The Role of Design in a Circular Economy: 3 Key Categories

A Deeper Look into the Role of Design in a Circular Economy

By Divya Gujar of the Circular Material Library


Is the circular economy only about reducing waste and increasing resource efficiency, or could it also regenerate ecosystems and social systems? What if design could be a key driver of this regenerative shift? The circular economy is often seen as a technical challenge, with a focus on optimizing material flows and reducing environmental impact.

However, this view overlooks its potential to address deeper systemic issues, such as inequality, poverty, and social exclusion. Design has a critical role to play in this broader vision of the circular economy, as it can help create products, services, and systems that not only minimize waste but also create social value.

In this article, we will explore the role of design in the circular economy from a regenerative and social perspective and discuss how designers can contribute to a more just future. Through this lens, we aim to challenge conventional thinking about the circular economy and inspire designers to embrace a more transformative and holistic approach.

Circular Material Library: 4 materials with photos
A sample of the Circular Material Library

Design for Regeneration

What does regeneration mean? It refers to the process of revitalizing, renewing and restoring the environment and the social setup. Environmental regeneration may involve restoring ecosystems, like wetlands, rainforests, and oceans, that have been spoiled by human activities.

On the other hand, social regeneration creates conditions that support human well-being, like access to education, healthcare and affordable shelter. Regeneration goes beyond just reducing negative impacts or minimizing harm; it actively creates positive outcomes and restores systems to a healthier and more resilient state.

So how does Design for Regeneration differs from traditional circular design?

  1. Priority to positivity: Regeneration goes beyond just reducing negative impacts or minimizing harm; it actively creates positive outcomes and restores systems to a healthier and more resilient state.
  2. Materials for regeneration: product design emphasizes the use of renewable materials like bamboo, hemp, and mycelium-based materials.
  3. Systems thinking: Design for Regeneration does not just consider the loop from extraction to end-of-life, but it also forms interconnectedness with natural and social systems and exhibits the potential for positive feedback loops.
  4. Biomimicry: A well-known example of Design for Regeneration is biomimicry, which implies taking inspiration from nature to design the stuff we use. For instance, Deakinbio tiles are made from captured carbon in the form of carbonate minerals along with plant-derived biopolymer binders. The bio-inspired material has an analogous structure to natural seashells, which are also composed of carbonate minerals infused with natural biopolymers.
grey bricks
Deakinbio tiles

Moreover, designers can also use the principles of resilience found in ecosystems to construct buildings, transportation, and energy systems.

Overall, Design for Regeneration takes a transformative and holistic perspective, while traditional circular design focuses primarily on waste reduction and resource efficiency.

Design for Social Innovation

The circular economy is often presented as a solution to the twin challenges of economic and environmental sustainability, which are undoubtedly critical for creating a more sustainable future. However, rarely the spotlight shines on social sustainability even though it is the need of the hour. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Social innovation is not just a buzzword or a passing trend – it is essential for creating resilient and inclusive societies that can adapt to changing economic and environmental conditions.
  2. Creating an equitable society influences how we interact with nature and how conscious we are of making and disposing of our stuff. Creating new jobs and business opportunities, reducing inequality, and improving access to goods and services can enhance every aspect of the circular economy.
  3. Climate justice has an intrinsic dimension of social justice, and without their symbiosis, a resilient planet is almost impossible.

When we talk about design for social innovation, we aim to address societal issues like inequality and exclusion by applying design thinking principles in ways like these:

  1. User-centred design: Active involvement of users in the design process can create tailored solutions, especially for the marginalized and those living on the fringe of society.
  2. Co-creation: Involving stakeholders in the design process builds trust and ensures effective solutions.
  3. Systemic approach: Going beyond the myopic lens of individual problems and addressing the systemic issues that cause social problems is essential for a well-rounded approach.

Social innovation can only materialize after unwavering experimenting and prototyping, which means testing solutions in the real world and refining them based on feedback. This allows designers to learn from failures and iterate solutions until successful.

An example is the Youth Social Innovation Lab of the Philippines which involved a collaboration between the government, private sector, and civil society to co-create solutions that address social problems, such as poverty and lack of access to literacy.

Materials like Cocoboard also integrate low-income farmers into their production supply chain, while Fishy Filaments works with local fishermen to collect ghost nets, thus harmonizing both social and ecological well-being.

These examples demonstrate the potential of design for social innovation to boost the circular economy worldwide. By applying design thinking, designers can create innovative solutions tailored to the needs of local communities and stakeholders.

Design for Disassambly and Upcycling

Traditional sustainable design approaches often rely heavily on recycling and downcycling as a way to minimize waste and extend the lifespan of materials. While these approaches have some benefits, they also have limitations that can compromise their effectiveness in terms of resource efficiency and quality.

Firstly, recycling requires significant energy and resources to collect, sort, and process waste materials. This process can be inefficient, especially for materials that are difficult to recycle, such as mixed plastics or composite materials. As a result, the resource efficiency of recycling can be limited, and it may not always be the most sustainable or cost-effective solution.

Secondly, downcycling involves converting waste materials into low-quality materials that are less valuable and have limited applications. For example, recycling paper into tissue paper or cardboard is a form of downcycling because the quality of the paper is reduced, and it cannot be recycled again. This approach limits the potential value of the material and reduces its overall resource efficiency.

Finally, circularity often overlooks the importance of material innovation and the development of new, sustainable materials. Instead, it focuses on prolonging the lifespan of existing materials, which may not always be the most efficient solution. New materials can be designed to be biodegradable, reusable, or recyclable, making them more sustainable and effective than traditional materials.

The concept of “design for disassembly and upcycling” involves designing products and systems to make it easier to disassemble and reuse or upcycle their components and materials. This approach can help increase resource efficiency and create higher-value products.

Design for disassembly means creating products that can be easily taken apart into their individual components or materials without damaging them. This allows for the reuse or upcycling of those components or materials rather than just recycling or disposing of them. By designing for disassembly, designers can create products that are not only more environmentally sustainable but also more economical, as the value of the individual components can be maintained.

On the other hand, design for upcycling means creating products that can be transformed into new products with greater value. Upcycling involves using waste materials and transforming them into new, high-value products. By designing products that can be easily upcycled, designers can create a closed-loop system where the need for new resources is reduced.

For instance: Fairphone based in Amsterdam, makes modular phones that can easily be disassembled and repaired. This way of manufacturing not only extends the lifespan of the product but also reduces e-waste and the need to purchase a new phone when only one component is broken.

Another upcoming material is Polyethylene furanoate (PEF), which is a plant-based bioplastic that can be reused and remade into new products, and that too indefinitely! Such plastics that do not lose their quality after disassembly and can be upcycled perpetually are the next-gen innovations waiting to replace fossil-based plastics.

Final Thoughts on Design in a Circular Economy

In conclusion, how can designers contribute to a more regenerative and inclusive circular economy?

Firstly, they can prioritize the use of renewable, regenerative, and non-toxic materials and processes to promote the health of natural systems.

Secondly, they can design for disassembly and upcycling, creating products that can be easily repurposed, extending their lifespan and reducing resource consumption.

Thirdly, designers can embrace design for social innovation, addressing issues such as inequality and exclusion through their design. They can also involve diverse stakeholders in the design process, including marginalized communities, to ensure that their designs are inclusive and meet the needs of a wide range of people.

Finally, designers can prioritize long-term value creation over short-term profit maximization, working towards a circular economy that is regenerative, equitable, and sustainable for all. And in this way, we can create a holistically-designed economy.

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