Circular design, what is it?

Over the past few years, waste management and upcycling, along with the growth of the circular economy have become fundamental societal issues. However, the question of design, or circular design, is still being sidelined. And yet it is a cornerstone issue in achieving the economic, social, and environmental transition that many countries need today.

“Design became a tool of consumerism”

This is the hypothesis with which Tim Brown, co-founder of the famous California based design firm IDEO, started his TED talk in 2009. Industrial design is a relatively new field of study, especially in Europe, where it started in the late 1800’s. The Bahaus school of design was one of the protagonists putting forth the notion of usefulness, “the style must fit the use”. Then, the focus was set on combining esthetics with utility and technique. This trend marked the beginning of the rise of industrial design.

As the field of design developed, and as is most noticeable in the products created in the 2000’s, it started being increasingly more focused on creating strong esthetic identities, or even creating trends, while sidelining the societal utility of the products designed for society and people. Holistic design is often overlooked. Contrary to the trends seen during the Turn of the Century, in which the progress of humankind was a strong focus for designers, today’s industrial design glides over political and societal intentions because it is constrained by ever increasing sales targets.

The pressure to sell has forced designers to favor the attractiveness of the product and user experience, while only glancing at the longer-term impact of their design choices. It has to be noted that many products were conceived without the help of a designer, which is not a cause for blame, but the facts are here: when such choices are made, the results are often much worse. Furthermore, many objects, packaging, components, or products are wasted at different times during the lifetime of a product. And this has consequences:

  • First, from the point of view of resources, this leads us to continually extract new resources when we know that most metals, for example, are becoming increasingly scarcer. This makes no economic sense. Our excessive materialism is nonsensical.
  • Further, from a health perspective, waste also have consequences: the plastic waste polluting the oceans has adverse consequences on marine life, and can be found in most of the products we buy every day, thus having multiple types of repercussions on the food chain.
  • Finally, from a pollution standpoint, most of the unprocessed waste creates additional pollution. For example, coffee grounds emit methane as it decomposes, a greenhouse gas that is several times more harmful to the atmosphere then carbon dioxide is.

waste, the consequence of our short term mindset

The automotive industry provides a relevant illustration of these repercussions. If we look at automobile design and the industry in which it operates, we can see that today, cars can no longer be repaired by their owners, motors are too complex, some components are hidden or very hard to reach. This is due to the economic model of the company manufacturing the cars, for which revenue relies heavily on maintenance and repairs of the cars, rather than on the sale itself, which is priced close to production costs. Therefore, for the company to be viable, it needs to design cars that cannot be repaired by the neighborhood mechanic, so as to ensure its monopoly over the management of the car’s life.

80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined during its design stage

These strategic decisions, which designers have to include in their design, have long term impact. Indeed, the European Commission estimated that 80% of a product’s environmental impact is determined during its design stage (Ecodesign your Future). Whether it is raw material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, or even the product’s use, the environmental impact of the choices made during the design phase are numerous. Design methods and cycle analysis are useful tools to identify improvement opportunities, but you seldom find products that reach a perfect mark at every step of their lifecycle.

Even eco-designed products often don’t consider the end of the product’s life cycle and/or of its different components (raw material, pieces, packaging…). Regardless of this trend, it’s important to note that we throw away 80% of what we purchase within 6 months of buying it (data from Richard Girling’s book, Rubbish!: (Dirt on our hands and crisis ahead). How can we overlook this crucial stage – the end of the lifecycle – when designing a product?

The case of biodegradable plastic bags for produce provides a good example of poor consideration of all the different steps in the life cycle. Even if companies designed these bags to minimize the impact of daily consumption on waste production, the fact that so few city dwellers have the possibility to compost their biodegradable waste does not minimize the waste stream, nor does it make this product virtuous. There is also the example of the McDonald’s tray, on which all the elements are recyclable. However, these products are never recycled because of technological of economical reasons.

A good intention does not automatically solve the problem. One has to consider the connections between the elements and the consequences of a choice, or a behavior on the other elements.

Henry Ford & waste

Designing for the user… and the system that surrounds it

Since design thinking has started gaining traction in the 2000’s, with the creation of the first d.schools, the three aspects of economic viability, technical feasibility, and attractiveness to the user have become an efficient frame of reference, which is increasingly more used in the industry. Countless startups, like Airbnb, Sunrise, Kickstarter, or Pinterest have been successfully created by designers, and many established companies have also improved their business by relying more heavily on designers (Schneider Electric, Decathlon…).
By focusing on the user’s needs, designers let organizations exceed their goals. By implementing a process fostering continued improvement, the products have a better image, and are increasingly more recommended by peer networks, makings them the big successes of the past few years.

from design thinking to circular design

And, as we see today, the environmental situation of our planet is becoming more worrisome every day, without needing to waste time citing facts and reports. As we have seen, design choices play a notable part, which is why designers have a role to play. In addition to focusing on the user experience quality, designers now also have to consider the system surrounding the user. This means: with what materials? What type of energies? What manufacturing process? Distribution process? Use? And above all else, what becomes of these streams once the product or service, or any of its parts, has reached the end of its life cycle?
By adding a 4th sphere, one representing the circular nature of design and including the notions of resources, ecosystems, biomimetics, coupled with the design thinking frame of reference, circular design automatically opens up new possibilities for discovery and new economic, social, and environmental opportunities.

