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We need to radically rethink how we design...our Lives

The material choice, lightweight and cost-effective; the colour, immediately signalling the brand. Design is at the heart of every product and at the heart of the systems around it, from the supply chains needed to make it, to the business models that deliver it.

Design decisions determined where the material was sourced, the colouring agents used, and the machinery that pressed and formed the product. They influenced how the final product were individually wrapped, bagged, boxed, and sealed – and how they were shipped and delivered to retailers around the world.

Design powerfully shapes our desires, sparks our imaginations, and fuels our aspirations – influencing our purchasing behaviours through the use of seductive campaigns that feed our need for the new, the next, the better.

Throughout any product’s journey to market, many people – not only those who call themselves designers – impact how we design, make, and use the things around us. Architects, material scientists, business strategists, branding creatives, engineers, makers, and many others also influence design decisions.

Yet in our current linear ‘take-make-waste’ system, even the most carefully designed products are discarded, generally after just one short use. In some cases, items are deliberately designed to last as little time as possible, for reasons of hygiene, convenience or cost. However, such a system overlooks major challenges like resource scarcity, pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss. Today, the production of goods and food contribute to 45% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We have never produced more clothes nor worn them less: every second, the equivalent of a rubbish truckload of clothes is burnt or buried in landfill. Meanwhile, a third of all food produced goes to waste, while people suffer from hunger. It’s not just the materials that are wasted; the embedded energy, resources, and labour, and the social and cultural value of creativity are lost too. Design in a linear economic model has been successful in providing affordable products on a mass scale. But the designed outputs of this extractive, wasteful, and polluting economy are also the underlying cause of climate change and biodiversity loss. In this material- and energy-intensive economic system, most of the goods bought for consumption are not returned for any further use, representing a huge economic loss which amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars. In addition, many people suffer from poor industry practices associated with extractive production: from exposure to hazardous substances or unsafe facilities to the lack of respect for their social and cultural rights.

An unprecedented momentum to move away from this linear system is already underway, and it requires a fundamental transformation of the way we make, use, and reuse products and food. While design has played – and continues to play – a critical role in building and sustaining these broken systems, it can also play a pivotal part in enabling better ones that work for the long term. This means radically rethinking design.

Doing so requires willingness to change but also creativity, capacity, involvement from all sectors, a multiplicity of approaches, and the expertise of many. The challenge is urgent, but the future is hopeful.

Designing with material efficiency is critical, but alone isn’t sufficient. Extracting and wasting less can only buy us time and does not create a model which can work in the long term. For example, modern manufacturing processes can increase efficiency, but the gains are largely incremental. In the food system, progress can be made in productivity and food waste reduction, but the decline of soil fertility and land degradation are still unaddressed. To minimise fossil fuel consumption, waste and production costs, a company could swap the packaging for a flexible film container – this uses half the plastic of the original bottle and is lighter to transport. Combined, these changes help to reduce CO2 emissions. But to only consider the material efficiency without considering what happens to the flexible packaging at its end-of-life overlooks the complete picture. The film, which is not widely recycled, will once again become waste. Rebound effects of design decisions can mean that what is gained on one hand, is lost on the other.

What about using waste as a resource?

Already, solutions which turn waste into resources and products, creating new revenue streams in the process, have emerged: upcycling textile sludge into bricks and recovered plastic bottles into trainer soles are some examples. However, collecting ‘waste’ to manufacture something new is often only the tip of the iceberg and it does not address the energy used and waste created to make the original product, or what will happen to this new creation when it’s no longer wanted or needed. Simply designing with waste, rather than designing out waste, tackles only part of the problem. Rather than designing a pair of trainers with ocean plastic, designing trainers to be more durable and repairable, and plastic bottles to be reusable, can ensure both stay in the economy. This isn’t about retaining them for just one extra cycle, but ensuring that they never become waste at all.

What about recycling?

Recycling brings real benefits: it reduces litter and pollution, and creates millions of jobs globally. But believing recycling will solve the world's environmental problems only lulls us into a false sense of security. With most recycling of materials such as paper and polyester, we lose quality.

Our leaky systems also mean that we lose quantity of material. An aluminium can – with a recycling rate of 90% and a useful product life of 3 months – would be entirely lost after 4 years. Perfect collection systems and sorting facilities don’t exist, even if they did, the inherent limitations of recycling leave us heavily dependent on extraction of new finite materials, and energy to refine them. Recycling alone will not ensure materials are kept in use and at their highest value in the long term. Research shows that material efficiency and recycling play an important role in reducing raw material extraction, biodiversity loss, and CO2 emissions. However, they don’t tackle the root cause of waste and pollution, and require new inputs of energy, labour, creativity, and more each time.

We need to go upstream, to create systemic interventions that design out waste and pollution. The challenge ahead isn’t about treating the symptoms of an extractive economy. For designers, the innovation challenges lie upstream, before waste and pollution are even generated. We need to think about the opportunities for long-term value creation, rather than perpetuating an endlessly linear model.

Design has the power to be transformational, and those at the forefront of change are demonstrating this.

The circular economy is driven by design

The circular economy is a systems solution framework that gradually decouples economic activity from resource consumption, and helps tackle global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution. The circular economy offers opportunities for better growth that not only contribute to creating more resilient systems but also provide society-wide benefits such as a healthier environment.

Policymakers, at all tiers of government from cities to international institutions, are also turning to the circular economy as a critical economic development approach. Moving beyond downstream responses, such as better waste regulations, the circular economy is increasingly being recognised as an approach that supports policymaker priorities of harnessing innovation, providing a fresh approach to how we produce and consume, and addressing the interconnected challenges of waste and pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss.

Together with finance and policy, design can help realise the ambitious vision of a regenerative, circular future.

Circular design applies and enables the three principles of the circular economy:

  • Circulate materials and products by designing them to be kept in use, and at their highest value, for as long as possible

    • Consider designing for repairability, upgradability and emotional durability, as well as creating the reuse, repair, remanufacture, and recycling systems and business models (resale, rental, sharing) that allow products and materials to be used more times, by more people, and for longer

Applying the three principles of a circular economy within a systems thinking approach provides a sense of direction for us to better navigate the complexity of systems change. The consequences of interventions designed to shift the system may not always be foreseeable. Using systems thinking to inform circular design therefore helps us to contextualise problems, identify opportunities for systems change, and create the capacity for learning as new information and technology become available.

Systems thinking isn’t an individual exercise, but a collective one. It leans on the interdisciplinary expertise of actors across the value chain, and the experiences of those people invested in – and affected by – systems change.

Circular design involves oscillating from the broad vision and principles of a circular future to the creation and testing of interventions which deliver immediate positive impact and are increasingly circular over time. It is a creative, collaborative endeavour for designers in the broadest possible sense, with the aim of contributing to the plurality of solutions needed to shift economic systems at scale.

source: Macarthour Foundation

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