Circular design in practice: Towards a co-created circular economy through design
Abstract: In the efforts to stimulate sustainable development, the circular economy represents the most recent attempt to reduce the pressure on the environment by attaining harmony between the economy, environment and society. In theory, this is accomplished by establishing ‘closed-loop’ flows of resources in a way that enables businesses and society to reap benefits from maintaining products, components and materials at their highest utility and value, while simultaneously reducing the generation of waste. Although the transition to a circular economy is still in its infancy, the concept can no longer be considered a niche discussion as it has rapidly gained a place on political agendas across Europe and is generating increasing traction in industry and academia. The circular economy certainly offers the considerable potential to address the environmental challenges in the design of products and the built environment, yet there are also a number of technical and non-technical challenges to overcome in its implementation. For designers such as industrial designers and architects, it means that the entire lifecycle including the design, production, use and waste phases need to be addressed holistically, and long-lasting collaborations need to be fostered in design endeavours to enable circularity on a systemic level. To date, there have been limited empirical studies into the implications of the circular economy for the practice of design. Therefore, this thesis set out to examine how the concept of a circular economy is currently being operationalised within design practice and explore what design knowledge, tools and methods are needed to support design practice and curricula in designing for a circular economy. The thesis builds on three studies. Study A investigated the current interpretations and operationalisation of the circular economy in design practice across the disciplines of architecture and industrial design; Study B explored the role of stakeholder collaboration and co-creation in facilitating circular design innovation; and Study C explored what knowledge, tools and strategies could further support design for a circular economy in practice. The findings indicate that the circular economy is a complex and multi-faceted challenge that expands the scope of design projects and drives the integration of new knowledge and skills into the design process. Design efforts in the context of the circular economy need to go beyond the focus on technical challenges and the perception of design projects as ‘temporary’ endeavours. Instead, the circular economy shifts the focus of designers away from the creation of physical artefacts and towards the creation of systems, business models, collaborative networks and future visions; thus, ultimately helping clients to look ahead and render the pathways towards circularity tangible. It is apparent that the circular economy requires extensive stakeholder collaboration during (and after) the design process, and the results indicate that ‘designing’ and establishing collaborative networks can be regarded as integral components of circular design and as intangible design outcomes. In this regard, participatory design approaches are found to be important in fostering awareness and knowledge of circularity and promoting collaboration between actors. Finally, the circular economy is blurring the boundaries of scale and disciplines and encompasses considerable ambiguity. This equivocality calls for a holistic design approach and universal design frameworks and language to ensure that the ‘version’ of a circular economy that society will see in the future is the one that aligns with the underlying goals of sustainable development and establishes a systemic shift in how people perceive and utilise resources. To conclude, the findings of this thesis contribute to a better understanding of how the concept of a circular economy is implemented across design practice and identifies pathways to further advance circular design.
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