Circular Design-2018

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Zhiyuan Wu
Craig Tyner


Why did we choose Circular Design?

Circular Design is a new, interesting movement that is particularly relevant, as we can see more and more how mankind is adversely affecting our planet. There will come a time in the near future when we can no longer purchase and use products the way we currently do, and some argue that that time has already passed. To that end, we must be ready as designers to rethink how we treat the entire concept of use and ownership. Circular Design forces us to consider this when creating new systems and processes, to ensure the things we make are ecologically and socially responsible, and will only become more relevant as time goes on.

  • The objective of Circular Design is to create a cycle that encourages Social Responsibility.
  • By mimicking the natural world around us, where nothing is wasted and only used by another, we can reduce wasteful, short-term product use cycles in favour of more long-term, environmentally friendly solutions.
  • It was formerly known as “Sustainable Design”

Areas Explored in the Seminar

  1. What is Circular Design?
  2. Why is Circular Design important?
  3. How can we use Circular Design?


The world is heading towards a crisis point. We can no longer continue to use raw resources at the current rate and expect our standards of living to increase. For every high value product that a first-world country uses, someone suffers to create it in a third-world country. We are trapped in a linear product use cycle, where we purchase, use and then dispose and where first world economies currently use far more than they need out of simple greed and capitalist marketing. Circular Design is an ethos that we no longer need to buy new items, and that every product can be interlinked in an intersecting chain of economies that encourage reuse and remanufacturing, rather than recycling and disposal. In the natural world, there is no such thing as waste, only resource opportunities for other species. If we apply this thinking to our own products rather than animals, we can see that there are so many chances we overlook to save energy and materials. This is where the name "Circular Design" comes from. It uses the cycle of Use - Gain value - Alter - and Reuse to ensure something stays a part of our lives for as long as possible before returning to the earth.

There are 4 major tenants of Circular Design

  1. Nothing Is Wasted.
    "Waste is nothing more than a design error." Why would a good designer willingly create or use a process that destroys their home planet? By removing the need for waste, a designer, like a natural process, can ensure that their product is using only what is needed, no more and no less.
  2. Build Resilience Through Diversity
    In the natural world, if a species is solely dependant one only one other for survival (e.g. Red Knot birds are dependant on Horseshoe Crab eggs for migration energy) they are in a delicate balance where if the population of the other species plummets, (as has happened to Horseshoe Crabs) then they too will become endangered. We can apply this to our own circular economies by building many different relationships between businesses and processes, so that no one step can bottleneck or destroy a system due to unexpected external forces.
  3. Work With Energy From Renewable Resources
    Our current energy resources will be outstripped by demand in 2040, according to conservative estimates. Only through prompt investment in renewable resources such as wind, solar, tidal and others, can we hope to meet the coming needs f future generations. Without this energy, we can't hope to power our processes and economies.
  4. Think In Systems
    How Circular Design really distances itself from Sustainable Design is in the idea that no product is an island. Each is affected by and can effect a range of other product life cycles. The resources used can be used in the start and end of other product cycles. Some product life cycles can become systems themselves, such as phone service plans, which have essentially become long rentals. Uber and AirBnB have commercialised the unused time spent in cars and houses, although this is less of a circular design system and more of a hypercapitalisation of other people's assets.


Circular Design is important for the reasons mentioned above. We're stuck in the mindset that the linear process of use and dispose is the only or best option. It is a cultural issue and is also dangerously short-sighted. Worse, now that other countries have started to imitate the developed world's way of life, the amount of refuse and waste is set to explode as the world already cannot handle the amount of waste we generate. The energy and labour we used to create the world around us is not as easily found as it was in the past. We cannot continue to abuse and discard human lives in order to manufacture our newest technologies. These are the inevitable outputs of a linear economic cycle. So since we find ourselves here, what are we currently doing with our waste? Our primary 3 options are:

  1. Dispose
    The vast majority of our waste is sent to landfill. In more densely-populated economies, such as the UK, they are forced to export their waste as they simply do not have the space to deal with their own refuse.
  2. Recycle
    Although Ireland is one of the better recycling contributors in the EU, with over 30% of our waste being recycled as of 2016, we are still a far cry from a reliable self-sufficient economy. Denmark recently became one of the first countries to become energy self-sufficient, exporting more energy than they produced and recycling almost 80% of their household waste.
  3. Reuse
    The smallest percentage of the leftover waste is reused multiple times in other fashions. Some plastic containers are reused for plant pots. Some newspapers are used as bedding for pets. Some clothes are re-tailored. All these are commendable and show a circular mindset, but are occasional exceptions rather than the norm.

