What is circular design? Q&A with EMF’s Anna Queralt Fuentes

Resource spoke to Anna Queralt Fuentes, Engagement Manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), about the newly released Circular Design Toolkit and the wider implications of circular design.

Who is the Circular Design Toolkit aimed at? And how do you think that will help them achieve a more circular design in their products?

So the target of this toolkit are designers. Basically people that are involved in the design stages, which might mean that you have studied any design discipline but you might just work and develop products throughout the design process. And it can be designers, engineers, architects, anyone who works with iteration and design, including those designing circular cities.

Are UK government policies doing enough to support circular design?

Anna Queralt Fuentes, Engagement Manager at the Ellen MacArthur FoundationThough I’m not an expert on policy, we can see that there are governments that have included circular economy in their strategies. And this is very important, because it guides what will happen in the regions and in cities. At the same time, often it’s the city level that’s at the forefront. So we can see that cities are designing circular economy roadmaps and policies that are much more ambitious than what is happening at national level. We're also lucky enough to have the overarching policy-making that's going on at EU level.

Do you think that the energy for circular economy values is coming more from businesses and like the private sector? Or do you think it’s being driven more by governments and NGOs?

I think it's a very good question. So what we can see is that this transition is not being driven exclusively by one type of actor, it's driven by many different actors that can see the value of it and understand that the circular economy is a long-term investment. So we've seen governments in the Netherlands and in Denmark including the circular economy in national strategies, because they can see the potential and that it's going to be a much better investment. If you don't implement that in your strategies, there's also, of course, NGOs, non-profit organisations and foundations that are doing a great job. There's umbrella organisations working across multiple continents, but also national and local organisations – we can't forget the importance of local NGOs and initiatives, that are actually the ones that are testing and implementing, and bringing the circular economy to life. And that requires an innovative and creative mindset – that's why it's about designing, because anyone can have a vision and implement it, but you need to understand how to do it.

On a business level, what kind of appetite do you think there is from businesses to switch to circular design? Are they convinced of the investment in the circular economy?

I think we can find both. It's very important that the top management are the ones that want to lead this transition, meaning that it's not about just doing a bit better – if you want to include circular design in your strategies, it's a transformation. It will impact the way you work. For example, you will have to design your materials, components and products in a certain way, but you will also have to design an organisation in a certain way –you will have to have job positions such as waste management, resource management, something like that. You will have to rethink that and maybe create these new positions because there is not supposed to be waste, and changing that mindset is very important. So companies whose top management is convinced about the value of bringing circular design into their organisation are more likely to be the ones that are at the forefront of this, rather than those where change comes from the bottom up. It's possible, but it will take longer.

It’s also very important to measure it. If you can't measure, you can't improve, right? We've lately released Circulytics, which is a tool that allows companies to measure their level of circularity. You can see which strategies and initiatives can help companies have a higher score, and inspire each other. I think it's very important to think of it less in terms of a competition and more as a collaboration. All these companies that are part of our network have similar visions for how the world should look, so collaboration is crucial in order to make it happen, and new collaboration models need to arise now.

Is the toolkit more something that is trying to encourage businesses to take the initiative or is responding to business demand?

That's a good question. We created the toolkit because we could see that designers, in general, are practitioners. They are action driven, and, for them, the change needs to be tangible. With the toolkit, we wanted to inspire them, and give them some tools and resources for them to start practising. It could be that some of them are in companies so they can become entrepreneurs, and bring that into their teams. They can go to the circular design guide and find different workshops, but they could also be entrepreneurs, architects, or engineers – through these stories, videos and tools, they can find an opportunity and a direction, and connect with other people. Sometimes people might feel a bit lonely, and having this community of circular designers is very important, because we are all together in this.

Does circular design require a different way of thinking for designers?

It's a different way of designing. When you're a designer, most of the time is spent focusing on the design of the artefact, and you are asked to think carefully about the details and the aesthetics of it – and that's what we call 'zooming in' to the needs of whatever you are designing. When you're designing for the circular economy, you're going to need to zoom out and try to understand the big picture – how does the whole ecosystem work? Who are the other actors involved in the creation of this, or the organisations that can help you understand better? Where do all the resources come from, and what happens afterwards? When you design a building, you have to think about when it's finished, but many times we forget about the lifetime of that building and what happens to it long-term. So, for example, instead of just designing a building and then building it, we have a passport of materials, a record of all the materials and their quantities. We build it, and, one day, we can reuse all of these materials to create something new. That's why it's very important to understand all the suppliers and players that come after our product is created.

Why is the design stage so important in reducing the environmental impact of products?

There are two ways to tackle all these issues. One, when you have waste, you can try to use that waste, that's a short-term strategy that we can use. We know that we produce a lot of resources that are going to waste, and we need to do something with that. However, we won't stop waste ending up in the ecosystems, in beaches and forests, unless we close the tap from the very beginning, and we can only do it if we tackle this issue from the outset, and that's the design stage. When we design from the very early stage, we need to think about the origin of the resources – how are we going to design the product or service, so that in all the stages of its production, we ensure that materials are kept in the loop so that there's no waste. Only in the very early stage are we capable of closing the tap. Otherwise, we'll have more waste. We can keep cleaning beaches, we can keep collecting waste, and believe that materials will be recycled, but we have to tackle the issue from the outset.

How else is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation looking to support circular design?

So, we work in three pillars. One, we're trying to find stories of inspiring designers to share. Many times, it's about storytelling and for what we do, I think it's very inspiring to talk about the story of doing, and see how people have overcome certain barriers, and have driven to make things real.

Then, what we also support is the creation of tools and resources by us, but also those of other organisations and initiatives. So, for example, we've included the circular design challenge in the toolkit, which is created by a designer from Columbia, and it's a great place to test your circular design skills if you want to get started in this journey.

And then, we have the space of community and belonging, so we have different networks, and we do collaborations with design challenges and awards. Being part of very well established design awards and challenges, and including the circular economy framework, is a way for designers to put their creativity into a circular design brief. We also have a network of organisations  that work to make this transition possible.

We've also collaborated with the British Council, in two projects called Circular Design Lab. It's for designers from a certain region,who then go back to their countries and implement the projects. We've also got the From Linear to Circular Programme where designers can become circular economy pioneers, some of them have gone on to become entrepreneurs and started their own businesses, and others have brought that knowledge back to their universities, and have changed the whole programme of their education.

For example, there was a fashion teacher who changed the whole educational programme into circular fashion, or there's others that have worked with the national government to start changing policies, for example, in the Philippines. Those are things that can only happen if you empower these people and give them the right networks, tools, and inspiration. We also work hand in hand with the companies of our network. We act as a sounding board for them, and we support their transition towards bringing circular design into their circular economy strategies.

You can view EMF’s Circular Design Toolkit on the EMF website.

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