“The next big thing in design is circular”

By purpose, the circular design is to learn by doing, especially considering how many corrections need to be done. The continual improvement process incentivizes incremental improvements, and quickly leads to improving the ecosystems, and to do better. By looking at the big picture, the system in all of its complexities, rather than focusing on the final product or service, the designer, who is also a key player of the 21st Century according to Dominique Sciamma, realizes what his or her impact is, and how to avoid creating a negative impact or how to make a positive one for the user, the company and the ecosystem. He or she takes into consideration the landscape, its climate, the available skills, the readily available resources…

To better understand and analyze this type of data, Wiithaa developed a suite of tools via the Circulab to facilitate circular design projects. Considering all of the complexities of a situation lets a designer anticipate what will be at stake and design for the long run.

As soon as you start seeing waste as a design flaw rather than and end in and of itself, you start shining a whole new light on the stream of resources. Working towards, and attaining zero waste at the design stage optimizes what already exists, and lets you do more with fewer resources, as is recommended by the frugal innovation movement, or the famous Low Tech Lab. Doing more with what is already around us allows us to reach a high level of resiliency in the territories and organizations by multiplying local cooperation and stream loops. By involving local stakeholders, a designer can also turn the end user into a key player, who is aware of the consequences of his or her choices.

Even if his statements aren’t as far reaching as the ones above, Tim Brown, during the launch of the Circular Design Guide, readily admitted that the next design revolution will be circular design.

The different principles of circular design

Even though circular design is rather new, and not often taught in design schools today, it is still possible to outline several key principles:

> Prioritizing the use of local and/or readily available resources, to minimize energy consumption linked to the extraction, supply, and manufacturing processes, and to reduce the amount of actual waste. The designer must therefore observe and create from the resources available to him or her, especially if they have a low value today.

Chaussures pour enfants réalisées avec des chutes de cuir.This is what Shoey Shoes does. The brand created by a student from the Royal College of Art, makes leather shoes for kids exclusively from leather scraps. At the industrial lever, the French company Circouleur, which reuses leftover paint cans, is also a good example.

> Optimizing resources and energy consumption can be achieved via different means. For example, on average, a car spends 96% of its life parked. It’s hard to picture waste as stemming from single user ownership, but it exists, and it is not useful. By switching to a needs-based use model, it is possible to increase the objects level of use and also diminish the number of such objects circulating on the market. This is exactly what several auto makers and the city of Paris are working on to replace the Autolib. Resources can also be optimized at the end of a product’s life cycle, when the company has anticipated that phase. This is what the Dutch brand Mud Jeans has done by leasing its jeans on a monthly basis. The practice allows for the reintegration of the raw material, as opposed to extracting new material. The inverted logistics process can also be looked at to optimize transportation streams. La Poste’s Recygo service is a good example of optimizing and recreating economic, social, and environmental value. Last but not least, the example of Adopt an office perfectly illustrates this example by making durable, well made, top of the line office furniture more accessible than cheap products.

> Product durability, repairability, or upcycling possibilities. Built-in obsolescence has been formally condemned by many NGOs over the past few years. 
however, it is often considered to be an important pillar of the business models of large players in the economy today. We mentioned it before for the automobile industry, but the example of smartphones is equally as striking. These products could technically be used for 7 years. However, their average lifespan in France is only 18 months long. Most manufacturers encourage people to change their devices by suggesting updates that challenge the hardware’s capacity, so that the product becomes hard to use and obsolete. Fairphone is an interesting initiative for several reasons: beyond the modular nature of their devices making repairs easy, their phones are designed to last and seem much more solid than most phones.

> Taking apart and repurposing the product. If the product can be taken apart or repurposed, other uses may be considered in order to create additional value. Renault is known for its Choisy-le-Roi manufacturing facility specialized in remanufacturing, which means taking objects apart and repackaging the parts. This process creates an opportunity to resell spare parts 30 to 50% cheaper than new parts, and saves up to 88% of water, 80% of energy, and 86% of the chemicals needed to manufacture a part. Carwatt offers the possibility to switch from a combustion engine to an all-electric engine, knowing that the impact of manufacturing a new car is often higher than the impact the car will have during its lifespan. At the end of its lifespan, a product can also be repurposed to serve new uses. The young Nantes based startup Bâtho collects old sailboats to transform them into unique houses. This process finances the boat’s reprocessing, prevents boats from being simply abandoned, and saves on construction materials in the region.

Un exemple de Batho

> Absence of waste during the product or service’s lifespan as well as for its parts. Indeed, waste that cannot be reused at the end of a life cycle is seen as a design flaw and calls for a change in design or a better foresight of what that component will become. The objective of biodegradability or regenerating ecosystems must always be taken into account. Contrary to most products today, the objective is to avoid using harmful substances, to protect the product’s users, but also to let the product go back to the ecosystem at the end of its life. The Freitag t-shirt example is a particularly interesting one, because it is entirely made of biodegradable fibers, which means it can decompose in just a few months when buried in the ground, without damaging the soil. Similarly, Ecovative manufactures packaging reinforcements from fungus mycelium, which are biodegradable once the product reaches the consumer.

> finally, a continuous improvement process. The raw material streams, product uses, or user behaviors may change according to design modifications, which is why it is important to integrate them so as to improve the user experience and create new continuous value loops.
Beyond its practical aspects, circular design has become crucial to many companies. Plastic pollution in the oceans serves as a particularly vivid example: even HSBC recommends that Coca-Cola overhauls its product distribution strategy.

During this transformation, brands and companies must go back to their core values, so they can create a strategy that will create the most positive impact and successfully reconcile economic prosperity with the regeneration of ecosystems. It is important to make this process obvious to the teams, partners, but also to the users and ecosystem, by giving meaning to the company and its actions.
Circular design, by bringing the subject of resources to the forefront, also creates an opportunity to integrate an increasingly more important strategic dimensions in an ever-changing world.

In conclusion, doesn’t circular design seem to be the right combination of respecting life’s way and the designer’s creative abilities to allow companies to respect the natural ecosystem?

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