Design Talk Circular Design, 27.11.2019 © Christof Jakob

By Martina Metzner.

Making materials and systems radically recyclable demands digital applications, says innovation expert Karel Golta, speaking with Daniel Knies, Director of Design at Spiriant in this year’s second Design Talk

Humans have achieved an enormous amount over the last 200 years: prosperity and life expectancy have risen, technological and digital innovations have made our lives easier, and democracy and human rights have taken hold in many places around the world. But these achievements have also brought downsides in the form of climate change, raw material shortages, the disappearance of species, and plastic waste in the world’s oceans. So what is to be done? In the effort to transition society and the economy towards sustainability, a critical role will be played by the circular economy – and a related aspect, circular design. This concept was first introduced in the 1970s when the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth”. Since 2015 it has been included among the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and has also increasingly become part of Western lifestyles in the form of movements like Zero Waste and packaging-free shops. 

The importance of digitalisation for implementing circular systems was the topic of the German Design Council’s second Design Talk, entitled “Circular Design: Rebels against Innovation”. On 27 November 2019, moderator Martina Metzner sat down for a discussion with Karel Golta, innovation expert and CEO of Indeed, and Daniel Knies, Head Designer for the inflight equipment specialist, Spiriant. Around 30 guests attended the evening event, which, fittingly, was held at the Spiriant headquarters in the German town of Neu-Isenburg, Germany.

The concept of the rebel against innovation

Karel Golta, who is originally from Switzerland, is the owner of three companies: Indeed, TOI – Tools of Innovators, and Simplexion. As a qualified designer, he helps his customers develop and implement innovations. Recently, however, he has been concerned with more fundamental questions about human existence on Earth, and has taken a radical stance with a concept he calls rebelling against innovation: “We need to rebel against the establishment,” he says. And this means: “I break rules. Fundamentally, I solve problems using methods other than the ones which caused them.”

We need to change everything about the current system. Otherwise, we don’t stand a chance.

Karel Golta

With regard to sustainability, Golta calls for a shift in the way we think – he advocates for an economy which sees growth in a holistic, and above all socio-ecological, way. “We need to change everything about the current system. Otherwise, we don’t stand a chance.” According to Golta, we need to tackle all of the issues at the same time: consumption, mobility, communication and many more. “It’s not enough for me to make some changes here and there. We need to be making adjustments across the board.” Golta’s message: change is essential. While his words may be reminiscent of the Fridays for Future movement, Golta has drawn a clear line in the sand: “Greta talks. Rebels against innovation act.”

Putting sustainability on the agenda

For Spiriant, one of the leading suppliers of in-flight products, equipment and logistics for airlines, sustainability is becoming increasingly important. The aviation industry has come under fire for its CO2 emissions, and hence for its contribution to climate change. This – combined with the issue of plastic in the oceans, the EU ban on single-use plastic cutlery set to take effect in 2021 and, not least, demand from passengers and airlines themselves – is why sustainability has held a firm position on the company’s agenda for two years now. Knies, Head of Design at Spiriant, says: “We need to create sustainable products in a transparent manner.” In explaining why this is only becoming an issue now, Knies is a realist. “For years it was all about consumption. What went on behind the scenes wasn’t talked about,” says Knies. “People need to see what is happening before they’ll believe it. Take the plastic waste in the oceans, for instance.” 

Knies sheds light on the situation with an example: on average, each long-haul passenger produces 1.4 kilograms of rubbish. But this doesn’t just come from the products given to the passengers during the flight – it also includes the packaging associated with those products. Expectations around convenience and hygiene have increased, says Knies. We now need to change how we think, to set new standards. “It is precisely the young designers who are challenging the current way of doing things. And the days of ridiculing them are over.” Consumers need to change as well, says Knies, shifting the focus back to the other side of the issue. Golta adds: Digitalisation can help here. For example, passengers could pre-order sandwiches, or even pick them up as they board the plane. Knies and Golta agree that companies need to be bolder about getting consumers to take more personal responsibility. 

We need to create sustainable products in a transparent manner.

Daniel Knies

Reprocessing systems

Knies and his team can no longer develop new products – including paper cups, cutlery, blankets, pillows, pyjamas and toiletry bags – without also developing a sustainability concept for them. Materials are now recycled, and Knies and his team are developing closed-loop systems. As an example: the PET cups used in in-flight catering are collected, sorted, crushed and turned into new cups. In an ideal future, systems would reprocess products right at the airport, says Knies. But Spiriant isn’t only focused on reprocessing single-use items – they’re also putting time and energy into developing reusable products which can be cleaned. This requires adapting systems and materials at the same time. But caterers need to cooperate in order for this to happen. The widespread use of IoT systems, full product RFID tagging, and making entire product life cycles transparent is still a long way off, says Knies. 

“This isn’t something you can achieve overnight, with the flick of a switch. It’s a process that we’ll continue to go through in the years ahead,” adds Knies. “We want to make sure this is built on a solid foundation.” Golta is in favour of this development, in particular the transition to circular design, because aviation already operates as a fairly closed system, which allows for the monitoring of waste. “This can serve to set an example,” says Golta, adding that it is digital applications that are going to make goods and materials cycles controllable in the first place, and enable their optimisation. “Networking and AI are going to play a role in this, and eventually quantum computers as well, because these systems are very complex.” Hence, Golta’s solution is to achieve more sustainability through digitalisation. 

Enough with the moral finger-pointing

Although in-flight equipment is now becoming more ecological, aircraft CO2 emissions aren’t going to improve much. If anything, things are going to get worse. The aviation industry is currently servicing just over 4.5 billion passengers each year. This number is expected to double by 2035. Despite flight shaming, flying will continue to be the only option available, especially when it comes to covering long distances, says Knies. Isn’t this just the dog chasing its own tail?

Golta doesn’t think much of ecological finger-pointing, or of giving up flying. “If you’re talking about limiting what’s bad, then you’re still always operating from a position of negativity. We need to start thinking positively. What we need is ‘more good’ instead of ‘less bad,’” says Golta, who then presented some examples which are good for both the planet and humankind. Such as recent research into making edible protein from CO2. “Then it might not even be a problem to have 8 billion people flying every year,” says Golta. He seems hopeful: “We need to turn toxic substances into useful products.” That, he says, would be a true circular economy. If the rebels against innovation have their way, our lives will be certainly be different – but, all things considered, not worse than they are today. 


DESIGN TALKS is a series of events, presented by the German Design Council in collaboration with the Hessian Ministry of Economics, Transport and Housing, which brings together creative minds and companies in Hessen to strengthen the discourse around design. The second Design Talk of 2019 was held on 27 November at the Spiriant headquarters in Neu-Isenburg, Germany. The event, entitled “Circular Design: Rebels against Innovation”, featured a discussion with Karel Golta, innovation expert and owner of consulting firm Indeed, and Daniel Knies, Head of Inflight Equipment Design at Spiriant.The talk was moderated by design journalist Martina Metzner. 

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