Design Inspirations for The Circular Economy
The circular economy is creating opportunities and conditions for a design revolution in products, services, and business. This revolution will also extend into how businesses and organizations are positioned to interact with each other to create zero waste alliances. As resource efficiency gains priority in our economy, designing for reuse and extending the life of materials and products requires that we be extremely thoughtful at the front end of the design process so designs can be most effective throughout the circular system. In order to reach this end, people at all stages of a product, service, or business system must work together to ensure the development of the designs will be able, as best as possible, to join the circular economy responsibly.
Design in this article mainly covers the creation of products but this also applies to how business processes, services or experience design can participate in the circular economy. This design revolution requires that we consider economic, environmental, and social considerations as well as the system that the designed thing is moving through.
Here are inspirations for the circular economy.
Design for …
Durability - Creating products of quality materials and construction that last and that can be reused many times. For example, a leather bag that gets better over time and is made to lasts generations.
Extended Use - Create products designed for many uses by many people. Experience design and designing for ease of use for customers is key for this to work well. For example, build in a recapture and distribution service for products so they can be easily reused by another consumer.
Repairability - Create products that can be easily repaired. For example, parts can be labeled and accessible making it easy to replace parts and put back together again with standardized tools and hardware.
Disassembly - Design the product to be easily disassembled for transport efficiency, repairability, and recyclability. For example, a chair can designed with durable, repairable, and recyclable materials, like wood or metal, and assembled and disassembled for transport.
Modularity - Create products with parts that can be replaced, repaired, or upgraded easily. For example, a guitar could be made with modularity so that if the tuning pegs or neck broke those pieces could be replaced.
Light Weighting - Create products that travel to be made of lightweight materials to decrease energy costs. For example, transporting concentrated liquids such as soap that can be mixed with water available on site, rather than transporting heavy water diluted products.
Zero Waste - Design product components that leave no waste behind, ideally in the whole process of production from raw materials to post consumer use. For example, using bamboo or renewable materials that can be turned into soil to facilitate the growth of plants.
Recycling and Upcycling - Create products that have components that can be disassembled and reused, remanufactured, and downcycled or upcycled into other products, reusing the material at any stage of the product life. For example, a metal car part that can be replaced, renewed, reused, or remade over and over.
Decomposition - Products that can’t be recycled or remanufactured could be designed to decompose or compost back into soil or into an organic material that could be used in another process. For example, single use disposable consumer products, i.e. bags, coffee cups, or products like furniture could be made from biological materials with a quicker decomposition rate.
Restoration / Regeneration - Design the end of use of a material or process to be a supportive element in regrowth, such as compost for growing plants potentially used in production, feeding animals, or creating habitat for example. What if a product improved the conditions of water, soil, air, or earth through its use? For example, using products made from mycelium could improve the health of the soil the product decomposed in after use.
Job Creation - Products, processes, or businesses can be designed to increase employment opportunities over the use of materials. Creating products that need to be repaired, remanufactured, or redistributed to another market for extended life creates more jobs through the extended use of one product compared to the one time manufacturing, sale, and landfill hauling. For example, sharing underutilized assets of regular people such as rooms, cars, or sports equipment have also created jobs for people willing to share the performance of their assets and this has created jobs.
Versatility/ Standardization - Design products that will work on many different systems or with different users, by allowing language options, network connecting, and user experience to be accessible. For example, a cell phone that is designed to work on any network internationally, while it uses standardized cords, chips, and payment options. This process will make extending the use of the product more fluid while increasing the sales of one product to many people with the right recapture program in place.
Connection - Design for sharing and connecting people to people for increasing extending the life of products through service and businesses. Many businesses in the sharing economy prioritize technological and service processes that allow the global public in some cases to connect and share, Craigslist, Uber, and Airbnb are well known examples.
Fields of design with big promise in this field are green chemistry and materials innovation, business model innovation, industrial design, lean manufacturing, service design, experience design, and spatial, logistical and system thinking will also be important.
May the inspirations cause you to think about what sphere of influence you might have to make steps in your lifestyle and work to go circular.
The electric guitar below, made by Henry Boyle is made from renewable bamboo and not endangered hardwoods. It's designed to be modular, portable, fixable, upgradable, and recyclable. An example of cutting edge ecological industrial design.
This is a list of design considerations for designing your product, service, business, or organization to join to the Circular Economy.
