Circular Design Workshop With IDEO
I was so lucky this week to have the opportunity to participate in 6head’s Designing a Circular Economy workshop at the IDEO London office. During the workshop, Chris Grantham, Portfolio Director of IDEO London, unpacked the concept of circular design and discussed how this new mindset can enable businesses to create competitive advantage, better serve customer needs, and work towards long term economic and environmental sustainability. IDEO believes that circular design is integral to the future of product design. We were then introduced to the Circular Design Guide, a toolkit developed by IDEO and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, through a brainstorming exercise. While I was familiar and very interested in the circular economy, the workshop made the theory much more tangible. I left the workshop energized and excited to implement the learnings.
So what is the Circular Economy?
The circular economy was a concept that first emerged in the late 1970s by the Swiss architect Walter Stahel and economist Genevieve Reday. In their report to the European Commission, they suggested the service-life of products could be extended through repair and reuse, and this could be achieved, in part, if businesses focused on selling services rather than products. Over time, the concept was refined to be described as a system that aims to minimize waste and keep materials at the maximum value at all times. People typically define the circular economy in contrast to our current system: the linear economy of “make, take, dispose.” I realize that this is an unsatisfying definition; I have yet to find a useful yet succinct definition of the circular economy, which is why I think that it is quite difficult to understand how powerful the concept is without concrete examples.
In 2005, Dame Ellen MacArthur became the fastest solo sailor to circumnavigate the world. Through this endeavor, she became particularly interested in resource management, as she could not stop to restock and had to use her limited finite supplies as she traveled across the world. She spent the next several years of her life delving into the subject of resource management and became very intrigued by the circular economy concept. In 201o, with the financial support of several major European corporations, she formed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to “accelerate the transition to a circular economy.” The foundation supports a wide range of educational and policy initiatives focused on spreading the gospel, if you will, of the circular economy.
Several years ago, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published an excellent report in conjunction with McKinsey that outlines the business case for the circular economy. I will quote the report because I think it does a great job of explaining the core idea: “[the] circular economy advocates the need for a ‘functional service’ model in which manufacturers or retailers increasingly retain the ownership of their products and, where possible, act as service providers — selling the use of products, not their one-way consumption.” I’m not surprised if you still can’t wrap your head around the advantages of a circular economy. Hopefully my example from the workshop that I will soon describe will help make the concept more clear.
The Circular Design Guide
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently partnered with IDEO to develop The Circular Design Guide, a toolkit for employing a systems mindset with design thinking in the product (re)design process. The toolkit consists of a variety of resources, including videos, worksheets, case studies, and a glossary. The Circular Design Guide is an amazing educational resource — it really helps explain the core concepts of the circular economy while simultaneously empowering its users to go forth and redesign everyday products as circular.
During the workshop, we used the “Circular Strategies” Worksheet to apply a circular mindset to an everyday object. We were given a choice between five everyday objects; my group used the worksheet to redesign the training shoe:
- The first step was to identify the functional and emotional needs and requirements. Training shoes protect feet during athletic activities and are also a vehicle for users to express their personal style. Core features are comfort, cushioning, lightweight, breathability, and aesthetics.
- The next step was to find different or better ways of meeting these needs by applying circular strategies. Given that the soles of shoes wear out much faster than the rest of the shoe, we discussed employing a modular design to shoes so that the soles could be easily removed, replaced, and recycled. We also thought about applying a subscription model to the shoe, so that soles can be easily repurchased for replacement. Apps like Strava and Garmin Connect track how many miles the user has run and recommend users to change their shoes once they have run ~500 kilometers. An automatic reorder feature leveraging these trackers could be employed to enable users to automatically order new soles once they have worn out their current pair.
- We then identified how this proposal creates value for the company and for the user. For the company, the strategy improves customer retention, increasing the lifetime value of a customer. Further, by creating a more durable and modular product, the company can expand its customer base to include more price sensitive customers. On the costs side for companies, recycling helps reduce raw materials costs, the modular design improves supply chain flexibility, and the tracking feature makes demand more predictable. Consumers save money by only replacing the soles rather than the whole shoe.
- The last step was to identify what systems should be in place for this strategy to succeed. There would need to be some research and development to redesign the shoe in a more modular fashion. The company would need to set up the logistics to handle receiving worn-out soles. Additionally, the company would need to communicate to its user base the modular features of the shoe to encourage proper use.
Going through this exercise, I was quite inspired by my findings. There was a way to reduce waste and create a more environmentally sustainable supply chain while simultaneously improving the company’s profitability. While we didn’t do any kind of analysis to confirm our hypothesis, we felt there was potential to this strategy. While I have read several case studies on companies that have successfully employed a circular business model, the act of redesigning the training shoe made the theory much more tangible and compelling.
At the end of the workshop, IDEO shared prototypes of circular redesigns they had developed for each of the five products we were tasked to redesign. Their designs were quite similar to the ones we had brainstormed, and it was quite exciting to see tangible versions of these circular products.
Redesigning My World As Circular
The workshop with IDEO instilled a creative confidence in participants. Numerous participants expressed how they felt intrigued and inspired by the circular design exercise. Personally, I felt extremely energized and excited to redesign the world around me as circular. Chris Grantham described the theory of circular economy as quite infectious — I was definitely bitten by the bug and have the itch for action. How fortuitous it is that I currently have lots of free time and the resources to do so!
I plan to embark on a project to engage my MBA classmates to join me in redesigning the products we consume with a more circular strategy. I hope to, on a biweekly basis, hold a brainstorming session with a small group of my peers to redesign a given product. I aim to post each session’s results, along with my own musings on the circular economy, on Medium. My goal is to inspire my classmates to apply circular business models in their own work and as the business leaders of tomorrow. European companies are at the forefront of circular economy design and thought leadership. My classmates will work as consultants or internal strategists for these companies and can play a large role in transforming our economy from linear to circular. I am excited to go forth and explore the possibilities of a circular economy!