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What is circular design?

by Yibo Zhou
21st April 2022

80% of a product’s total environmental impact is determined in the design phase.

Circular design considers all aspects of product development and design right from the outset of the product creation process. 

Circular economy principles can help businesses deliver sustainable strategies.

These principles promote keeping products in circulation in the economy for as long as possible to help guide businesses in transitioning into renewable resources, regenerating natural capital and decoupling economic activity from consumption of finite resources

The term circular economy was first introduced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to explain how our production cycle can be more sustainable. 

Circular design-thinking considerations

By introducing circular design-based thinking at the start of production, businesses can save money by designing their product according to these parameters: 

  • As a service
  • With the ability to upgrade
  • Including modular components
  • Using materials that are recyclable 
  • Can easily be taken apart and refurbished

Following these steps can make businesses more sustainable.

Circular design is a combination of design thinking and systems thinking

An illustration of circular design principles

Circular design examines the problem from both a micro and macro point of view:

  • The micro view examines user needs. It embraces the design thinking methodology (see diagram) to understand if it is a redesign of a product or a service with minimal material impact. Mapping the circular design process onto design thinking’s Double Diamond, the discovery stage corresponds to understanding user needs, business needs, and sustainability goals; the define stage corresponds to defining current problems; the Design stage corresponds to making prototypes; the Delivery stage will be about releasing the prototype and gather feedback
  • The macro view examines how the ecosystem can support a new design so that it is kept in use for as long as possible. It uses systems thinking to understand how the product moves across the ecosystem and how it will be used in its entire end-to-end lifecycle. The product needs to fit within a new business model while ensuring the user experience is optimised

The circular economy loop 

Our current economy is largely linear.

Traditional businesses procure raw materials which go through multiple stages of production to deliver a product that eventually gets thrown away after use.

In a circular economy, products are consciously circled back into the ecosystem through different stages of the production process, minimising material waste.

AV circular design illustration green 02

For example, raw minerals are mined to produce a phone by a phone manufacturer, it’s sold in a store to a person. After using the phone for a few years, they dispose of it for a newer model. 

Imagine in a circular economy, instead of disposing of the phone once it breaks down, they send it back to the service provider to be cleaned and refurbished. The newly refurbished phone can then be sold again and its use life increases.

This circulation of products can happen at each stage of the manufacturing process. As we move up the production chain, the solution becomes increasingly costly for the business to implement. That’s why tackling circularity closer to the end-user is most effective.

This is explained in the four stages of the circular loop:

  1. Share. Sharing a product helps to eliminate the most wastage. By sharing the phone as a service among 10 people, it greatly reduces the cost compared to making new phones for each of the 10 people, effectively extending its use in the system. *Cost of cleaning the phone for redistribution: $
  2. Reuse, redistribute. When someone no longer needs the phone, it can be upgraded in terms of software or repaired before reselling it or redistributing it to other markets. Most of the value of the phone is the product itself and by keeping all of it in use in the system, you eliminate energy wastage. *Cost of basic repair: $$
  3. Remanufacture. When the phone is no longer reusable, it’s unassembled and modular components of its hardware are assessed for defects before being cleaned and reassembled into a new phone. If 80% of the components can be reused, it would save 80% more energy than making it from scratch. *Cost of replacing worn out components in a largely functioning phone: $$$
  4. Recycle. Is the last step a business can take to reduce waste. While the value of the phone is lost, the value of the materials is not. Precious metals can still be stripped out and recycled, and be used in production of new phones. *Cost of using recycled materials in production of new phone: $$$$

Each stage of the loop adds financial value to the business and represents an opportunity to reconsider sustainable manufacturing methods. As most of the value of the product is the product itself, the closer the opportunity is to the inner loop, the more valuable the solution and the less significant the cost. 

Using circular design to achieve business, user, and sustainability goals

With rising costs and increasing pressure on our environmental ecosystems, some companies have recognised the need to introduce circularity into their business model. Below is an example of designing for circularity at Stage 1 of the manufacturing process.

An illustration of a sales loop from purchase to return

Philips has pioneered circularity in the healthcare industry by tackling the inner-most loop, transforming products into services.

Instead of selling a traditional ultrasound machine with bulky hardware, they rolled out a subscription model where users can rent a portable ultrasound transducer (Lumify with Reacts). This device is paired with a Lumify app which is free to install on any smart devices.

Besides a lower production cost, the transducer connects to any smart device, giving medical staff the flexibility to diagnose patients anywhere, whilst collaborating virtually with other doctors and sharing information. The app also allows for remote software upgrades and servicing. 

The subscription model reduces upfront cost and gives users access to an online ecosystem. Remote servicing reduces people power and transport costs.

For business, it saves production costs by extending the life of existing resources. The reduced production of bulky ultrasound machines and an increase in recycled materials provides a better outcome for the environment.

Putting circular design into practice

Now we have understood the importance of circular design, you may be wondering how you can apply it in an organisation. Let’s go through the thought process of a Philip’s designer when redesigning for Stage 1 of the manufacturing process.

First, frame the user, business, and sustainability problems with a series of How Might We (HMW) statements.

  • HMW create value-based care and reduces the risk of ownership for users?
  • HMW achieve sustainable goals while not impacting profit margins?

Then apply the circular design framework to the problem.

  1. Understand user needs and brainstorm with multidisciplinary teams from across the business to consider how to move beyond selling individual ultrasound products into a combination of products and services. Move from selling ultrasound machines to leasing ultrasound scanners, software packages and providing remote support
  2. Define the design challenge, address the user, business and sustainability needs with a series of How Might We statements: 
  • HMW create value based care and reduce the risk of ownership for users?
  • HMW achieve sustainable goals while not impacting profit margins?

Map out the interconnected set of systems this product sits in. Use systems thinking to uncover who the users are and the partners involved, as well as the resources needed to make this product and the distribution model required once the product exists. Understand the stakeholders to build a compelling narrative and get their buy-in.

  1. Make, research, ideate, design, and prototype. Create a service/subscription model that allows users to return the ultrasound device before being leased out to other users
  2. Release, align with the business on what system changes are needed to support the circularity of the new transducer. Test this service in a pilot run in a local market. Create a feedback cycle from user interviews, analytics or sensors to understand how the outcomes relate to Philips’s circular product goals

Make sure the solution relates back to the initial user and business problem as well as the sustainability goals of Philips. 

Why circular design is important

As the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen a renewed urgency to make businesses more resilient in the face of disrupted linear supply chains and dwindling raw materials.

Circular design offers businesses a tangible solution towards an inclusive, low-carbon recovery by redesigning the root of the problem.

Start with embedding circular design thinking into your products today.

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