Design for Durability
Design for Repairability
Design for Lightweight
Design for Renewable Energy Use
Design for Adaptability
Design for Extended Use
Design for Zero Waste
Design for Reuse
Design for Modularity
Design for Disassembly
Design for Upcycling
Design for Remanufacturing
Design for Recycling
Design for Decomposition
Design for Restoration
Design for Regeneration
Design for Desirability
Design for Job Creation
Design for Versatility
Design for Accessibility
Design for Connection
Design for Inspiration
By: Chelsea Peil at ecocreativestrategies.com
Thanks to all the minds that have and those that will continue to, develop and support the circular economy and other supporting concepts. The list of thinkers is long.
I use design thinking as a way to work within a process to problem solve for social and ecological challenges. It is a container that helps me focus my natural systems thinking ability while it creates boundaries for ideation to turn into activation. I discovered this process while making art, designing products, and creating programs for non-profits and organizations wanting to incorporate sustainability into their company or projects. Over the years, the public has put "the green focus" on recycling and doing less bad, but I have always felt that you have to work on the front end and design things to be eco-efficient or built to last for the get go and not give folks the opportunity to behave unsustainably. The industrial design community is having this conversation about moving away from just an aesthetic form focus to incorporating an ethos and design with more substance. This article is written by designer Thomas Wendt and he speaks to what has been missing in the design world. http://www.thedesigngym.com/toward-sustainable-design-thinking/
My gratitude to indigenous designers, Bucky Fuller, and Victor Papanek, to name a few, and the mentors that introduced me to their thought leadership.
Slow Design for Long Term Amazingness
Slow Design means great design, not necessarily pokey, or hokey.
Thoughtfulness and consideration are required for good relationships be they with friends or business associates. This idea carries into thinking about the relationship to the planet and it’s ability to care for all life on earth, not just humans. Additionally, our relationships to this ourselves, each other, the planet is all reflected in our lifestyles and choices, all reflections of our values. The slow design method is a way to stop and systematically check in with how we are designing and what we are designing to be of utmost quality. Here's more about what it is and why it is so amazing.
Beth Meredith and Eric Storm attempt to summarize the concept, stating:
Slow Design is a democratic and holistic design approach for creating appropriately tailored solutions for the long-term well-being of people and the planet. To this end, Slow Design seeks out positive synergies between the elements in a system, celebrates diversity and regionalism, and cultivates meaningful relationships that add richness to life.
Common qualities of Slow Design include:
• Holistic – taking into account as many relevant short and long term factors as possible.
• Sustainable – considering the cradle- to-cradle impacts and reducing harm as much as possible including the precautionary principle.
• Elegant – finding the simplest and most concise solutions that provide the desired results.
• Tailored – creating specific solutions that fit a particular situation.
• Democratic – keeping the process and results accessible to those using and impacted by the design and to non-professionals.
• Adaptable – developing solutions that will continue to work over time or that can be modified as needed.
• Durable – making sure solutions can be maintained over time while minimizing the need for repairs and replacement.
• Non-toxic – eliminating substances and processes that pollute or are toxic.
• Efficient – minimizing waste of time, labor, energy, and physical resources.
• Distinctive – promoting cultural, social, and environmental uniqueness and diversity.
Slow design is still a relatively new concept of design thinking, and its implications are yet to be fully developed and defined. It could evolve in the following ways:
• Longer design processes with more time for research, contemplation, real life impact tests, and fine tuning.
• Design for manufacturing with local or regional materials and technologies or design that supports local industries, workshops, and craftspeople.
• Design that takes into account local or regional culture both as a source of inspiration and as an important consideration for the design outcome.
• Design that studies the concept of natural time cycles and incorporates them into design and manufacturing processes.
• Design that looks at longer cycles of human behavior and sustainability.
• Design that takes into account deeper well-being and the findings of positive psychology. (Thanks Wikipedia!)
This way of seeing, thinking, and creating is not a new concept, but we have lost this ethos in much of what is happening in the world today and we are seeing the multifaceted consequences of fast and cheap. Slow design and intentional redesign and relationship building could do wonders for all aspects of life if we revive it.
