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Intentional design is pivotal for building circular economies

Design is in every part of our lives — from our home layouts to our city transit maps to the tiles for our smartphone apps and the packaging of every product we buy. But for much of modern history, we have designed to optimize look, feel, and use of these things — without considering how much waste is created at the end of their lives.

That’s where the circular economy has come in. And intentional design is necessary for a circular economy to succeed. 

“The struggle we have with circular economy, like so many systems, is that we can’t stop the existing system, turn the switch off, design a new thing that we think is about as good as it could ever be, and then launch it,” said Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, during the closing session at GreenBiz Group’s Circularity 20 in late August.  

Indeed, that is not the way the world works. “We have to be working in and around at the edges of the system constantly and changing it constantly. And it will never stop,” Brown continued.

During Circularity 20, there were over 20 sessions related to design because of its huge role in shifting from our current linear economy to a more circular economy. Here are three key takeaways about the value of intentional design in the circular economy that companies should know.

1. Leveraging design — and designing out waste — is pivotal for creating circular economies.

Designers at companies across industries need to be supported as they design with circularity in mind. During a breakout session at Circularity 20 about leveraging design for circular momentum, I was reminded of the work The North Face is doing (in collaboration with the Renewal Workshop) to teach its designers about circular economy principles so that they can implement them as they are designing products.

The struggle we have with circular economy, like so many systems, is that we can’t stop the existing system, turn the switch off, design a new thing that we think is about as good as it could ever be, and then launch it.

Designers and creators can have a tremendous influence on material flows, so if they are equipped with the tools to design with circularity in mind, we could establish the models needed to create circular economies that benefit the environment.

“If a circular economy starts at the design stage — and hopefully we agree that it does — are you really inspiring, equipping and empowering your design and creative teams in your organizations to drive this shift?” asked Joe Iles, editor-in-chief of Circulate, the content arm of the circular economy organization Ellen MacArthur Foundation, during the breakout session.

During the session, Iles shared an image that he took during a walk. It was a pile of items that had been thrown out, and it included Henry the Hoover, a vacuum cleaner, and its packaging that had a note about the product being built to last. Yet, it was there, in a pile of rubbish.

Iles pointed out that a circular economy requires a fundamentally different approach to the design stage of all the products, services and systems around us. At the core of this approach are the three principles of a circular economy: designing out waste, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

“Absolutely everything has a design stage,” he said. “Throughout this process, design decisions really influence whether a product stays in the economy providing value or is lost as waste.”

2. Durable design has lasting impacts. 

In addition to potentially decreasing the amount of waste that makes its way to the landfill, designing for durability can actually increase customer loyalty.

One of the questions people often ask is if having durable products means that people are buying less, said Christine Riley Miller, director of sustainability at Samsonite, luggage manufacturer and retailer, during a breakout session about making the case for durable design.

“The truth is that people’s travels needs change over time,” Miller said. For example, a college student could eventually become a business traveler or they might go camping. The needs for all those instances are different. With that in mind, Miller said that durability is baked into Samsonite’s DNA. 

“People often want to upgrade, replace or purchase new products and, and when they know they can buy a product that they can count on, they can pass that old product on to friends or family,” MIller continued. “And they’re going to come back all the time to our product because they like the features. They know that we’re known for innovation and durability, and they can count on that product withstanding the rigors of travel.”

If we’re going to move towards a more kind of equitable end result in terms of these systems, we actually have to include more people in the process of design.

3. We have the ability to design a better world for all of the people in it. But we must be aligned on what it looks like.

During the event’s closing session with Lauren Phipps, director and senior analyst for the circular economy at GreenBiz, and Brown of IDEO, about how to design for the future, Brown noted that one of the fundamental definitions of design is to “describe things in the future in order to make them relevant in the present.”

For example, he pointed to Apple’s Knowledge Navigator, a video that aligned a set of industries around what the future might look like. What was imagined in the future at the time, is now our present.

“I think we have the opportunity — no, actually the necessity — to do the same thing around many, many different aspects of what the circular economy needs to be,” Brown said. “The systems [are] more complex now. We need many, many more stakeholders to get aligned. But we have shown examples of it in the past.”

Equity is a theme that came up frequently during the event and Phipps also brought that into this conversation, asking about how human-centered design can ensure that the people who are often left out — for example, communities of color, those from low-incomes or who are differently abled — are included as stakeholders design something better.

“It’s about inclusion in the process as much as there’s inclusion in the end result,” Brown responded. “If we’re going to move towards a more kind of equitable end result in terms of these systems, we actually have to include more people in the process of design.”

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