Systemic Thinking in the Circular Economy

How to foresee and prevent more waste from happening

Alice Casiraghi


By now, we have abundant proof that polluting or depleting the environment with business operations has a backlash on humans too. As the Earth is warming and the climate becoming increasingly more unpredictable, threatening our livelihoods, the average person eats a credit card worth of plastic every week.

Even if ecosystems’ safety is not our priority, and we just want to grant a prosperous future to the human species, we still need to try and grow our businesses without putting further stress on the environment. In essence, we need to learn how to grow our businesses while regenerating the ecosystem. Double the challenge, double the gain.

One of those infamous pictures of San Francisco resembling a Blade Runner scene in September 2020

We can all agree that pollution is bad, but how can we do things differently? How can ecology and economy both profit off of each other, instead of coming at one another’s detriment? What’s the role of designers in this? Let’s dissect the problem further.

If humans only consider humanity when operating a business and leave nature out of their concern, two of the bigger constraints of growing a business would be technological advancements and speed. But the more we accelerate, the more we put our context and nature under stress, the stress accumulates and — simplifying — it comes back in the form of climate change, extreme weather events, and an inhabitable Earth very soon.

But if instead we would try to contextualise business operations within ecosystems balance, we can plan for economic success and environmental sustainability at once, designing products and services not just for fellow humans but for all life on Earth to thrive.

For designers, this means that when we help businesses develop products and services for their customers, we need to include contextual and natural requirements in the equation. The practices of User-Centered Design then need to evolve into Planet Centered Design, or Life Centered Design.

A systemic mindset is needed in order to switch from a user-centered to a planet-centered type of design. One that includes business perspective too, because in order for a new product or service to be adopted it needs to be profitable.

Besides a systemic mindset, we need tools, to develop a standard method for designers to approach systemic issues and create delightful products and services in balance with the Earth.

How can we level up the user-centered Design Thinking methodology, common among product and service designers, into a planet-centered one? How do we make this evolution seamless without reinventing the wheel of user-centered design?

Tweaking user-centric design thinking tools

In the traditional user-centered approach of service design, designers help businesses tailor products and services to the right users and customers. This can be done in both physical and digital realms, in order to increase their chances of success.

To do this, it’s important to first identify potential early adopters. These are typically considered as the trendsetters of the market, those who fall in love with a new product/service first, then pull in the rest of the customers: through word of mouth, social media, or other influence. By focusing on serving the early adopters first, the business can maximise their chances of success amongst competitors.

In user-centered design, those early adopters we focus on to design a new product/service are called personas, and by definition: ‘each persona is a reference model representative of a specific type of user. The more the archetypes assume a realistic feeling (e.g. name, age, household composition, etc.), the more they become real personas, fully expressing the needs, desires, habits and cultural backgrounds of specific groups of users.’

In other terms, the human personas, with their needs, desires, and aspirations, define the chances of success of a product or service.

In systemic design, on the other hand, we want to extend the concept of personas not only to the customer of the product/service but also to non-human actors of the product/service system, such as nature, business and context.

The needs, desires and aspirations of nature, local context and business, become essential to define the chances of success of the product/service. Because as we humans live in a closed natural system, our Planet Earth, we inevitably affect it with every business intervention, using resources from the local context.

Our open-source Systemic Design Thinking tools

The 4 Personas of Systemic Design

Therefore, in our Systemic Design Thinking tools, we complemented the human persona with three more types of personas to serve when designing a new product/service. With our design strategy, we plan to address:

1. Humans: customers and users of the product/service;

2. Business: the complex ‘machine’ that runs the product/service and its business network of suppliers, service providers, collaborators;

3. Context: the local infrastructure that supports or impairs the development of the new product/service (e.g the industry, structures, community);

4. Ecosystem: the local environment, in terms of fauna and flora, whose balance is altered every time we introduce a new product/service.

In this framework, the Human persona (or set of personas) is still the final receiver of the product/system, so our final focus is on that persona mainly, as it happens in traditional user-centered design. But at the same time, we are able to understand the opportunities and limitations provided by the other three personas too.

The ecosystem persona — for example — has needs, aspirations, and obstacles, just like the human one. This prompts us to map out all the operational constraints provided by the ecosystem while developing our product/service. Things such as the total amount of resources, the energies used in industrial processes, the local context, and the overall balance of the ecosystem. Why do we do that? Because this initial extra-step allows us to produce more resilient product-service systems.

Systemic thinking doesn’t have to lead to complicated products or services. Quite the contrary in fact, it allows designers to draw a clearer picture of intricate matters and, from there, develop clever solutions to overcome barriers and explore opportunities that wouldn’t be visible from a mere user-centered perspective.

In a world where resources are getting scarcer and environmental conditions more unpredictable, those who are able to map their requirements thoroughly and use them efficiently while eliminating waste or so-called externalities, are the businesses that will more likely achieve solid success.

This brings us to the next step of the systemic design paradigm shift: given the amount of complexity to grind, the earlier the designer is involved in the business ideation process, the better.

Collaborative partnerships between design and business

If a company asks designers to work on a new product/service when the business decisions have already been made, there is no room for systemic intervention. But if instead, designers were involved to work directly on the business strategy, they can research and map all contextual and natural constraints for the company before the decisions on new products and services are made.

