Designing from linear to circular economy

Event: Circular Design Workshop, “Designing sustainable future”

4th of March, in Maria 01, Helsinki

I had a pleasure to participate in an interesting design workshop, which dealt with the topic that seems to be in the headlines everywhere – circular economy. More specifically, the workshop was about circular design, and from a service design student point of view, this sounded a chance too good to miss. The info about the event promised an introduction to circular design and practical guidance how to use circular design tools, especially from product and service design point of view. Definitely, this was something that I got, and a huge amount of material and tools to go through.

The workshop was arranged by Taival, a management consulting company which provides business, strategy and technology advisory services. The company was founded in 2017, and it currently operates in Finland and Germany. Taival arranges events related to circular economy under the title “Digitally Circular”. Workshop was facilitated by Tapani Jokinen, who works as a Principal Design Advisor at Taival and he has over 25 years’ experience in design.

As mentioned before, during the workshop we were introduced many practical tools that can be used in circular design. However, my aim in this blog post is not to go through all these materials in detail, rather than to discuss the themes and topics that I consider as my main takeaways from this workshop and what kind of thoughts came into my mind as I went through all the provided materials.

Circularity starts with design

From the circularity point of view, decisions made in the product design phase are very important. They affect enormously to environmental pollution, and also to the possibilities for example reusing, remanufacturing and recycling the product. These aspects are very critical from the circularity point of view and it is very challenging to make changes into those features later. That’s why it is important to take these dimensions into account already during designing – and that’s why we need circular design!

There exist terms, that are similar to circular design, such as ecodesign or sustainable design, which can be more familiar and understandable for many. However, the term circular design is nowadays often used, because it describes well that the focus of the design phase should be very holistic, in systems level, and it emphasizes the importance of “closing the loop”.

New mindset of circular design

In circular design, you must have a totally new mindset: waste doesn’t exist. This means that products and services are designed in a way that the waste and pollution are designed out. Waste should be considered as a resource that can be utilized. The focus of circular design is trying to retain the value, and this can be designed through different loops. This means that instead of just thinking about recycling the waste in the end, as in the linear economy, the focus is on how to retain the value the best possible way – through repairing, reusing, remanufacturing and finally, through recycling.

Loops help to follow and design circular flows

The possibilities how to retain the value and in this way extend the life of a product can be thought through following circular flows, which are presented as loops (Figure 1). The inner loops are preferred, as they retain value better than the final loop of recycling, which is important, but considered as the last option.

Figure 1. Four loops of retaining the value (Slide from Jokinen’s presentation)

Loop 1: Repair, maintain and upgrade

First loop describes how the products are kept in use as long as possible. This is done through design by making durable products that are easy to repair and maintain, and also easy to upgrade when needed. A good method for this is for example modular design, which makes it easy to change only a part of a product, if it is damaged. Additionally, modularity enables customising which means that the product is easier to modify to the needs of different users.

Loop 2: Reuse

Second loop focuses on what happens to products and materials after the first use. This refers to reusing products in their original form. Ways to do this are reusing, re-selling and redistributing. This has also increased the interest in sharing economy, which refers to the shift from ownership to access, “product-as-a-service”. Quite often people only need an access to a product for a short period of time, and after that the service provider is able to pass the access on to another user. This is seen to make better use of materials and resources, and through these kind of shared services the result is also that less products needs to be produced.

Loop 3: Remanufacturing

Third loop refers to remanufacturing process. If the remanufacturing is already considered in the design phase, the product is made in a way that all components are easy to replace, if needed, before re-entering the market.

Loop 4: Re-/Upcycle

Last loop is recycling process, where raw materials from the product are recycled. There can also be a process of upcycling, which means transforming for example waste materials or unwanted products into new materials or products.

For me, going through these loops helped to understand that there exists many different possibilities of retaining a value – circular economy is so much more than just thinking about recycling in the end.

As a final sprint in the workshop we prototyped circular system with Learning Factory Lifecycle Design Canvas (Figure 2). That sprint definitely was a concrete reminder of all the different perspectives that should be taken into account in circular design – so many different things, so many different stakeholders.

Figure 2. Learning Factory Lifecycle Design Canvas (slide from Jokinen’s presentation)

Time for redesigning

After this introduction to circular design I surely can understand that transformation from linear economy to circular economy is not an easy one – many things must change. I think, that from the service design point of view one of the most important things is changing the focus to more holistic level, because we have to know and understand how the whole circular system works. However, based on this half-day workshop, I can say, that circular design is definitely something that I warmly welcome to change the way we think about owning and using products. It will be very interesting to follow the future of the circular design – are we going to redesign everything?

Below are links to some of the reference materials provided in the workshop. There are many useful tools and informative materials for those who want to know more about circular design.

Author: Erika Niemi-Vanala

LINKS:

Sustainability Guide

Circular Design Guide

Ellen Macarthur Foundation

 

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