Nine Ways to Design the Circular Economy

Written by Joe Iles via GreenBiz on 11/3/17

In recent years, the concept of circular economy has entered mainstream discussion, with large businesses, startups, designers, academics, students and policymakers embracing this positive framework for change.

The vision of an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design and truly works in the long term has captured the imagination, acting as a powerful stimulus for innovation and encouraging business leaders to find new circular opportunities that have been hiding in plain sight.

The shift to a circular economy demands a systemic approach to change, and while this can result in profoundly new ways of designing, making and using stuff, it can also mean that it’s difficult to know where to get started. By connecting with a global network of other pioneers who are also re-thinking the way our world works, you can find the first practical footholds on the path to a circular economy. 

There’s no time like the present, and on November 6, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is curating the launch of the Disruptive Innovation Festival. The three-week-long online festival of ideas centers around themes like "21st Century Economics," the "Future of Design" and the "Age of Automation." There will be free, live-streamed events on the circular economy, as well as a video playlist on the topic. These nine sessions will be essential viewing for circular economy advocates. 

1. Get the basics 

In an era of resource pressures and stalling economies, we need a new approach to create growth that benefits people, business and the environment. It's time to rethink the whole operating system and build a circular economy that builds capital rather than destroys it. 

In the live studio session, "Just What Is the Circular Economy?", you can learn more about its origins and opportunities. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation team will be joined by Gillian Hobbs from the Building Performance Group at Building Research Establishment, bringing her industry experience to the discussion.

2. See the system

From that bit of plastic wrap that keeps your meat fresh to the piece of clothing you only wear a handful of times before chucking it out, it seems difficult to escape the fact that we are a wasteful society.

So don’t we all just need to do our bit to contribute to "The End of Waste"? If we up our game, make better purchasing decisions and act responsibly, won’t we crack the waste problem? Perhaps not. It sounds like a logical answer, but just looking at behavior change misses out the unseen and the unavoidable. For example, how are our products made in the first place, and how are they stored and delivered? Here we’re talking about the system surrounding a product, and most of us have no say over how that system acts.

3. Find out what it means to be "regenerative"

Hunter Lovins argues that the current economic model subsidizes incumbent technologies and corporate profits while socializing losses, spreading inequalities and impacting ecosystems.

However, she also sees light at the end of the tunnel. She points to the rapid rise of renewable energy, companies that perform better when they have sustainability as a touchstone for innovation, and communities that are taking control of their energy needs.

Taking inspiration from the likes of John Fullerton and Kate Raworth, Hunter proposes we take the approach of "Regenerative Economics." 

4. Harness the power of design

When you hear the word "design," what images come to mind? Do you think of someone sketching products or creating a 3D model? A team making a prototype? A beautiful, timeless object?

John Maeda says that type of design is in the past. Through his diverse career — including work at MIT, the creation of the "Laws of Simplicity," a presidency at Rhode Island School of Design and now at startup Automattic — Maeda says that design has changed forever.

Design truly can change the world, from tackling inequality to improving our cities. In "Design in the Age of Digital," Maeda argues that to have a meaningful impact, designers will need to move beyond aesthetic design and embrace the new frontier: computational design.

5. Create internal buy-in

What’s it like to try and promote the circular economy inside a company that has never come across the term? How do you study and research a new subject area when there is so little academic expertise on the matter? What questions do you ask and how can you pass your enthusiasm on to others? 

Phil Brown, Melissa Poutrain and Thomas Leech, all graduates of the Schmidt MacArthur Fellowship, a Masters program about the circular economy, have grappled with these questions. They have either gone on to work in the corporate space or further research the circular economy at Ph.D. level. In "Circular Economy Under the Radar," find out how they have managed to open doors and change mindsets.

6. Explore operational steps

Many organizations are piloting circular models, processes, products and services, but some struggle to mainstream those approaches. In this session, Atalay Atasu from Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology discusses the means to bring a circular idea or model to life by exploring the concrete operational steps and means to bring circular approaches to implementation.

More specifically, Atalay explores the trade-offs in balancing economic considerations in product-design and business model choices in the context of a manufacturing corporation adapting circular economy principles.

7. Go beyond the idea stage

More than anything else, good ideas need money to help them blossom. If a project has been designed with positive social and environmental outcomes at its heart, how do the people behind it attract the right level of investment?

What’s more, social, environmental and economic issues are complex, and it’s difficult to know whether an action will have the intended effect. This makes it difficult for investors to identify the most relevant acupuncture point.

Impact investor Bill Burckart understands that people in his role need to take a systems perspective on any investment opportunity in order to maximise a project’s potential as well as generate economic returns for his clients. In "Going Beyond the 'Idea Stage'," he’ll speak with Erika Boeing, an engineer and entrepreneur who worked on Project Drawdown and has an exciting renewable energy project in development.

8. Learn from others

Since 2010, Google’s Real Estate and Workplace Services Team has been working toward optimizing the building product industry for human health. In "How Google Sees Circularity and Human Health Working Together in the Built Environment," hear the latest on this quiet moonshot.

9. Put pen to paper

Sometimes you just need to get started. Earlier this year, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO created The Circular Design Guide to help innovators create more elegant, effective and creative solutions for the circular economy. DIF's Circular Design Case is an open call to redesign everyday products and explore the circular design opportunities around them. Learn to "zoom in and out," think in systems as well as reflect upon interventions to make a system more circular.

The best three entries will be able to build professional credentials by receiving the first Circular Design Case award, and the best entry receives a cash prize.