A tiny city car part of a car-sharing fleet

Let’s use an example to elaborate on this. Traditionally, if a company hires a design studio to work on a car-sharing service, they might involve them to work on:

1. Product design, the actual look and feel of the car;

2. Service design, the interaction between the product/service and the users;

3. Market strategy, to research how to attract customers to the service depending on contextual needs;

4. Communication and branding, or the way the product is perceived by the customer.

These all play an important role in designing the new sharing service, but none of these will help the company run operations in balance with the ecosystem, because none of these approaches focuses on the core business and they all happen after strategic decisions are made.

What if we apply systemic design at the root of the business idea instead?

We can preventively map the context of business operations, understand ecosystems requirements, user (human) needs, business needs — according to the four systemic personas strategy — and help the company develop a vision on how the car sharing service can be profitable for the company while regenerating natural resources, and engaging customers, all at the same time.

For example: does the company want to compensate for their emissions retrospectively since its foundation? Does the company plan to run on completely renewable energy for the sharing service? How can the company incentivise sustainable user behaviour, maybe through online gamification to engage a new type of audience? If the company needs digital services, how can they make their servers run sustainably, too? Even if this wasn’t in their direct control. What kinds of collaboration and new technologies can help companies achieve their goals of waste reduction and regeneration of natural ecosystems?

The result of this systemic study is what we call a circular business strategy, that will position the company on a robust path for its future sustainability. A strategy that abides by the principles of the circular economy: considering waste as a resource, keeping products and materials in use for as long as possible, and regenerating the ecosystem while operating the business, instead of depleting natural resources.

The importance of iterations and feedback loops

Because the scale of intervention in systemic design is so extensive, it rarely is a one-off project but rather, a collaborative partnership between business and designers: a series of iterative projects to support, measure and analyse the business evolution.

Each iteration is the completion of one step towards a circular business vision.

This process is itself circular, meaning that — at the end of each iteration — the business, the designers, and the customers align to evaluate the change, measure the impacts it had on the business, the opportunities opened, the challenges arising, and plan the next iteration forward.

For the business, being in control of feedback loops from customers and designers is important for two reasons:

  1. Building a community of loyal customers (the human personas we mentioned before) that support the evolution of the business toward circularity. The circular economy, eliminating the concept of waste, enables these loops where the product or service — at the end of one life cycle — needs to end up somewhere, to be regenerated into new life. A systemic design gives shape to this kind of interaction between businesses and their customers;
  2. Measuring change, keeping all internal stakeholders and external partners informed on the whys and on the vision moving forward.

Systemic thinkers see transformation and loops over products and services

I recently drew a parallel for an Italian podcast interview between systemic design for the circular economy and some fundamental laws of physics. The very own essence of the circular economy could be summed up with the principle of mass conservation: everything transforms, nothing is created or destroyed in our world. This is true for both matter and energy.

It’s easy to understand this postulate when applying systemic thinking to the space of physical objects, more than services. If I produce disposable ice-cream cups, for example, I transform energies and raw materials into products for my client: I use electricity and water for production processes, paper and plastic film that get shaped into a cup, machinery and manpower too, to generate a finished product that is disposable and non-recyclable.

Non-recyclable, because I have designed this solely with the final user in mind and therefore, combined materials that cannot be separated (plastic film, paper, etc.). Additionally, I’ve planned this to be a disposable, single-use cup instead of a higher quality, reusable one. My ice-cream cup becomes unused potential, something that is no longer useful to humans after disposal and harmful to nature, garbage that must be burned. I have wasted energy resources to produce it and to destroy it: as a designer, I have been inefficient.

Once this systemic perspective is understood, suddenly a lot of space for intervention opens up. I can plan to transform an inefficient product or service into an efficient one by looping materials and resources back. Can I ‘servitise’ my product — the ice cream cup — so that it becomes a loyalty card and my customers are enticed to use it repeatedly? Can I produce a cup out of the peel of the fruit I use to make my ice-cream? Or eggshells?

When we design products and services, we plan the processes of transformation between energy and matter, and human behaviour associated with those transformations. This is how much power we have. It’s a designers’ responsibility then to be mindful of looping the resources back into the natural system.

Heat being generated inside an operative data center

This systemic mindset can be applied to every industry. Even the digital world, which often appears to us as a completely separate entity from the natural world, is in fact affecting the balance of the ecosystems. Besides the rapid obsolescence of means — such as personal computers, phones, tablets — what is impacting the natural environment is the increasing speed and amount of communication happening through digital media due to rapid technological advancements.

Digital data requires servers that take up physical space, run on electricity and need water from rivers to cool down. Tons of metal and plastic cables under the ground, under the oceans and in our skies carry the impulses that translate into those data packages. The digital world heats up waters where frogs lay eggs, disturbing their natural ecosystems. This — in short — is the type of systemic perspective that fuels circular designers in giving shape to the products and services of tomorrow.

How do we make products and services more circular? Being mindful of the context, using systemic thinking to foresee and prevent the design of more waste — or under-utilised assets — in this Planet. The challenge for creative solutions is open.

Toads with their future children, in a river next to a data center that’s storing our social media digital traces

I am the co-founder of Future Urban Living, a circular strategy company helping decision-makers transition towards regenerative business by design.

Have thoughts or feedback? Would love to hear it, connect with me directly here.



Alice Casiraghi

Design strategist on a mission to turn businesses regenerative through systemic thinking. Co-founder of Future Urban Living