Why is recycling a last-resort?
Despite the welcome push for a greener economy in the 90's with school education programs, recycling is not a magical solution for all the world's resource problems. For one, it's an extremely energy-intensive process. It doesn't solve the need for huge amounts of energy in the manufacturing process, it just mitigates some of the material extraction needs. Second, it removes any emotional attachment that had previously been built with the product over it's life cycle. When a product is used, it creates an emotional connection with the user. It becomes more than just a thing, it becomes theirs. This is removed when a part is melted and reforged, but is retained when returning the part to a secondary use cycle. A part that has had a previous lifecycle is already unique, and while that may cause issues with systems requiring absolute precision, it also makes the part special.

The Circular Design cycle is a new wave of thinking that can create entirely new industries and jobs, the same way Uber has created an entirely new class of drivers. Unfortunately it also requires a buy-in on a large scale. No single industry can pivot on a coin, but we can slowly make the switch, as Philips has been starting to do in recent years.

As an example of non-circular design, as part of the seminar we asked the class about the BIC Cristal pen. It's the most commonly known ballpoint pen, with over 100,000,000,000 manufactured since it's inception in the 60's. We asked how many components might be in such an item, where they came from and how eco-friendly it was.
The answer was "not at all". These small items are some of the worst items responsible for global pollution, due to their tendency to slip through the cracks of the traditional recycling process. They're simply too small to care about. They're composed of 5 parts, of 4 different materials, only one of which is recyclable. The materials are mined from all over the planet and transported to a single place, where they are packaged, shipped to shops before being, sold and then disposed. A thought experiment is to envision how that process could be made infinitely more environmentally friendly and socially responsible. Reference:

Some might say that circular design doesn't make sense from a business standpoint, and that the use and dispose model is infinitely more profitable, but you only need to look as far as Philips, the dutch electronics manufacturer to see how they're selling the concept to shareholders.


So how can we create circular systems and economies? We can think of circular manufacturing processes as 4 different ideas:

  1. Maintenance.
    Maintenance is more of a common systems design idea. If a product has many moving parts, why not ensure each of them are kept in working order, replacing them when needed? We see this already with cars and white goods.
  2. Refurbishing.
    In refurbishing, the product can be bought at a reduced price by a specialist to restore it to working order. This is a common practice with laptops, who's internal workings are overcomplicated for the average consumer to fix when it breaks, but which is still flexible enough to be fixed, improved and resold (like a house).
  3. Remanufacturing.
    In refurbishing, the responsibility is on the manufacturer to take the product back and reuse the materials and parts to create it anew. We see this commonly used with phones, and will probably see this come up a lot more with larger goods, as the idea of permanently renting your devices is a lot more appealing to the younger people, who tend to move houses a lot more than previous generations.
  4. Reuse.
    As mentioned previously, Reuse is the act of taking a product at the end of its life cycle and beginning a new one wholesale with little or no alterations.

These processes can be found in the IDEO "Butterfly Diagram". This is a common way to demonstrate "Circular Flows".
IDEO Butterfly Diagram

The idea behind the diagram is to create as small a circle as possible, while returning the resources to the consumer. The farther out one has to go, the more energy is needed, the less responsible the system. As we can see, recycling is the last resort. You can also see an interesting element that is "Cascades". Cascades occur when a product or part moves from one lifecycle to the next, and to the next with minimal changes. Think like a TV screen that's then used as a window, that's then used as crushed glass paving.

There are plenty of circular opportunities in our world right now if one only thinks to look for them. We waste massive amounts of food that can be more effectively used for things like compost.
Some products are being treated as a rental service:

  • Blue Apron (meal ingredients)
  • Steam (computer games)
  • Adobe (Editing software with annual updates)

IKEA plans to replace it’s polystyrene with a biodegradable Mushroom-based packaging material:
Can you think of any others?

