Design is essential to achieve a circular economy: but only if it manages, even when designing the micro, to grasp the macro issues

What does design have to do with the circular economy? It is a question that is either very difficult or very easy to answer: it all depends on what we mean by the word design.

If we consider design as tinsel, as an aesthetic addition, it is impossible to grasp its strategic role. But when you look at it in its broadest and most correct meaning – as a discipline that underlies all activities related to industrial production – its potentially key role in the transition from a linear to a circular economy is immediately evident.

In fact, there is design – meant as project – in every moment that leads to the creation of value: from concept to production, from distribution to communication to the experience of use. Services, relationships between brands and their audiences and even the end of life of products are also designed.

But that is not all. In fact, there has always been design in all strategies that have led to hyperconsumption, in all the tactics developed over the years by companies (and governments, such as the American one, especially in times of recession) to promote the planned obsolescence of products and therefore increase production.

A very close link with industry has therefore made design an ally in the unsustainability of the economic system in which we live. But precisely because of its almost total adherence to the world of manufacturing and production, today design can be a fundamentally important tool for changing things from within. That is, to move from a system in which value is generated through the extraction of materials, their processing and transformation into products that are sold and then in the vast majority of cases still end up in landfills today; to one in which the value remains in circulation, regenerating itself continuously. A circular economy.

To promote and support this step, however, design must come out of what Leyla Acaroglu (designer and sociologist, Champion of the Earth of the United Nations Environment Program in 2016 and creator of The Disruptive Design Method) calls environmental folklore. That is, considering certain materials (such as wood or paper), production systems (such as those that use recycled materials) and behaviors (such as recycling) as ‘eco’ tout court without including them in a broader perspective. Because many disciplines are needed for sustainability, assessing the environmental impact is a specialist job but fed by multidisciplinarity and multiple points of view.

To clarify this concept, just think of the famous case study of plastic straws compared to metal ones, positioned as the green alternative option as they are reusable. How many times, though? To find out, it is necessary to calculate the impact of the product throughout its life cycle, from the moment the material is extracted to make it to when it is processed until the moment of use and end of life. It is called Life Cycle Assessment and is a fundamental practice – based on scientific data and processes – to design in a conscious way, to act where it is needed and not where we think it is needed (based, in fact, on ‘environmental folklore’).

And so, by calculating that the energy used to produce a single metal straw is equivalent to that used to make 90 plastic straws, we come to see that the CO2 emitted for a metal straw is 150 times higher than that emitted for one of plastic. And therefore only after using a metal straw 150 times will it have less impact than a plastic one.

There are many cases – such as the aforementioned straws – in which the environmental impact of a product depends more on the use made of it by the final consumer than on production and to discover them, a Life Cycle Assessment. Thus it will be discovered, for example, that the cooking process of pasta in our homes has more impact than its transport and the cultivation of wheat than production. And that the greatest CO2 emissions during the entire life process of a t-shirt is the one that occurs through washing in the washing machine. Or, again, that better than the paper bag at the supermarket (although it is recyclable), it would be to take the small bag from home, even if it is made of plastic (indeed, better if it is made of good quality plastic, which lasts a long time).

Sometimes, therefore, to have a positive impact on the environment, a communication campaign designed to change the use that the public makes of a certain object is more necessary than a redesign of the object itself.

Working in this sense means expanding the field of action of design, inserting every design decision in a systemic perspective, that of System Thinking, which has now become a subject of study in design universities and a pivot of so-called disruptive. It works roughly like this: if the request is to reduce the environmental impact of a dryer, a traditional approach is to improve the performance of the existing product, while a systemic one consists in thinking about the final goal (drying the laundry) and finding alternative solutions (which could mean working on self-cleaning fabrics or more performing washing machines).

It seems like a tall order because it is. System Thinking Design is in fact based on the ability to navigate a complexity in which nothing is totally good or bad, in which there is no fear of creating value with something different from traditional production and in which nothing changes thanks to an isolated heroic initiative, but, as the la Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only by virtue of extensive, informed and motivated collaborations between different realities, inside and outside companies. To get to do more with less.

It is not a degrowth, happy or unhappy as it is. But a different way of keeping alive the value of the materials that are already in circulation thanks to a design that is strategic from its start. Which means designing products so that they can be repaired, reconditioned, reusable, shareable and only in the last resort (and better if only in some parts) recyclable. And invent systems to allow companies to earn through strategies other than production alone (in many cases – such as that of Floow2, the marketplace for sharing equipment and business-to-business functions - already in operation, with great benefits for all parties in question).

Buckminster Fuller, the great American architect, inventor and futurologist, said that “things will never change by fighting the existing system but only by building something that automatically makes it obsolete”. As a bridge discipline between people and production, creator of experiences, interfaces and relationships between people, things and services, design has the fundamental role of shifting the focus of its way of making innovation towards the macro – towards the system –, to then deal with the usual care and passion, as well as with much more information, of a micro – the product, the service or the experience.



At the beginning and in the article, the photos of the new Beogram 4000c Recreated Limited Edition, born from the restoration and renewal of the historic Beogram 4000 series turntable, designed in 1972 by Jacob Jensen for Bang & Olufsen. This is the first product to be relaunched as part of the Classics project, aimed at regenerating and reinterpreting the classic pieces from the Danish company's catalog.

“The initiative was born from Bang & Olufsen's commitment to preserve the longevity of products, to offer our customers an object of value even many years after purchase, says Mads Kogsgaard Hansen, at the helm of the Classic project. “In the world of consumer electronics, most products are considered disposable, while ours are built to stand the test of time”. The initiative attests to the timelessness of quality design, as well as revealing the basic principles of the project that can extend the life of future products. An example of a circular design.