Designers and architects have a major role in the transformation into a circular economy. While this calls for interdisciplinary collaboration and holistic design, what we need above all is an attitude of responsibility.
By Martina Metzner.
The way that we are currently using raw materials cannot continue. More than 90% of the materials that we use end up in landfill (or in the ocean) or are consumed for thermal systems (i.e. are incinerated). Designers and architects have a big impact, so they can help change this. Consider that 80% of a product’s environmental impact is decided in the design stages. This is why there is currently a large amount of self-criticism prevailing – especially in the textile, construction and electrical sectors, which have the largest role in the earth’s material flows and therefore carbon emissions. Is it better to just stop designing things, as architect and professor Friedrich von Borries discusses in his project “The Art of Inconsequentiality”? The unanimous answer is that it is better to keep designing – and indeed designing circular, regenerative and resilient products and systems which protect resources, biodiversity and the climate. For example, architects are currently asking if they should work solely with wood instead of concrete and the fashion industry is discovering the second-hand business. Designers are asking how they can design products that can be used sensibly and last a long time, instead of encouraging people to throw them away.
New European Bauhaus is setting the course
Experts expect that remoulding the linear take-make-waste model into a circular closing-the-loop model will take about 25 years for the whole economy. And we are only at the beginning. Nevertheless, a political course is being set. The European Union is upping the tempo with its circular-economy action plan, which it rejigged in 2020. It has already initiated directives for such things as a right to repair and a ban on disposable plastics, with more policies to follow. With the New European Bauhaus, launched in October 2020, the EU is making a special appeal to architects, designers, artists, students, academics and engineers to incorporate the EU Green Deal in design. One of the initiative’s core aims is to implement a circular economy. “We need an economic model that returns to the planet the things that it takes from the planet, with a circular economy that runs on renewable energy,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. In Germany, there is a Circular Economy Initiative which recently put together a road map. Standard-setting bodies such as the ISO and DIN are working at full tilt. All of this shows that the circular economy is becoming the new standard. However, it is a mammoth task and we need to perform it quickly and, most importantly, together.
The transformation into a circular economy interferes with systems at a significantly deeper level than previous sustainability initiatives. Products and services must be fully redesigned; material and energy flows, manufacturing processes and supply chains need to be realigned. The relationship between a business, its product and the user will change fundamentally when that user wishes to have their product repaired, share it with other users or bring it back after use. Old business models are being replaced by new ones. Terms such as life cycle analysis, material traceability and user responsibility have suddenly become relevant. Of course there are also hurdles such as rebound effects, for example when new offers lead to even more consumption, or the investment costs which are often spoken about. The opportunities are all the more greater – for people, for nature and for the economy.
Sharing is better than owning
“The formal loses relevance when design is understood in a substantially holistic way,” says designer Stefan Diez, who formulated ten theses for circular design at the beginning of 2021 in the spirit of Dieter Rams. They represent the essence of many circular design concepts. In these theses, Diez argues that a good product must be usable and repairable for a long period of time. He also argues that systematic and modular design concepts should be preferred, while using regenerative materials and little energy. Good products should save space when they are transported, Diez says, and they should also be innovative and captivating. He also believes that a product should be used by many people, addressing concepts such as sharing or “product as a service” where the manufacturer remains the owner. Many consider this to be the ideal path for a circular economy. Diez also notes social aspects, saying that work should be “fulfilling”. Finally, very much in the tradition of Rams, Diez says that a good product should be “as little product as necessary”. It should be added here that digital technologies such as the internet of things and building information modelling are indispensable tools and groundbreaking instruments for this. Ultimately, it is partnership across the disciplines and industries that we know today that will make a circular society possible.
