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Sustainable Living Q1 2023

To effectively scale a circular economy, we need to redesign ‘design’

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Fabian Montano

Emma Elobeid

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Our current economic model, built on a broken linear system, doesn’t work — not for people, not for businesses and certainly not for nature.

Tackling the interconnected challenges of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss is more urgent than ever. The good news? Momentum towards a circular economy — eliminating waste and pollution, circulating products and materials and regenerating nature by design — has never been greater.  

Each innovation in this space helps us to reorient towards a future which not only works for people, business and the natural world but provides positive and long-lasting change.  

Designing a circular economy 

Design doesn’t just determine the constituent parts of our economy — the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the objects we value — but the social constructs that underpin them. From processes and policies to measures and mindsets, these intangible aspects of design have as much potential to shape (or stifle) what is possible as their physical counterparts.  

Product-level considerations like composition, durability and repairability are equally important. But redesigning a system as complex as the global economy needs more than a materials approach. It requires designers — of all kinds and at all levels — to work to their biggest brief yet.  

By envisioning circular futures, designers can free themselves from the ‘here and now.’

Interpret, collaborate and envision 

Navigating the level of ambiguity that comes with a transformation of this scale can be overwhelming. Based on the experience of design leaders, there are six interconnected areas which can help turn the circular economy from ambition into action.  

Before we design a new system, we need to understand the current one. Designers can start by setting their product or service within a wider context, revealing the areas to create the biggest impact — interpreting the system.  

If we’re going to change the system, we need to work together. Creating the conditions for collaboration across teams, sectors and industries can help trigger the kinds of pre-competitive arrangements needed to scale a circular economy.  

By envisioning circular futures, designers can free themselves from the ‘here and now.’ Taking time to imagine the impossible, and asking how to make that future possible, makes it easier to design the steps that will get us there.  

Build, rewrite and develop 

We can’t design what we don’t understand. Building circular design capability by identifying (and then bridging) knowledge and skills gaps will help convey a circular economy mindset throughout your entire organisation — not just to those with ‘design’ in their job title. 

Circular design isn’t a checklist or a set of technical instructions. Nevertheless, knowing when to rewrite the rules can help define what ‘good’ looks like in a circular economy and, ultimately, accelerate change.  

In the journey from linear to circular, decision-making will take a different shape. Thinking and acting in new ways is not always straightforward. Developing tools to design and evaluate will help designers (and everyone around them) keep the overall goal — a fully functioning circular economy — in mind and practice throughout.   

These circular design strategies can be applied in any organisation to unlock potential and help the world move toward a future in which people, business and nature thrive together.  

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