Philips: Philips developed a “Light-as-a-service” model for RAUArchitects in Amsterdam and found it to be far more efficient, now expanded the service to something called Pay Per Lux:
Philips' Sustainability Program plans to have:

  • 70% of turnover from green revenues and 15% from circular revenues
  • Carbon-neutral operations, 100% renewable electricity
  • Enhanced supplier sustainability to deliver structural improvements
  • Is using Circular Design models to improve its MRI scanner business

The Design Game--Circular Venture

The design game we chose to use was originally created by IDEO and is called "Circular Ventures".
The overall objective is to choose a number of seemingly separated industries and find commonalities to allow them to interface with each other through input and output materials and translating them into new products.

  1. Introduction
    The players are divided into groups of 4. Each player chooses a company to represent, preferably one in a different industry to the others, that they're quite familiar with. Each participant fills out their company card and introduces themselves, reads their card and places it on the poster.
  2. Building Assets
    Each participant fills out their superpower cards, at least one per category (assets, waste, ecosystem). Keep extra cards handy in case other more relevant superpowers come to mind later in the exercise. Each person shares their organisation’s superpowers.
  3. Applying Resources
    Read one challenge card at a time to the group and place in the centre of the table. Get them to think about “Which of your superpowers could be a part of the solution?” and ask them to quickly place on the table any cards that may be relevant at the challenge. Repeat the process for each of the 4 challenge cards. ​The group chooses one or two challenges that they feel best positioned to address together. At least two people must collaborate. Tape the challenge card on the poster.
  4. Building Relationships
    What superpowers could each organisation contribute? Any new superpowers that did not come up before that we should add? Draw the relationships and connections on the poster using your superpower cards.
  5. Product Brainstorming
    Brainstorm business ideas: ​How might we work together to create value and address our collaborative challenge? How could a circular business or service better serve user needs? Synthesise your venture concept:​ fill out the bottom part of the poster. Come up with a brand and description for your venture. How does it create value for business, people and the planet?
  6. Final Proposal
    The teams present 1 concept in 3-5 minutes each.
Group 3 presents their idea

You can download the full game of Design Ventures here:

The Workshop

During the two hour workshop, the class played the design game mentioned above.
In general, the game is not designed to be an exciting game, but rather a thoughtful look at the potential impact we all hold. Nonetheless we still saw some very interesting results.

Group 1

Group 1 found themselves with an interesting mix of companies. By including such companies as Puma (sports shoes and clothing) and McDonalds (fast food) they proposed a kind of credit rental system whereby individuals could have a kind of join gym/food membership, where they could eat unhealthy food and be incentivised to work it off afterwards! While the initial idea may sound quite similar to a simple shopping mall, the shared credit system was where the integration focused. As a businessperson, you want your customer to spend as much time under your roof as possible. By including more features within their business, the combination restaurant.gym could become somewhat of a shopping mall-within-a-mall. By sharing assets and resources, both companies would potentially benefit from such a union.

Group 2

Group 2 wanted to integrate Aldi, a chain of supermarkets, with, among other things, tech companies to provide a unique smart shopping experience that could all at once track you dietary needs and shopping list, as well as reusing the large venue after hours for events through moveable shelving and crowdsourcing data. By attempting to integrate all four companies into the concept, it ended up being quite spread out and difficult to conceptualise.

Group 3
Group 3 included tech giants such as Uber and Microsoft, with some smaller educational firms. Their proposal asked if Uber drivers could gain credits during their work for upskilling, in the form of educational lectures which could be delivered via the app.The Uber app takes pride in removing as much human effort as possible to the taxi service, but the potential lies there for that removed time to be replaced with something. As very few individuals treat working for Uber as a long-term goal, why not allow them to be productive with their time? This allows the flow of new drivers to continue to cycle through the system, as well as providing a valuable community service, as well as also making the platform seem like a much more attractive option for earning money.

Since there was no limitation when everyone was choosing the company they wanted to represent, the companies in each group ended up being very diverse. In this situation, it challenged the groups in a different way by using their skills as role-players in the place of seasoned co-operative business-men and -women.






Our presentation:

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