Unconscious Biases and Innovation
I grew up in a subculture where being a steward of the land was embedded, and that meant being aware of how you treated animals, how you feed/cultivated the soil, how you cared for water, and how you conserved things so you always had it. I realize “being a steward to the earth” is a term used in the Bible, so it has always floored me since I live in a largely Christian nation, why this concept translated into, “the earth provides solely for humans, we are stewarding it for our purposes alone”. This is what the actions are saying with the chemicalization and degradation and social inequality we have going on. Is this because when God resides off the earth in the heavens and the religious goal is to get there? That somehow it means that we don’t need to take care of the earth we live on now? I recognize that not all people that believe this religious model are bad stewards. I’m saying that there seems to be a connection philosophically, perhaps unconsciously, and I have heard people say, “Why should I care, I’m only passing through.” “Why should I steward this place, God isn’t here and I won’t be either!”
Who teaches us about stewardship? What does it mean anymore? I mention the religious stuff because, like it or not these ideas permeate our culture and affect decisions, unconsciously at the very least.
Changing minds / behavior change is rough work especially in sustainability, attachment theory, addiction, it’s psychological, it’s the work of time, pressure, inspiration, and stumbling or hitting bottom and having no other choice. It’s important to look at underlining assumptions, bias, and deeply rooted habits that many people, organizations, cultures have and have been taught to have. In my opinion, it is largely about a feeling of safety in an identity, belonging to a group that does these things a certain way and if you do them in that way too, you belong. “Groupism” is incredibly dangerous, especially if the whole human species group doesn’t see its connection to the rest of the aliveness on this planet. I don’t mean to sound preachy, but what I notice is that people identify with the group, role, or power they are allotted and have a difficult time cracking out of that to think differently, to see a problem or themselves differently, or do something new. To open would be a blow to self concept or identity.
This is why I love the creative design process, especially with visuals that speak to the unconscious, because it uses various techniques such as facilitation and mediation skills to get to the hidden unity found in people’s values. Working at the unconscious, emotional, and intellectual level using a process that gets egos out of the way moves us closer to working together so we can problem solve using the collective intelligence that will meld together even with multifaceted philosophical adherences.
The beauty and the curse of visioning a new future together are that we bring our imagination (hopefully still intact) and baggage to the table. It’s a true skill to allow a process that opens one up but checks the other at the door. Acknowledging, being heard, having empathy for ourselves and others, and being vulnerable enough to know when it’s our ego/identity we are protecting or when it’s a sharing of our past experience that raises concerns. Self-awareness and reflective facilitation during problem-solving help immensely to deter from common barriers and open deeper into innovation and creativity that is beyond perceived limitations.
Remember when you are an expert, you are an expert of the past. No one can be an expert of the present moment or the future. That’s a powerful thought for equality, inclusivism, and creativity. Knowing where we came from or what cultural fish bowl we are in is deeply important to know why we are where we are. Designing your life/work/projects to be what you want them to be is wide open if you can step into an identity-less version of yourself / culture, out of ingrained beliefs and into wonder. It's not easy, but something to strive for and be aware of.
I love tents and I love responding to situations where I see a possible fix to some aspect of it. So when hearing about the refugee crisis I put together the knowledge of the tremendous amount of vinyl waste from outdoor advertising with simple shelter designs. This idea would divert “free” material from the landfill upcycle it into tents and ship it to people that need them. This is a simple design and one that I hope gets people thinking about what is going to the landfill that could be helpful. There are millions or displaced people now and possibly more to come. I'd love for everyone to have an apartment, but continuing to think about fast and resilient shelter design is important. Maybe even ones that integrate water collection and heat from the sun.
Like food waste, we have a distribution problem and an interaction or behavioral problem (wastefulness) to attend to. One aspect of a perspective issue, especially within the refugee communities, is the idea of temporary. Often these temporary situations become permanent. Is it possible to plan for that reality? Could the temporary or disaster relief supplies be designed to become components of more permanent structures?
Take the simple designs on Tentility.com for the refugee scenarios. The tents are essentially billboards or vinyl sheeting that could become a vapor barrier for a more permanent structure. The PVC tubes that hold the tent together could be connected to become pipes for moving water. These are simple examples that I hope inspire people to see that in reality the climate is changing ecologically, politically, and socially. In my opinion, we need to design for resilience and possibilities of permanent nomadism, disaster communities becoming permanent, and design for a restructuring of what we typically believe to be normal. This might be a new level of self-reliance in an arrangement that creates the social and psychological healing and resilience needed to survive and care for each other, and the land base that will have to support us all.
