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Circular economy by design

Creating a new framework to redesign the future



At the core of the circular economy concept is an emphasis on more effective design, both of economic systems and individual products and services. Innovating during the design phase captures greater economic value, compared to solutions that focus on mitigating the negative impacts of poor design. For example, manufacturing electronic goods that can be disassembled to recover valuable components and materials for refurbishment and reuse has significant economic advantages over recycling obsolete products that were not conceived with the end of use in mind.

To achieve the system and product design goals of a circular economy, where products, components and materials are cycled effectively and at their highest utility and value at all times, requires an effective process that fosters creativity and innovation. Increased connectivity and other emerging technologies have also been identified as key enablers of positive change. Creating a more holistic process where “design is everywhere and inevitably everyone is a designer,” as voiced by Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, could be a key factor in accelerating the transition to a new regenerative economy.

Designing Things Differently
Hackathons are events where software and hardware developers, designers and business thinkers are brought together to collaborate intensively in a short period of time on certain projects or in response to specific challenges feeding off of the “everyone is a designer” ideology. Hackathons originated in the early days of the Internet, where hackers were people driven by a passion for figuring out how software worked and what it could do. Collaborative hacking efforts became – and have remained – particularly commonplace at universities like MIT and Stanford, where a “Hacker Ethic” was developed based on the ideals of open collaboration and disrupting the status quo. Similarly, the Internet of Things has prompted this re-exploration into how connectivity will transform the economy, enabling value restoration and the closing of material loops at scale, even for relatively low-value products.

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Designing things differently was an idea at the core of hack_dif, a 48-hour global hackathon organized by the team behind the Disruptive Innovation Festival with support from Philips and Cisco, and hosted at the National Institute of Design (NID) India, Cranfield University and MIT. Fifteen teams across the three institutions tackled a challenge question that looked at the potential to redesign consumer products and the ways in which they are delivered, sold and utilized in order to better retain material value, while adhering to the principles of a circular economy and exploiting the potential of new technologies.

Embracing the fundamentals of the format, but diverging from traditional code-focused hackathons, the teams at NID, Cranfield and MIT were challenged to adopt a design process based on the strategies used by Philips in developing their own new consumer offerings. Using the principles of the circular economy, teams were asked to start by leveraging specific business, technology and user insights that could form the basis of creating value for consumers and the economy at large, enabling product life extension and closing “open material loops” by means of new business models (e.g., product as a service and/or sharing platforms). A phase of concept generation and brainstorming then followed, where multiple product and service solutions were explored, deliberately including options that stretch current technological limits.

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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.

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Exploring the intersection of design and the circular economy is a key topic for large businesses like Philips and Cisco and emerging innovators alike, as they continue to adapt their business models to meet the demands of the changing economy. The topic is also an important theme of the Disruptive Innovation Festival, a three-week online line-up of over 200+ events held annually in November.


There are almost unlimited opportunities in a new framework in which inter-disciplinary collaboration, disruptive innovation and creative cooperation are allowed to thrive. Taking advantage of the opportunities, while creating a system that rebuilds and maintains stocks of economic, natural and social capital, will require a redesigning of the future. The hack_dif hackathon represents just a microcosm of that larger design challenge.

Seb Egerton-Read

Innovation Content Creator for the Disruptive Innovation Festival and Circulate

Seb writes and produces multimedia content across various platforms for the Disruptive Innovation Festival, circular economy focused news website Circulate and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Prior to his current role, he studied English Literature and International Education at the University of Birmingham and worked as a freelance writer.

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