Designing for a circular economy in a way that is truly disruptive and innovative requires an open and creative process, bold enough to lift the limitations imposed by current thinking and contexts. “Innovation towards a circular economy begins with the creation of business models designed to create value over a longer period of time, for a broader group of stakeholders. The way you sketch your business model influences which circular economy principles reinforce business activities, and consequently how the interactions and assets building up products and services will be designed,” says Kevin Shahbazi, a member of Philips’ Strategic Design team and mentor at Cranfield University during the hack_dif weekend.
It is also worth noting that innovative design doesn’t require absolute originality: few “new” ideas and concepts meet that criterion. Instead, the researching of comparisons and competitors is transformed into a positive and enhancing process, where designers add further value to their concepts.
The Value of Circular Economy Thinking
Reshaping core product and system design in line with this process presents some exciting opportunities for circular economy thinking, avoiding the lock-in of seeking end-of-pipe solutions to waste problems, rather than taking a more inventive approach. Developing “moonshot innovations” was one of five key recommendations in the recently published New Plastics Economy report, which proposed a new vision for the plastics economy, while revealing significant ineffectiveness in the current system, where 95% of the raw material value is lost to the economy after just one use. A challenge like tackling the entire plastics value chain necessitates real disruption, to quote Tim Brown again, “some of the world’s greatest problems are so complex, however, that solving them will require collaboration from designers the world over.”
Applying the tech-focused hackathon format to a circular economy-centered approach, hack_dif proved to be a significant challenge for its participants, demanding high amounts of systems thinking, collaboration and creativity. Still, with the guidance of mentors from Philips, Cisco, the participating universities and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the teams produced some impressive results: an all-inclusive service proposition for landlords and tenants that provides access to monitored household appliances kept in optimal condition; a service offering health wearables to recovering patients tracking recovery and providing needed assets over time; a system for creating more durable packaging; a city bike-sharing scheme enabled by GPS and Bluetooth technology; a smart battery charging app preserving battery lifetime; and several other fascinating concepts.