Photo by Enrique Meesters. Courtesy of What Design Can Do.

Initiating a Circular Design Movement

The climate action challenge gets deeper

Since 2015, STBY has been the global research partner of What Design Can Do (WDCD) and their climate action challenges. Over the years, the impact and effects of climate change have become stronger, requiring more innovative and holistic approaches to the ways in which we address this emergency.

Over the past year, we worked with WDCD and Circle Economy to develop the ‘Make it Circular’ Challenge. In it, designers, creators, entrepreneurs, innovators, artists and others are invited to respond with creative ideas that turn our world from linear to circular. The challenge encourages people to rethink what we eat, what we wear, what we buy, how we package and how we build. This challenge recently launched on October 11, 2022, and submissions are accepted until January 11, 2023.

“Circularity” has different meanings around the world

STBY collaborated with the Reach Network (Matchboxology in Kenya, Quicksand in India, Flutter Innovation in Brazil and delaO Design Studio in Mexico) to bring perspectives about circularity and sustainability from around the world. In some parts of the world, “circularity” feels like a climate action fad that has already passed. In other places, the practice of living without waste is well-known, but is not called “circularity”. What we found is that “circularity” is nothing new; we just had to reframe it in a way that inspires people into action.

As killer heatwaves, wildfires, extreme droughts, hurricanes and floods ravage the world, it’s needless to say that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. Carbon emissions are not the cause of the problem; they are a symptom of our way of life. Currently, in our mostly linear system, we produce products with materials from the earth, we consume them and then we throw them away – circularity does not let those resources and materials go to waste. This shift will require us to change our societal and cultural habits and value systems towards a circular way of thinking and living. But, it is not necessary to approach this all at once. Each small circular idea will inspire new ones to emerge until everything is that way. It’s true that “The next big thing will be a lot of small things.” (Thomas Lommée).

Above photo and photo at top by Enrique Meesters. Courtesy of What Design Can Do.

What makes design circular?

This was one of the core questions we needed to answer: What do designers need to do differently to create circular designs? After talking with expert scholars and practitioners from around the world, we concluded that circular design incorporates these three values:

Design to last pushes creatives to think long term and avoid quick fixes. What is designed today needs to last for a long time: 50 years rather than 5. It needs to consider the environmental and social impact it can have for generations to come. We can no longer just design for today. We need to design for decades.

Work with nature holds two meanings. One, it encourages designers to learn from nature, the ultimate teacher of circularity and connectivity. And two, it inspires creatives to be a guiding force in helping humanity see that we are part of nature, not above it or users of it. Designing with a more-than-human approach is necessary for building a sustainable future.

Use what exists tells designers to work creatively with existing materials and resources without exploiting the planet any further. Recovering, rediscovering, refurbishing, re-using and regenerating are all very important here. A lot of innovation can happen within these “limits”.

Photo by Enrique Meesters. Courtesy of What Design Can Do.

The Circular Design Jam

As part of this project, STBY hosted the Circular Design Jam at WDCD Live 2022 on June 3, 2022 in Amsterdam. There, we turned our research into an interactive ideation session to get people excited about coming up with innovative ideas for a circular society.

The room was divided into the different value chains (what we eat, what we wear, what we buy, how we package and how we build) across seven locations (Kenya, India, Brazil, Mexico, The Netherlands, Japan and the globe). The workshop attendees were guided through an exercise that asked them to, first, identify a problem space for their assigned value chain and location. There was an expert at each table who was either from the location or working on a sustainable project within that value chain. Once a key problem was identified, participants were then asked to think about the people, places, things, organisms, etc. that they would or could collaborate with in this space. This could be anything from residents in the neighbourhood to the local government to trees in the area and the soil they grow in. Lastly, to generate ideas of what design could do to help, each table picked “re” cards (re-generate, re-sell, re-connect, re-energize, re-locate…) to spark out-of-the-box ideation.

Photo courtesy of STBY.

A call to action for a new circular society

After speaking with experts, researching circular economy frameworks and collecting inspiring initiatives from around the world, it became clear to us that we need to create a truly circular society – and that is no small feat. A circular society takes the circular economy one step further into the realm of how people live their lives, as a whole. It incorporates ethical and just social and environmental practices into decision-making, deepening the definition of “sustainability”.  We need to start prioritising sustainable practices that situate humans as part of nature instead of just as users of nature. Now, it’s up to the creators, makers and boundary-pushers of the world to share their ideas and turn them into reality through this challenge.