that we have to act. We must change course now. We must dispense with this linear thinking and switch to circularity and the circular economy. It’s the smart thing to do — it’s the only thing to do — because it has conservation is the defining principle and operates with the premise of maximizing continuous positive development and optimization of resource yields. It’s a highly credible approach to the transformation of our global economy. And establishing a regenerative and restorative system by “designing out” waste and other negative externalities, preserving and enhancing natural capital, and circulating all the moving parts, so they achieve the highest level of utility and value.

As designers, we need to adopt circular design to help power our transition by creating new products and services, better business models and effective systems to drive a new order of sustainable economic growth while slowing down the degradation of the environment. A fully functioning circular economy is what will drive this framework.

Transitioning to circularity

Achieving this transition isn’t straightforward because it requires a fundamental redesign of the economic system that we have now. Instead of endlessly extracting resources in a transactional chain, “going circular” means going over to a system where materials are a renewable resource, repeatedly reused in a closed loop, intentionally and by design. In the language of circularity, our economic behaviour transforms from single-use and landfill to a cycle of reducing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, recycling, repurposing and regenerating all of our resources and materials over and over again.

A working circular economy mimics the natural ecosystem of cyclical resource utilization, deployment, reuse and zero waste. In the natural world, that is how resources work, and the circular economy needs to be designed to do the same — ensuring that all players in the system become circular actors by instilling “circularity” into their lifecycles to extend the useful lives of all materials well beyond its “use by” date. This will be a profound transformational shift in our thinking and economic management. But it is a critical step if we harness sustainability and deliver long-term support for life on Earth.

For the circular-thinking organizations and businesses of the future, this new mindset is more than being more conscientious about recycling. It opens up huge new possibilities for value creation that stretch over the long term by extending the natural lives of products. Closed-loop manufacturing provides a multitude of value-creating opportunities with new scalable revenue streams coming from new market innovations. These include new product-service systems and subscription-based models like software as a service (SaaS) that give customers all the benefits of use without the burden of ownership for as long as they need them.

In an ecosystem powered by circularity, the successful early-adopter businesses will be those that get onboard first by emphasizing designs that are built to last. They will be products that are durable, easily repairable and adaptable, modular and simple to upgrade. Circular design focusing on these features will also build an emotional bond with their product users, making a connection that will be good for the long term. UX Design will be about product attachment and keeping these relationships strong and functional while their devices perform at their highest utility and value at all times. This circular marketplace will be the new competitive arena for business, where all its stakeholders — customers, employees and suppliers — are active partners in shaping value creation and maximizing utility.

Where do we go from here?

Circular design innovation isn’t just about coming up with new products and services themselves — although this will be critically important — it’s also about forging the social context surrounding them. With emphasis squarely on sustainability and interactive user relationships, the circular design will connect brands with stakeholders through targeted, sustainable experiences that redefine quality and emotional attachment for the long term.

Going circular is a vital step for us all to take, both in the macro sense by government and industry and in the micro world of individuals and communities, if we’re going to create a post-linear, circular economic system intimately connected to our natural ecology. Only by sharpening our natural instincts, activating the circular mindset, and empowering it through creativity and design can we embrace these sustainability values and transform our world for the better.

This article is also published on the author's blog. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Ian Chalmers is a design entrepreneur who advocates a multi-disciplinary approach to different initiatives to advance the impact of design in society.

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