Recycled materials is not enough
The circular model has its roots in the 1970s, when the Club of Rome published “The Limits to Growth”, green parties became established in politics and Victor Papanek made an appeal to designers with “Design for the Real World”. It was in this context that Dutch politician Ad Lansink came up with the three Rs to instigate a shift from destroying value to retaining value. However, the positive effects of reducing, reusing and recycling are becoming weaker because the material streams have to move in circles that are growing bigger and bigger. While the wave of products made from recycled materials in recent years is pleasing, it is far from sufficient. Reuse approaches that extend a product’s life either with repair systems or sharing models are significantly more environmentally friendly. Moreover, we still concentrate much too little on reducing, says Professor Magnus Fröhling, a circular-economy specialist at TU Munich.
While the circular-economy concept was mostly seen from a perspective of managing waste up until the 1990s, today a circular economy is understood as a much more extensive system. Approaches such as industrial ecology, performance economics, Cradle to Cradle and biomimicry apply different focuses and methods. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the UK drives the global discussion significantly without committing fully to any particular school of thought. In 2014, it published an initial report in conjunction with the World Economic Forum and McKinsey entitled “Towards a Circular Economy”. Additional industry-specific reports have followed since. Ellen MacArthur contributes her experience as a professional yachtswoman who has circumnavigated the world. MacArthur found that the earth worked like her yacht – both need to function using only the things that are already on board.
From Cradle to Cradle to Circular Design Guide
In Germany, the most familiar school of thought is Cradle to Cradle, which chemist Michael Braungart established with architect William McDonough at the beginning of the new millennium. Today it has a far-reaching network, with the Cradle to Cradle Institute certifying products based on its own principles – whereas NGOs mainly provide education. The concept is strongly concentrated on materials and design, differentiates between biological and technical cycles and also looks at material health. More than 8,000 products worldwide have been certified since 2016 and over 300 business partners have committed to the Cradle to Cradle guidelines.
In addition, there are a growing number of players and initiatives in academia, politics, society and business which are bringing the topic to the public, educating, providing advice and offering networks. They include CRCLR in Berlin, the digital Circular Society at the Hans Sauer Stiftung foundation, the LAUNCH global network and the EU’s Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform. For design in particular, entities such as the German Environment Agency and Fraunhofer Institute IZM offer the EcoDesignCircle and Ecodesign Learning Factory to link up designers in the Baltic countries. Another important point of reference is the Circular Design Guide published by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation together with IDEO. It combines design thinking with the circular economy. The foundation, in conjunction with McKinsey, has also published the ReSOLVE framework, which provides good guidance for circular business models.
A circular economy needs cultural change
Even with all the fanfare surrounding the circular-economy idea, there are also limits that must be noted. For example, loops can never be completely closed. A circular economy by itself will not create a transformation into a sustainable society where humans must redefine their relationship with nature. What is needed for this is a fundamental cultural change, and it cannot be accomplished solely by technical means. In this context, however, a circular economy is an essential step towards a greener future. Everyone must play their part in it for it to succeed.
- Circular Economy Roadmap für Deutschland, Circular Economy Initative, Acatech, 2021,
- Circular Design Guide, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
- Cradle to Cradle – Einfach intelligent produzieren, Michael Braungart und William McDonough, 2002, erhältlich bei Piper, 2014
- Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Victor Papanek, 1985, erhältlich bei Thamses & Hudson, 2019
- Leitsätze einer Kreislaufwirtschaft, Umweltbundesamt, 2020
- Material Matters: Wie wir es schaffen, die Ressourcenverschwendung zu beenden, die Wirtschaft zu motivieren, bessere Produkte zu erzeugen und wie Unternehmen, Verbraucher und die Umwelt davon profitieren, von Sabine Oberhuber und Thomas Rau, Econ, 2018
- Transformationsdesign – Wege in eine zukunftsfähige Moderne, Bernd Sommer und Harald Welzer, Oekom, 2017
- Towards a Circular Economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015
- Warum nur ein Green New Deal unseren Planeten retten kann, Naomi Klein, Hoffmann und Campe, 2019
More on ndion
As partners of the “New European Bauhaus”, companies from the German Design Council network are researching how Europe can become climate-neutral by 2050. More about the New European Bauhaus.
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