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Circular Design According to IDEO

Circular Design According to IDEO


Circular Design aims to meet the expectations of users, consumers, and businesses

Photo by Lysander Yuen on Unsplash

The Circular Design responds to a desire to put the design in a circular economy. The objective is to design services or products adapted to the principles of the circular economy, therefore reusable and recyclable. Design would thus contribute to sustainable economic growth. The definition of Circular Design and its practical application have been clarified with the Circular Design Guide . This tool offers circular innovation methods based on the Design Thinking approach.

Circular Design is a way to apply the concept of a circular economy, stemming from different currents of thought including regenerative design. Traditionally, the economy has followed a linear model: making, producing, consuming, throwing (“take, make, consume, dispose”). This situation leads to ecological problems (overexploitation of natural resources, waste, rejection of materials toxic to the environment). Hence the solution of the circular economy, which requires a new way of thinking about design.

The basics of Circular Design:

  • The choice of materials that can be reused and recycled without loss of quality.
  • Optimizing the duration of the products created (repairable materials, modular design, etc.)
  • The search for energy efficiency during product design.

The circular economy design is therefore linked to eco-design, the blue economy, and the “Cradle to Cradle” philosophy, which is to say the design of a product having a positive impact on the economy, well-being and the environment.

This circular vision of design invites us to conceive the innovative product or service in an ecosystem. The English project The Great Recovery, active between 2012 and 2016, thus proposed 4 design models for a circular economy (Four Design Models for Circular Economy).

  • Design for Longevity: Design for longevity
  • Design for leasing or service: Design for rental or service
  • Design for Re-use in Manufacture: Design for re-use in manufacturing
  • Design for Material Recovery: Design for material recovery
Circular economy diagram according to The Great Recovery

“Re-Thinking Progress” explores how, thanks to a change of perspective, we can redesign the functioning of our economy by designing products that can be “made again” (recycled) and by supplying the system with renewable energy. By combining creativity and innovation, it is possible to build a restorative economy.

Design Thinking and Circular Design

The circular design was sometimes seen as the successor of the Design Thinking concept also popularized by Tim Brown. The version of IDEO and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is similar to a Design Thinking applied to the circular economy. There are certain principles of management and innovation, in particular:

  • A human-centered approach
  • Co-creation and multidisciplinary collaboration
  • Willingness to innovate to find a solution to a problem
  • Use of the visual and iteration
  • Rapid prototypes for better progress

The concept of circular design is now linked to Tim Brown, founder of IDEO, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. IDEO is an agency focused on human-centered innovation.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works to foster the transition to the circular economy. One of the bases is circular economy design.

Design Thinking at the service of the circular economy: Image: Ecodesignthinking.com

Thus was born the Circular Design Guide, first presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2017. This toolbox was designed by business leaders, design specialists, and more than 400 students. We discover interviews with design experts, worksheets, case studies, etc. to apply an innovative design in a circular economy.

Circular Design Challenge

In May 2017, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with the participation of OpenIDEO, organized the Circular Design Challenge. Objective: to propose ideas and innovations in favor of a new plastic economy. Initiatives to put an end to the pollution caused by plastic objects had to meet the following criteria:

  • Integrate into a circular plastic economy
  • Be innovative (new and unique)
  • Human-centered (make life easier)
  • Scalable (adaptable as needed)
  • Relevant (answer a real problem)

Disruptive Innovation Festival: “What if we could redesign everything”?

IDEO and the organization Ellen MacArthur also participated in the Disruptive Innovation Festival. The DIF offers to answer the question: What if we could re-design everything (What if we could redesign everything?).

The Circular Design Case invited to take up this challenge within the framework of the circular economy, between 10 and 19 November 2017. The constraints to be respected were:

  • Mapped system / System mapping (obvious relationships between stakeholders)
  • Respect the principles of the circular economy
  • Answering a change-oriented and action-oriented question
  • Clear and visually understandable
  • Subject to a public vote
  • Magic

The circular design guide is aimed at designers, those who would like to become one, entrepreneurs, and all innovators at large. 24 methods are explained step by step to guide the creation process. They are divided into 4 main phases:

  1. Understand
  2. Define
  3. Make
  4. Launch on the market (Release)
Image: Ecodesignthinking.com

Each of the available tools can be used separately from the others and adapted. It is above all an aid to trigger circular innovation.

STEP 1: Understanding a “circular” thought of a product or service

This first step invites you to understand how to extend the life of a product … By repairing it? By using it differently? Through the use of biodegradable materials? The idea is to represent the circular flow from conception to the reuse stage. Everyone can wonder if it is possible to modify a product/service, or create a better one. Practical exercises allow you to find inspiration and measure its impact on the customer experience, the user experience, the company, and the planet. The practical methodologies are:

  • Understand circular flows
  • Regenerative Thinking
  • Service flip (Imagine how a product can lead to a service)
  • Insides out (see inside to be interested in materials)
  • Inspiration: digital systems (Inspiration: digital systems)
  • Learn from Nature

STEP 2: Definition of the objectives and the circular innovation strategy

This second phase makes it possible to build the strategy around the service, the product, or the start-up in a circular economy axis. Various tools help to carry out actions intended to ensure the future success of the project:

  • Define Your Challenge
  • Find Circular Opportunities
  • Building Team (Building the work team, which must be multidisciplinary)
  • Circular Buy-In (Circular Memberships, Stakeholder Involvement)
  • Circular Business Model (possibly with the help of the Business Model Canvas )
  • Create a Brand Promise

STEP 3: Go to concrete realization and prototype

The research phase ends but first, brainstorming allows the team to propose other ideas. It is still possible to go back to the previous steps to make other choices or correct inconsistencies. Then it’s time to choose the best initiative, technically feasible, useful, and viable. This decision will lead to the rapid construction of prototypes to be tested with users. These stages can be summarized as follows:

  • User-Centered Research
  • Circular Brainstorming (brainstorming in a circular perspective)
  • Embed Feedback Mechanisms (Embedding a way to get feedback)
  • Smart Material Choices (Examine product materials and their holistic impact)
  • Concept Selection (Choosing the best concept from a global point of view)
  • Rapid Prototyping.

STEP 4: Market launch of the product

The product or service begins its real existence in the circular economy. But it will constantly have to check its adequacy with the needs of users/consumers and the company, even if it means changing it. The product created must indeed be part of an infinite loop. The Circular Design Guide proposes to develop the innovation process with various tools:

  • Product Journey Mapping
  • Launch To Learn
  • Imagine New Partnerships
  • Create Your Narrative (Create your story to encourage customer engagement)
  • Align Your Organization (Adjust your organization, your teamwork)
  • Continuous Learning Loops (Continuous Learning Circle to Evolve Product Design)

Circular Design aims to meet the expectations of users/consumers and businesses while promoting the transition to a circular economy. This economic model indeed implies a change in the modes of production and consumption. As an innovation methodology proposed by IDEO and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular design offers working methods linked to new technologies including Design Thinking and UX Design. Its originality lies above all in its taking into account the whole design and production process: materials used, business model, and future of the product or service, to be improved endlessly. This intelligent and responsible design, therefore, seems to favor sustainable innovation.



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