When disparate approaches unite

When designing for the circular economy, we must bring different groups together and combine the seemingly contradictory.

By Holly Bybee and Lauren Yarmuth

Today’s most intractable challenges require collaboration across companies and industries. Solutions can’t be achieved in isolation, and the best ideas will come when leaders join forces to drive progress.

Last year, 50 people from 11 organizations joined the Circular Economy portfolio at CoLab, IDEO’s platform for collaborative impact. The CoLab brings together stakeholders from across industries, from sourcing to distribution, packaging to retail, waste to finance, and more, all with the goal of designing for collaborative impact. With common needs, different perspectives, and shared skin in the game, representatives from major organizations rolled up their sleeves together. Teams built 17 circular prototypes that are currently in various stages of market-facing development. Despite commonly being thought of as industry competitors, these CoLab members engaged as collaborators to drive a new generation of business.

CoLab members from various companies and industries worked together to design prototypes that drive circular impact.

It’s not altruistic — it’s strategic. Moving forward, companies will need to work together. But inevitably, this can be tense.

We felt polarizations within the cohort as folks shared and challenged each other’s approaches. Do we start with what’s broken or what’s missing? Do we take baby steps or giant leaps? While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, we’re not without a roadmap. In fact, we’ve learned that uniting the following disparate approaches creates a richer context for collaboration and design — helping us get to solutions faster.

Systemic and specific

It’s critical to take in and understand a whole ecosystem from a birds-eye view, whether it’s the food, textiles, or even automotive system. A circular system’s parts — manufacture, distribute, capture, repurpose, and redistribute, for example — depend on and influence each other. Every node must be approached in relationship with every other node. But to take action, it’s helpful to home in and identify specific challenges in these systems. In other words, we must see both the forest and the trees.

For example, in our recent prototyping sprints, one team began by creating a map of a circular food delivery and return system for apartment dwellers, which enables a shared system for evening meals. They expertly mapped out the food preparation, delivery, consumption, and recovery phases. But the following day, they struggled to define the problem they were solving and felt overwhelmed by the entire system. The team realized that in order to design a solution, they needed to focus on just one part of the system. As the group narrowed in, they discovered an opportunity to design for activities like dish washing and food preparation. Not only did they tease out a concrete challenge to tackle, but they could also see how this specific innovation fit into the entire system.

One team discovered an innovation opportunity by zooming in and focusing on a single, specific part of the larger food delivery ecosystem.

Some CoLab team members initially worried about losing the big picture by narrowing their attention. But in reality, focusing on one part inevitably clarifies the workings of the whole system. As a result, stronger and more meaningful opportunities for system-wide innovation emerged.

Defining and doing

Some CoLab participants were hesitant to start making prototypes until their team had established a definition of circularity for their industry. But as one might expect for such a diverse group, reaching consensus took time and had varied success. For some, this was time well spent: Definitions are north stars that structure knowledge for alignment. But one group struggled to rally around a vision. After observing that they could debate their purpose statement all day long, a team member proceeded to sketch the ecosystem of a proposed product. Soon, her sketches evolved into a cardboard model that they could use to gather feedback from real users.

When the team saw the prototype, things suddenly felt more real to everyone. The act of doing allowed them to witness how their proposed definitions might play out in the world with actual consumers. Doing and making offer tangible and practical ways to test, build upon, and believe in abstract definitions, and to question what’s truly possible. We often refer to this process as “building to think.”

By making a prototype, this CoLab team was able to get feedback from users and understand if their big, abstract ideas would hold up in the real world.

Bridges and beacons

When you’re designing for circularity, should you try to work within the existing system, or create a new one from scratch? We refer to the former as “bridges” — solutions that tap into an existing system and provide a path to the change we seek. Beacons, on the other hand, are new systems that are circular in and of themselves. They set an example and pave the way. Which is the better approach, bridges or beacons? We’ve found that the answer is both.

Last spring, a CoLab team designed a circular prototype for the fashion industry. Called “Savvy,” it allows people to create a digital duplicate of their wardrobe, enabling a system of sharing and repurposing that can extend the life of apparel. Though the product itself isn’t circular, it creates circular opportunity within a larger system ripe for innovation — a bridge. Meanwhile, another team created a beacon: an entirely new approach to shipping packages. The prototype, “Cliq’et,” reshapes the way customers interact with delivery services, and reduces or eliminates superfluous portions of a package’s volume and route. The product unlocks circular behaviors at all ends of the apparel supply system. Both teams successfully designed for circularity, but in different contexts.

Cliq’et is a delivery and return system for online services — reusable, collapsible boxes are integrated with a smart docking hardware to reduce packaging waste.

No one company or individual can drive a more circular future. At the CoLab, we believe now is the best time to engage in a shared, collaborative approach to creating circularity. We hope you’ll join us. Diverse stakeholders with disparate approaches can only make our work and potential impact stronger.

Holly Bybee is a Director of Business Development at IDEO and a lead for IDEO CoLab’s Circular Economy of Food portfolio. Holly brings 18 years of experience helping clients shape, prepare for, and lead journeys of change to grow innovation and creativity within their people, organizations and the societies they support.

Lauren Yarmuth is a Portfolio Director at IDEO. Trained as an architect but seasoned as an entrepreneur, Lauren’s work is grounded in the principles of regenerative design. She approaches projects with a combined lens of systems, strategy, and innovation, driving towards new solutions to the complex challenges facing business and society at large.