My business partner and I are hosting the Portland Sustainability Jam as a part of the Global Sustainability Jam because it creates a beautiful example of collective intelligence and collaborative innovation at work with a very real global sustainability problem. Many people think that innovation for solutions is a lightbulb eureka moment, but actually it is a process of building on other ideas and having existing conditions in other field develop in a way that can support a new synthesis. That's why systems thinking and process development is so important because thoughtful development of programs and products allow you to see where leverage points for innovation reside - where tweaks can be made that leave big impacts and allow you as an organization or business to build and shift gracefully.
The jam is a way to facilitate design strategies and see innovation in practice. This jam is happening for groups around the world to work on a challenge during the same 48 hours, prototype ideas, and share them. I love bringing people together from different disciplines and especially finding the tinkerers and down to earth mechanically inclined doers and go through the design thinking process. Typically, ideas come out for all types of possibilities and visions for the future about how is truly inspiring. You can host a Jam in your city too! Go here if you are interested. http://planet.globalsustainabilityjam.org
If you are in Portland over Halloween weekend and want to join the event check out this page: http://www.ecocreativestrategies.com/jam.html
Design for Decomposition
Prevention is better than prescriptions. Design for Decomposition is a preventative measure for the challenges that reusing materials can bring. It's also a standard I would like to develop and promote maybe even into a certification program. The idea is to highlight product designers and producers who choose materials that can be composted or will easily decompose after the use of the product. This was the idea behind compostable corn based plastics and the "not a new" concept of using natural fibers and not synthetics. This not only keeps the energy used to produce this material more ecological (using the sun), but also this supports fiber farmers and ranchers, not the petroleum industries.
The Design for Decomposition concept can really shine in the single use disposable arena, such as coffee cups, to-go packages, forks and knives, water bottles. Companies that are using bamboo or wood or even recycled cardboard are thinking much further a head to the longevity of their sourcing and the waste their product creates. Ideally, a company that is adhering to the Design for Decomposition standards could close the loop on their business by having their growers connect with composting industries to supply any compost they might need to grow bamboo, trees, grasses or other fibers such as industrial hemp.
Cradle to Cradle covers the idea of designing for decomposition as well in the systematic design program they have. I'm promoting the idea of this standard for companies that might need that extra push to think about using naturally degrading materials, things that will decompose quickly, and to consider making with purity in their products. A wool sweater for example, perhaps mixing it with a synthetic fabric will help keep it from shrinking, but when it's thrown in the landfill it will take decades to decompose. In contrast, a sweater that you have to learn to care for made of 100% wool will likely be a higher quality product and one to develop a caring relationship for, it could last longer and decompose faster or be more easily reused as insulation for example.
This is a back to the future concept. Something simple we have lost touch with. Our ancestors didn't leave us mountains of trash to deal with. Why was that?
Here is a picture from Buddha jeans a sustainable clothing lifestyle company that is prioritizing using biodegradable synthetic fibers. It's interesting to know really how fast do these fibers degrade and in what conditions. I think this new fiber technology is interesting but I'd rather wear natural fibers like silk, wool, linen and hemp.
What does closing the loop mean? Currently we take, make, waste - a linear use of material goods that is wasteful and unsustainable. To close the loop, one must design in terms of the full cycle of materials. It really means creating systems or relationships that interconnect the processes of where things come from, how will it be used, and where is it going after use. For example, if you make silk clothing and you want to close the loop and have a thriving business. You would consider every aspect of how you do business. You'd want to support the overall environment of the silk producers so that you ensure you have silk and you know where it’s coming from. You could support the silk weavers by buying from them individually or with a silk buyers club to get bulk shipping rates. Then as a part of your sales and marketing you offer a percentage of sales to go to reforestation or water sanitation for the area of where your silk comes from to support the ecology and the people that live there while ensuring their practices are environmentally and socially just. This could happen through direct relationships or through a nonprofit partnership, which is also beneficial to your marketing legitamacy. Your choice of using silk in the first place is a material that is designed for decomposition - it will decompose to dust safely. So you must think about the design of the product itself. Moreover, a buy back or credit program that allows customers to trade in their old clothes for a credit or coupon could enhance long term sales and customer loyalty. All this while the returned silk items could be shredded or refashioned into another product or material you sell to a business. The fact that your business is thoughtful, efficient, and proactive in strategic partnerships will attract customers that will support your work.
This is a quick example of how system or program design in your business or organization closes the loop through relationships, conscious business practices, and system designs that respect for where materials come from and where they will go after typical use. Join the circular economy by having programs that close the loop and make you shine from all angles.