How designers facilitate the transition to the circular economy

Published on 2021-04-29


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Brian - an expert in circular economy business modelling - explains the key role of the designer in facilitating communication within and outside the company in order to consume fewer resources and produce less waste, while also having a positive impact on society


I studied product design at the Polytechnic University of Milan and since then I have been working on the design of products. I was interested in how product design could be used to reduce the environmental impact of industrial production. And therefore I realized that focusing on this would entail looking not only at the product itself, but looking beyond the product at all the production processes and the business models that produce and sell such products.

Therefore I moved to the Netherlands to the Delft University of Technology and I specialized in innovation management with a focus on product innovation, service innovation, business model innovation. And again, with a focus on environmental impacts that are created by the introduction of new products.

After my studies, I've been working for a couple of years in sustainable innovation consulting in the Netherlands, and eventually, I started a PhD at TU Delft. The main project that I'd been focusing on during my PhD it's a larger Horizon 2020 project: the European project that focuses on implementing technology in the port of Rotterdam to recover resources and raw materials from industrial wastewater. So this is part of the circular economy strategy action plan of the European Commission, which is about using fewer resources to sustain the European economy and at the same time producing less waste. 

And now I finished my PhD, but I'm still working on the project that I just mentioned. And I'm continuing in academia as a postdoctoral researcher.

How design can be used to create services and interactions between companies

When I was studying I realized that working with sustainability and circular economy, when it comes to design, it requires open rating on multiple different levels.

My personal journey started on the product level. This is what I was doing 10 years ago when I was studying and I was designing new products, for example, chairs, tables, bicycles, looking at how you can produce this product in such a way that you reduce their impact. That entails choosing certain materials, choosing certain production processes. Also make sure that all the pieces that make up the product could, for example, be disassembled when you stop to use the product so that you can separate different materials and recycle all the materials that make up the product. This is one technical product level that is very important to look at when you work with design for sustainability at the same time making sure that the product is recycled.
It is not just a product but a service: you have to put services in place to make sure that certain material, when a product is no longer used, is sent to the recycler and then the recycler reprocesses that material and sends it back to the company that made the product so that new products can be created without using new materials.

All of this is a service and these services need to be designed. You have this product level, but around it, you need to look at the service level to make all these transactions possible.

At the same time services are provided by organizations and they fit within the entire business model of an organization. It's also important to take that into consideration to see to what extent it's possible for organizations to put in place new services, such as recycling service because sometimes it's not as easy as it may seem. Also this requires establishing collaborative capacity between multiple organizations. And this is not only a technical challenge, but it's also a social challenge: you need to get people in the same room and discuss how all of this can happen. 

This is what my research has been largely about so far looking at how you can use design as a process to create new products, but also to create new services to look at the business models of these organizations, and also as a process to facilitate interactions across multiple organizations to make sure that they can collaborate and make all of this possible.

The key role of the designer in facilitating discussions

The most impactful level is when it impacts the business model and collaboration with other organizations: it is the highest level, which is essential and it's also less tangible. I wouldn't say that one level is more important than another, I'm just saying that these levels need to be considered at the same time. 

To make it a bit concrete I'll make an example: we talk about the project in the port of Rotterdam that I'm working on now. This project is about implementing technology. Different technology manufacturers create this technology, and everyone provides a different piece. These pieces are put together and it's a set of filters and boilers. We attach these filters and boilers to the wastewater outlet of a factory and then the dirty water will go in and the clean water will go out. Within this box of equipment, you recover resources, materials, for example, magnesium minerals,  which you can then sell and put back on the market.

There is a product level, which is the technology - the boilers, the filters could be considered the product - and there are some industrial designers, some engineers that will design this product. At the same time, this technology will be implemented in a factory and installing this technology in this factory is assemblies: is ​something also you need to look into, you need to define who's going to do it.

