A crash course on circular design

C2 team

The linear economy is a dead end. Crazy talk? Consider this: by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. So what’s next?

Instead of the “take, make and chuck it away” thinking that has underpinned the traditional linear economy, the circular economy aims to repurpose every part of every product and any resources used during the manufacturing process. Proponents say the circular economy could reduce our carbon output by 50%. The transition to a circular economy will, however, require a major shift in the way products are designed. Enter circular design.

Shifting the mindset, closing the loop

Design has traditionally been about making stuff that has a single life, one that typically finds its conclusion in a landfill. Circular design, however, involves creating products that are recycled and repurposed, planning ahead so that all of their parts stay out of the waste stream. In a nutshell, the product and its materials exist in a closed loop that allows multiple uses and users. And there are loads of potential applications.

For example, circular design may imagine a “use-it-or-lose-it” product which, if not used within a given time frame, would post a message on the web and sell itself.

IDEO’s Chris Grantham hosting a masterclass on at C2 Montréal 2017
Waste is, well, unnatural

IDEO is one of the firms spearheading circular design thinking, and one of their experts in the field, Circular Economy Portfolio Director Chris Grantham, hosted a masterclass on the topic at C2 Montréal 2017.

“In nature, there is no such thing as waste,” said Chris. “There is no beginning or end to the circular design process.”

The Compostable Denim by Freitag is a good example of circular design in action

During his masterclass, Chris challenged participants to imagine products that fit the circular model. Two great ideas that participants came up with were:

  • A recyclable, compostable shoe made from residues of milk production
  • A one-size-fits-all, “Swiss Army Knife” culinary appliance

Think like a circular designer in three easy steps:

  1. Explore the product’s functional and emotional needs. Let’s take the recyclable shoe example from above. It needs to look, feel and function like a shoe, but not leave behind a mess that your great-great-grandchildren will be digging up.
  2. Ideate on better ways to meet those needs by applying circular strategies. Make a shoe that goes from producer to user and then back to the producer then to the user and so on, creating a closed loop.
  3. Develop a rationale (a.k.a., justify its existence):
    • Why is this product better for the user? It reduces the user’s environmental footprint – in a very literal fashion.
    • What makes it circular? The shoe can returned to the producer for recycling or composting.
    • What systems need to be in place to ensure reuse or repurposing? E.g., new shoes are delivered to the user following the return of the old shoes.

The advantages of circular design is that it’s regenerative, aiming to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility over the longest period of time. By optimizing resource yields and preserving pre-existent capital, it’s not only a surefire ecological conscience pleaser, but very effective at extracting maximum value. Which, it goes without saying, is currently not the case. Just how bad is it? We’ll let Chris answer that.

“A major problem with the linear economy is lost value,” said Chris. “Opportunities worth trillions of dollars are lost.”

Ask yourself
Do you see untapped opportunities for circular design products in your industry?

This article was excerpted from the C2 Montréal 2017 Minutes, which you can read in their entirety here.