Many circular design and sustainability projects are merely greenwashing projects. Such projects seem sustainable but miss impact and are thus mostly a great marketing story. So, what does circularity mean and how can designers contribute to circularity?
In a product development process, you add energy and labor to raw materials to create a product. A complete product has the most value, economically as well as intrinsically. It will be used for a certain amount of time, after which it may be thrown away or put in a cupboard. At his point, the product is losing value fast. Circularity is about preserving the value of the product as long as possible. Reparation, easy upgrades, and reselling are good ways to preserve value for a longer period of time.
If you look at reuse, little energy is needed to create value again. Nonetheless, if you go lower in the pyramid (recycling) a lot of energy is needed to get it back into the circle. Suddenly you need a lot of energy and you are already low in the pyramid. So, what you want with circularity is the creation of a full circle. It’s about adding more added value to a product. This also counts for the energy and the raw materials you put into it. Ideally, you want to prevent value destruction from taking place. Extending the product’s lifespan, but also that people can use it longer in its current form. Making a product that can be easily disassembled for easy repair, replacement, or recycling can add to this process for example.
Something that might sound a bit of a paradox, is that circularity contributes enormously to sustainability, but not all sustainable measures have to do with circularity. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Some activities that are good for circularity will not be regarded as sustainable in themselves. Ideaology prefers to choose something local (e.g. materials) to reduce transport, for example. They not only look at raw materials and used materials but also at the energy and number of actions that can be involved during the whole process.
The modular headphones from producers such as Axelaudio, are a good example of circularity. They consist of different modules, which makes them very personal. Thanks to the modularity, they are also easy to assemble by yourself. If they are broken you can replace the part instead of throwing it away. The companies collect the broken parts and repair or recycle them. The lifetime of a product is elongated, thanks to the possibility to replace and upgrade individual modules. This helps to continue to maintain or increase value, which keeps the design at the top of the pyramid during its entire lifecycle.
Ideaology wants to offer companies to look at circularity at the beginning of the process instead of completely at the end. The team is educated to work in this manner. As a designer at Ideaology, the knowledge about circularity will be updated and given through offered courses.
Starting with designing circular
As a designer, remember what you can influence to make your designs more circular. You can’t make everything right, but you can see where you can make a difference. Which business opportunity does this chance or value destruction bring? If you start thinking in that way, you often come up with very nice ideas that companies rave about. Often they don’t expect it. Eventually, if something sounds groundbreaking, they feel more like they can do something with it; underpromise and overdeliver.
The principle of development as a designer is working from prototypes. However, after testing, what do you do with all those prototypes? Throw it away? That is potential value destruction. But what if you say that you are going to make a prototype that must be reusable? So then you assemble it especially for that. Or you could use this prototype in a school, so they can learn from it. This way you will think very differently about value destruction.
Want to know more about how you can design more circular? (1) Modular products offer many opportunities for both repairs and upgrades, to keep the product at the top of the value pyramid as long as possible. In addition, modular products often also offer great opportunities in the commercial and business model area. (2) Take the supply chain and environmental implications into account when designing. When you can use materials that are produced locally and assemble them in a regional production facility, it saves on travel. (3) Do you have little time or budget for your research? Consult with a buyer, supply chain manager, and/or business developer of the client to quickly find out more about opportunities in this area: they often already have a good idea of the market. (4) Finally, every product has end-of-life. Include disassembly and reusability of parts as a function requirement in your design.
There are, unfortunately, also some pitfalls to take into account. Recycling often sounds like a good solution at end-of-life. In reality, however, recycling costs a lot of energy and money. It seems attractive to first look at user experience and the product design itself before circularity becomes a point of attention. Designing for circularity is seen by many designers as extra work that does not necessarily contribute to the quality of the design. Nevertheless, the process provides extra insights and opportunities that can give creative impulses and give your design the extra oomph that other designers can’t offer. Moreover, it is a lot less work to include circularity at the beginning of the design process than to have to make adjustments later.
Some additional resources on learning about circular design: Products that last – C. Bakker, M. den Hollander, E, van Hinte, and Y. Zijlstra (2019), Designing for a circular economy – M. Charter (2018), free online courses offered by University of Wageningen and TU Delft, intern at companies that have experience in this field.
The Ideaology way of working
Ideaology starts with a concept and then they will start testing with users, get input from co-creations and then further develop. Both for digital and physical products. This seems chaotic, but it provides a lot of added value. Because now, they can combine everything very well. Ideaology looks at what best suits the given problem. To see where the best value proposition comes from. From low-tech to high-tech, because that is the service that has the best chance of success on the market. Innovation is only successful if it is accepted by the market. You talk to customers, they often already have an idea, technology, or problem. And then the trick is to check beforehand whether the question is the actual question, or the problem the actual problem. Ideaology’s strategic way of looking at design cases tackles this.
Interested? Check the website of Ideaology [ideaology.nl] to learn more about what they do!
Jolet van Erum started Ideaology in 2019 with a dream. She studied Industrial Engineering and did a minor in Industrial Design. While working in the industry she was a much sought-after bridge builder in a lot of multi-disciplinary projects. Working on these projects showed her the value that multi-disciplinary people can bring to the table. Yet, businesses usually look for people that are specialized in certain tasks. However, letting people work with their multiple talents brings more value, something that Jolet desired to strive for. Building value for businesses, as well as the stakeholders and users. During her work in the industry, she discovered that businesses mainly want to make money, even when there are sustainable and innovative ideas on the table. Thinking this way can keep people from really making an impact on humanity, society, and the environment.
And that is how Jolet started her dream of making an impact through her own business: Ideaology. Throughout the years, the market was hard, and sometimes things didn’t work out as imagined. Being a smart player, let her do what she desired.
Three important core values make Ideaology the unique company it is today. Working with disciplinary teams offers great opportunities in the design processes. Keeping the level of value as high as possible during the design process as well as the lifetime of the designs. This not only gives a greater return of investment for the clients, but it also helps in making a positive impact on humanity, society, and the environment. Through circular design, Ideaology can create the best value proposition together with a positive impact. As a consequence of their dedication, experience, and multidisciplinarity, they can be deployed in multiple phases of the process. This does not mean that when the design is ready they just deliver it to the client. No, they can remain fully involved in the process. Which provides a lot of value for the client in terms of time, money, involvement, and knowledge.
text Yvonne Bruin
visuals Brent van Herk