Re-inventing the wheel?

by agwelch

Feature for New Design magazine on IDEO’s thinking around the circular economy

How might design thinking change our approach to consumption? Alistair Welch speaks to IDEO’s circular economy expert Chris Grantham

What do we mean when we talk about the circular economy? If anyone is equipped to answer this complex question it is Chris Grantham, the circular economy portfolio design director at IDEO. “For me, it is a system that enables the re-use of materials enabled by services and data across biological and industrial materials. It’s an economy that’s designed to be regenerative,” he says. Clearer now?

In exploring the potential of the circular economy, IDEO has considered the role that design might play in ‘closing the loop’ of production and consumption – that is moving from the traditional linear ‘take-make-dispose’ model to an economy where materials, nutrients, and data are continually repurposed.

In collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, IDEO recently launched ‘The Circular Design Guide’. This online resource, developed with input from leading businesses, students, and specialist design institutions, is intended to drive awareness of the circular economy and offer a practical guide for the application of circular principles to organisations.

Grantham explains that IDEO’s thinking around the circular economy is in line with its broader work as a global design consultancy addressing the future of products, services, and systems. “We want to help organisations adapt to the right mindset and develop the creative capacity to be good at innovating within the circular economy,” he says.

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Chris Grantham, IDEO

IDEO is building on the stated aims of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation around inspiring a positive future through the framework of a circular economy. Many of the ideas have their roots in MacArthur’s sailing career. During her 2005 record-breaking circumnavigation MacArthur needed to account for every gram of equipment and food on board her yacht. This experience made her question prevailing attitudes towards consumption and disposal. Her Foundation brings together work in areas such as ‘cradle to cradle’ design strategy and biomimicry under the umbrella of circular economy.

Embedding a circular economy requires holistic vision. This is not just a topic for product designers but a matter of culture change across businesses and organisations. Asked how radical a shift in thinking the circular economy represents, Grantham argues that whilst certain seeds of change are already in evidence, it is incumbent on businesses to significantly change ways of thinking.

“It’s all very well addressing a single product or single product line, but we see very few businesses wholly embracing the mindset of the circular economy,” he comments. “There are massive shifts to the way in which an organisation needs to think, for example around competition. Companies may need to work collaboratively in a pre-competitive way with sworn enemies to create infrastructure around material take-back and recycling.”

Whilst calling for organisation-wide change, Grantham, who before joining IDEO in 2010 worked in a variety of brand consultancy positions, admits that it is “very disruptive” for a business to go completely circular. As a result, many big businesses are looking at spinouts or particular divisions in which they might introduce and trial circular concepts.

However, thinking big should be the target. “I think true circular innovation is purposed from the top and is totally-cross functional within the business,” asserts Grantham unapologetically. “That sort of stuff is rarely happening in a holistic way in big companies, but we’re starting to see more tactical, more immediate innovation around value circular creation opportunities and new business lines.”

Amongst IDEO’s work in this space are ‘provocation’ blogs, essentially thought experiments intended to encourage us to think differently about the relationship between manufacturer, product, and consumer. Grantham cites the example of jet engines. In this industry the engine’s manufacturer typically retains ownership of the asset. The user is spared the Capex cost of buying the engine outright and the manufacturer can upgrade parts as they become available; it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement that has allowed the industry to scale. Might different models of ownership change the way we think about consumer goods?

IDEO has also proposed a means of using new technology to encourage circular behaviour. Imagine your trainers have reached the end of their useful life – you’ve done a few miles and perhaps the sole is wearing thin or they might even smell a little unfortunate. Normally, you’d just throw them away before buying a new pair. What if you could take the shoes back to the store where they could be 3D scanned and that data used to 3D print an instep so a new pair would perfectly fit your feet. The store could then recycle the used shoes, returning useful material to factories. Might such a model turn recycling from a virtuous chore to a feature built in to an irresistible shoe service.

What about the food and beverage sector? We all know that not only is food waste itself a problem, but so is dealing with the extraordinary amount of packaging waste that accumulates from our eating and drinking habits. A circular intervention might involve introducing generic packaging across brands that enables far easier re-use, recycling or nutrient recovery, depending on the type of product. Brand identity might move from the pack to the online point of purchase or be displayed differently, perhaps projected onto the generic pack by your fridge?

Grantham contends that the circular economy is a more cohesive, more all-encompassing way of thinking about sustainability. “The circular economy will get us to a more sustainable future,” he says. “The problem with ‘sustainability’ as a concept was that it means different things to everyone, it wasn’t a process or a mechanism for change. The circular economy is not a perfect model, it continues to develop, but it is an organizing idea towards a sustainable future – to me as a designer it means more to me than sustainability ever did.”

IDEO’s design heritage is helping the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to develop a clearer proposition of how the circular economy might work. “Design thinking is very much a philosophy that says let’s prototype a potential solution, let’s build something, let’s test it as quickly as we can as close to the market as we can,” comments Grantham. “Furthermore, we have been using IDEO’s brand to bring the circular economy in front of a large audience of designers and business folk and present it as a potentially game changing framework – a huge value creation opportunity.”

He continues: “In the circular economy, design is never done, it’s not a linear process. Your waste might be valuable to another business – for example a handbag designer might sell leather offcuts to a shoe business or a sugar refinery could pump carbon dioxide into an adjacent tomato greenhouse. This is called industrial symbiosis and there is a lot going on in this space where we can help business.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is likely to be a key driver of the circular economy. Products that are able to communicate data with other products and a central system offer opportunities for circularity. Take, for example, a blender: the product could be designed so that if it sits in a kitchen cupboard for two months unused, it puts itself up for sale on Ebay. Incorporating such feedback loops will be part of the designer’s broadening remit. “Designers will need to think about the enabling conditions for a product, service provision around it, and how it will incentivize others in the supply chain to work in a different way,” says Grantham. “The circular economy, we always say, is a huge creative task rather than being one with a road map or textbook. It’s one big giant messy design task.”

To stimulate development of the circular economy the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched a $2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, which aims to accelerate innovations in product design and materials science. The Prize, funded by Wendy Schmidt, consists of two separate $1 million challenges.

The Circular Design Challenge, run with OpenIDEO as challenge partner, asks innovators to consider how we can get products to people without generating plastic waste. “30 per cent of small format plastic packaging (such as sachets, straws, lids and so on) is hard to capture into recycling systems,” explains Grantham. “We want to look at these ‘leaky’ items that aren’t economical to collect or, literally, blow away. We might see an innovation in coffee cups, or a simple way of recapturing a straw in the body of a container it came from.”

The parallel competition, the Circular Materials Challenge, is seeking ways of making all plastic packaging material recyclable. “A percentage of plastic waste could definitely be tackled by new materials science,” adds Grantham. “This is an R&D challenge aimed at specialist material businesses or university faculties that are developing new to world materials.”

It is hoped that these challenges, with their attractively large prize funds, will encourage innovative thinking in addressing the particular problem of plastic waste and, more generally, spark a conversation around the circular economy and its benefits.