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Introduction to Circular Design: Design & the Circular Economy

The circular economy has great importance for our world as it is productive and sustainable. Also, the design stage of production is critical in the transition to the circular economy. It is possible to extend the life cycle of the materials and be more efficient with circular design.

Nature constructs circular systems while humans set up linear ones. For this reason, there is no “waste” in nature.

The radical premise of a circular economy is this: a transition from the traditional “take, make, dispose” of the extractive industrial model to a model with a closed cycle in which material and data are continually reassigned.


The principles of a circular economy

As a model that minimizes energy and resource waste in industrial processes, the principles of a circular economy can be summarized as follows:

1. Protect and reinforce natural heritage by managing limited stocks and balancing renewable resources.

2. Optimize resource efficiency by circulating products, components, and materials in technical and biological cycles.

3. Cultivate system efficiency by revealing and designing negative externalities.

This video made by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation summarizes the circular economy quite well:


A circular economy for a circular design

Design is integral in the shift to the circular economy. There’s only so much we can do with products, services and systems based on the ‘take, make, dispose’ model.

By re-thinking and re-designing, we can accelerate the transition to a new model that doesn’t just ‘eke out resources a bit longer,’ but is restorative and regenerative by design.

– Ellen MacArthur, founder of Ellen MacArthur Foundation


The effective circular design

Chris Grantham, portfolio manager of IDEO London, points out that design is central to this transition to the circular economy.

“As a result, any designer working in the modern commercial setting must understand the key principles and be able to apply them in their work,” he said.

Designers and entrepreneurs tend to be familiar with designing for an end user. The effective circular design looks beyond a single-product lifecycle for a single user, to designing a bigger system – one that creates more value by enabling multiple usages and users of that material.


The importance of the design stage

Design has a tremendous impact on the production and usage of commodities. Therefore it is a critical component in the transition to a resource efficient economy.

Studies show that 75 percent of the final decisions on production processes and materials are made during the design stage.

That’s how we, as SHERPA, designed an innovative and functional service experience for MOOV by Garenta.

We started to work right here and right before we hit the road with the team. First, we met with our other companions. Then, we set up project requirements by mentoring all teams during a 7-week period.

Furthermore, we planned the project in full detail. Also, we formed our roadmap according to these requirements.


Comparing design approaches

In his article, Ruud Bakenende, professor of circular product design at the Delft University of Technology, compares the circular design with design for sustainability and design for recycling approaches.

For him, what makes the circular design unusual is its interest in extending the life cycle of products, systems, and components. Moreover, it redefines the economic potential of resources through new business models. We can observe these competencies and potentials in the conducted research.

From the same perspective, SHERPA proposition is in line with the main principles of sustainable design. It can simply be explained as test-driven UX/UI design.

So, SHERPA almost always starts off by analysing a product both qualitatively and quantitatively to report usability issues in a prioritized order.

Then, by building a hypothesis backlog to test ideas and validate or disprove assumptions, SHERPA run test cycles on a regular basis as in agile practices to achieve sustainable growth iteratively.


Flexible working opportunity with the team

Also, instead of operating with a traditional method as most of the agencies today, offering clients an opportunity of subscribing to a studio’s skillset is in parallel with gaining a sustainable approach when it comes to design.

Rather than working in the limits of a defined project, we do allocate our expertise, our skillset to clients in the form of person/hours.

Clients are allocated with person/hours on a monthly basis. They can also assign the team with any projects at hand in line with their ever-changing priorities. This approach gives both sides flexibility.

IDEO CEO Tim Brown emphasizes that one of the main problems that can be encountered while working on complex structures like circularity is too much thinking and failure to take action. This is where the Circular Design Guide comes in.


Circular Design Guide

By collaborating with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, IDEO developed a Circular Design Guide. The goal is to create interest and facilitate the transition to this new-generation economic model.

Circular Design Guide is designed for innovators, entrepreneurs and designers. Therefore, it cultivates system-oriented thinking and shares practical innovation methods

Moreover, the guide offers a series of content including 24 different methods, design-oriented thinking techniques specific to the circular economy and video interviews.

Transition to a circular economy is one of the most important design challenges of our time. For designers, it means rethinking traditional approaches and retraining in circular principles.

This guide was created to provide the tools needed to move from ideas to action, creating solutions for the circular economy that gives businesses a competitive edge and are regenerative for our world.

Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO


In this video prepared for the guide, Brown summarizes his design approach.

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