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Informed Design

Designing Circularity – New Design Priorities for the Coming Circular Economy

January 14, 2022 10 minute read
“Everything is a resource for something else. In nature, the “waste” of one system becomes food for another.”
– William McDonough & Michael Braungart: Cradle to Cradle: Remarking the Way We Make Things

At the inaugural international Design Declaration Summit held in Montréal in October 2017, delegates of 22 associations of designers, architects, urban planners and landscape architects from over 90 countries gathered to affirm the fundamental role of design in creating and shaping the world now and in the future. They concluded the two-day event by signing of the Montréal Design Declaration, which formally recognized the importance of design's strategic leadership as a vital dynamic force in shaping a global environment that will be "environmentally sustainable, economically viable, socially equitable and culturally diverse."

The summit also acknowledged the universal truth that design is dynamic, changing and growing. As a discipline, it has gone far beyond the traditional concept of the visual or tangible artefact into the realm of orchestrating interactions and experiences, even transforming whole systems. Design has claimed a much greater stake in determining the shape of our world and how it functions. Critical choices that determine what this landscape will look like are increasingly being made with the help of designers during the creative process. Critical choices governing how we interact with products, how we value and use them, and, above all, what is to become of them once they outlive their usefulness.

Obviously, choices have consequences. The question is, will our design choices ultimately be destined to end up as waste, another casualty of "take-make-waste" in the linear economy? Or could they become part of something better, with a more promising future in a circular economy, in a place where waste is a valued commodity intentionally redeployed to successive valued applications in an endless loop?

Linear Legacy

Our current economy is based on a linear system of production where we take raw materials and natural resources out of nature, process them into usable goods to meet human needs, and then discard them back into the ground as waste where, ironically, they came from in the first place. The entire system is the exact opposite to the natural systems that have sustained life on Earth for millennia, which are circular, regenerative and the way we humans function on this planet as living organisms. Basically, we've designed a broken system for ourselves that constantly creates waste and loses economic value. A linear economy that is out of step with a circular world.

Linear economies based on the "take-make-waste" model have been driving our innovation, creating external realities that seem inconsequential in the short term but eventually take on a greater significance once they accumulate and start negatively impacting our Earth, oceans and atmosphere. Consider the fashion and plastic packaging industries, for example. More than 80% of all materials in our products and services are destined for landfill or incinerators, with a significant amount leaking out of the system and into natural environments. They are limited to one brief appearance and then are lost from our economy for good. And in the process, all the creativity, labour and energy that went into them is gone too.

The inescapable conclusion here is that the linear economy is no longer viable if humans want to inhabit the Earth for generations to come. There is a growing urgency for change that's never been more imminent and pressing as it is now. Our coastlines, oceans, ice caps, glaciers, forests, harvests and cities are increasingly at risk and left alone and unchecked, they will deteriorate at growing rates over the next decade.

We need a new design thinking regime urgently. One able to deliver lasting products, business models and whole systems that can drive sustained economic growth and slow the adverse impacts that we're causing to our environment. The circular economy offers such a framework. It's founded on the principles of eliminating waste and pollution from the outset, keeping products in use at their highest value point and regenerating the natural systems that occur in nature. It is an economic system where waste is deliberately "designed out" of business operations and where businesses work cooperatively and collaboratively to preserve and restore the functionality of our ecosystems.

Designing Circularity

By definition, a circular economy is an economy that is restorative by design, aiming to keep resources at their highest utility and value at all times. While a linear economy features two unsustainable processes — resource scarcity and excessive pollution — the circular economy alternative overcomes these shortcomings by having waste re-enter the closed production and consumption loop as regenerative resources.

Even though the concept of a circular economy cannot be traced back to a single date or author, rather to different schools of thought, its origins are most often tied to the ecological economist Kenneth Boulding. His 1966 paper 'The economics of the coming Spaceship Earth' argued that a circular economic system is the prerequisite to the maintenance of the sustainability of human life on Earth. In it, he describes a so-called "cowboy economy" as an open system with a limitless natural environment that sounds very strongly similar to the linear capacity that we speak of today.

In the years since his writings, Walter Stahel, William McDonough, Michael Braungart, among others have made important contributions to the subject of circularity. And their work have been complemented by the pioneering work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, whose groundbreaking 2012 report, Towards the Circular Economy Vol. 1: an economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition, effectively built an operational framework for establishing a circular economy fit for the 21st century.

In particular, the foundation has put the circular economy on the map and awakened big business to its many benefits, succeeding in areas where other initiatives failed to take root. More specifically, they've been very effective in encouraging the adoption of its principles, development of business models, processes and the wider economic considerations. In effect, instilling a compelling narrative that's focused on 'doing more good' instead of 'doing less bad.'

Next Steps

There's no doubt that the circular economy clearly has great potential. It gives us the means to reimagine and redesign thoughtful economic systems that prioritize sustainability and long-term resource use and to respect the laws of nature. It challenges us to consider all the possibilities and options of what can realistically be achieved within the confines of our planet.

Over the last decade, interest in the circular economy has been global and meteoric across different sectors of our society within the domains of business, the economy and politics. As a result, its key concepts are being felt in different policy developments in countries around the world as they explore circularity and its implications for their own economic and cultural perspectives.

Within the current backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, our collective fragility and strategies underway for economic recovery, there will perhaps never be a better time to grasp opportunities for making the circular economy into a working reality as we seek to regain our footing and find our own economic strength.


Ian Chalmers, RGD
Principal & Creative Director

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