Six Steps to Circular Systems Design

Design influences all of us in profound and often unnoticeable ways. From the subtle shifts in our society to the overt impacts that technology has on all aspects of our lives. The profession of design is one of the most influential tools that we have for creating a world that works better for all of us.

Yet much of what is created is done so with out the intent to positively influence the larger systems at play, and consequently we end up with significant byproducts that negatively impact all of us.

There is a dramatic and urgent need for designers to activate a more intentionally influential role in the full life of the products, systems and services they help usher into the world. This is design led systems change where designers create with the intent to have a positive impact. This requires an applied knowledge of systems thinking and how to design for circular systems.

We design the world, and in turn, the world designs us.

Everything we create to serve our needs has impacts in one way or another; to what degree depends on the intentions and choices made by the designer, producer, and manufacturer right from the start of a design’s life.

As harsh as this may sound, so much of what is created is done so without the thinking needed to suspend the negative impacts — impacts on people’s lives, impacts on the systems that sustain life of the planet, and impacts on the health and wealth of our societies.

The unintended consequences of our choices can be both good and bad, but inevitably, without the intent to design for positive systems change, then it’s very easy to accidentally contribute to a less equitable and unsustainable world.

Good intentions don’t necessarily lead to good outcomes.

We can all invest our creative talents in designing things that actively challenge the dominant status quo and change the world in more positive ways. Here are six simple starter steps to develop a creative practice of circular systems design:

1. Interrogate the functionality

By understanding what the core objective of your design outcome is, you can push the boundaries of how the function is delivered to the market. Absolutely everything that is created or produced is done so to achieve a function. Humans are stuck with a cognitive bias called ‘functional fixations’ that restricts the way the brain sees utility in everyday things. By starting to challenge your own perceptions about what and why a product, service, or even a business is being created, you can develop a more divergent approach to what you are designing. The goal is to maximize the sustainability of your design whist meeting the core and secondary functions.

2. Start with the system

By exploring the dynamic and interconnected systems at play in the arena you are working in, you will be empowered to consider the impacts that your productions could potentially have right from the start. Systems mapping and feedback loop explorations enable a deeper level of detail into what is currently going on and how your design could influence the system at large in a positive ways. Systems exploration will without a doubt give way to new insights that will breed more circular outcomes.

3. Look at the systemic full life cycle impacts

By looking across the full life of your product, service, or business, you can explore the way in which the material and form decisions have impacts on the natural world, or how the business model has impacts on everyone involved in the value and supply chain. Life cycle thinking is a well-established field that looks at material extraction, manufacturing, packaging, and transportation, as well as the use and all the end-of-life impacts of a product, process, or material. You can do a quick and simple exploration of these, or you can hire a life cycle expert to get a much deeper understanding of the environmental impacts of your design decisions. What we have discovered from years of scientific explorations of impacts is that they are often not what you may initially think they are!

4. Check the relationships

By taking a systems perspective early on, you will always have a reference to explore the way in which your productions are interacting with the bigger system. Checking relationships (especially the unobvious ones) helps to minimize the unintended consequences of your design decisions. This requires having a holistic view of what value you are creating (based on the functional objectives outlined in step 1) and to what extent you are drawing on the world’s resources in order to achieve that this. In systems thinking, we say that the smallest part of the system often has the biggest potential for change, the challenge is finding this hidden in the connections.

5. Hold yourself accountable

It’s easy to make quick decisions, but it’s harder to reflect on the outcome of our choices. This is all fundamentally about value, ethics, and integrity. Every designer can design with an ethical compass present for checking in and reflecting on; know that tradeoffs are inevitable, but by setting up your own decision-making matrix, you will have the foundations for more informed and ethical choices as you go about the fast-paced nature of creative production.

6. Design for circularity

If you have done all of these steps so far, then circularity should be a by-product of the work you have put in. The simplest way to do this is to design things that fit within a more ethical, sustainable, regenerative and circular system. Design all the stages of the product’s life to fit within a service delivery model, don’t deflect the responsibility for your products end-of-life onto some other part of the supply chain, consider the entire system of what you are producing. Respect the end user — don’t try to manipulate them into a continual consumption cycle. Give them options to join in at different levels. The goal is to design out waste/pollution/impacts/disposability etc right from the start and to build equity across the product’s entire life journey. Then we start to build solutions for a a positive future.

These 6 steps are just as useful to apply to the process of consumption as it is to production. Check to see if the things you are investing in are ethical and sustainable by looking for these signs that a producer has designed with a positive intent.

Now’s the time to start.

If you haven’t started to design with the intent to have a positive impact, then it is almost unavoidable that your productions will have unintended consequences in both potentially positive and negative ways. Using a systems and life cycle approach to designing is a critical step in overcoming this.

Now is the time to work towards positively disrupting the status quo of the hyper disposable systems that are sustaining un-sustainability.

By no means am I saying that we should not design things — to the contrary, the world needs more designers and creative minds to help move it forward, and we all love the things that heal us, help us, and home us. These are the things that are also at the forefront of generating huge amounts of waste, pollution and the negative by-products that could be designed out with the intent to create more circular and sustainable products and services.

This list may be a tall ask for some while for others it will ring true, but we will all benefit from a creative industry that builds in ethics, that performs with integrity, and that creates the goods and services that sustain a future we we want to live in, one that benefits all of us who share this beautiful unique planet.

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Want more?

Fundamentally, this is what the Disruptive Design Method is all about — designing intentionally positive contributions for the world .If you are interested in learning more about design-led systems change and how to use your creativity with intent then sign up for my LIVE 1-Week Intensive Disruptive Design Workshop online >

You can also take anyone of my classes in the Disruptive Design Methodology set online at your own leisure through the UnSchools Online Learning Lab

About the Author

Leyla Acaroglu is a world renowned creative protagonist and sustainability provocateur. With a background in design, social science and sustainability, her creative work focuses on using design as a tool for activating positive change and understanding the complexity of the human experience so that we can design products services and solutions that fit within the planets capacity to sustain us all.