At the same time, you have multiple organizations that are doing this, you have companies that provide the wastewater, you have all the technology manufacturers that I mentioned, you also have research institutions: you need to study this business model to understand whether they can work together because, depending on how the business model of your company works, the company has different priorities. Then, you try to define a way to make all of it work and they find out they can work together. 

So this is an example of a circular economy project: as you can see, these nested levels come into play all at once. And it's challenging because you have many actors and you have a lot of different expertise that come into place.

Now as a designer, I would have been focusing on my research. 
Designers as general specialists can have the role of bringing these expertise and different profiles together to co-define the solution.
Designers are not like engineers in the sense that they are specialized in technical stuff, but designers are general specialists: they're able to bring different profiles together to work with multidisciplinary teams, on different topics. 

And in doing this - it's not only about the profile of the designer of course - it's about the expertise and the specific skills.
So for example, designers are trained in visual thinking, so then if you need to communicate a quite complicated subject, you can sketch it to make sure that all the people in the room that need to agree on what is going to be done, really understand what we're talking about.
This seems obvious when you're involved in the project, but it's not so obvious to make sure that a marketing professional and a chemical engineer from two different companies understand each other and understand what is being done, it can be quite challenging.
That's an example of how designers can play a key role: talk to both understand their language, understand the priorities and then bring them together and facilitate the discussion between them.

The facilitation’s very important. 
Depending on the focus of the project, designers can also do different things. Now, the project that I talked about it's very technical, but in projects that are less technical designers can also play a role in prototyping. 

The prototypes in general are quick and cheap to produce and they allow us to see whether a certain business can work. You can test the prototype instead of testing a full-scale product. 

Startups and big companies: a different way of implementing a new circular solution

I've been working both with small enterprises and with larger companies and I would say it's quite different. The main differences boil down to the speed at which you can work and the capacity to make an impact that you have. 

When you're working with smaller companies - startups in general - don't have a business model yet, or they're working to create their business model. So they're much more agile to experiment, to find new solutions. Then you try out different things and then you iterate the creation of the business model. And in this process, you try to merge the business requirements with environmental requirements to reduce impact.

For example, I was working as part of circular strategies together with two colleagues at a music festival in the North of the Netherlands. There was this innovation event connected to the music festival where multiple startups showed different ideas to see whether they could make a business out of it.

There was a company that was selling a solution to charge mobile devices based on solar panels. They were trying to find a way to make this into a service that could be sold to festival visitors. They didn't have a business model yet in place, so we were helping them to create this business model to see if customers would pay for this idea. They were open to experimenting. 

We've been working - also as part of circular strategies - with larger companies that already have a business model in place. In particular, there was a company that was trying to sell their products as a service because they found out that there would be a big market opportunity. And at the same time, an opportunity to reduce the impact of all the products that after being used would be trashed even though many of the components of these products we're still good. 

While I've been in this company to make a plan, to make this transition from selling products to selling a service and fixing the products and keeping them alive for longer, we realized that there were many departments and not everyone agrees on what should be the way forward. And often, the sustainability department and the financial department have quite different priorities. So this made it a lot more difficult to implement the new solution quickly.

On the other hand, if you manage after compromising, iterating and getting buy-in from people to get at the end of this process and have a big company implement the solution, then, of course, the impact is much bigger. 

But it's a lot more difficult. And also when working with big companies, you realize it's not only up to the company itself, but it's also up to other actors in the same industry that the company needs to collaborate with.

Now there are big companies that are trying to work with a more corporate venture approach. That means that the innovation department or parts of the innovation department or specific efforts within the innovation department are structured as small startups. And this hopefully allows me to work quicker.

Reducing imports through the circular economy

The European guidelines for sustainability are definitely influencing the market in Europe, especially the European Commission is doing a lot of work to catalyze the circular economy. There is an action plan, which has been in place already for a few years, that was updated last year and it is becoming more and more important.

The legislation so far is essential to foster the transition. It's also not particularly stringent. If the legislation was more stringent big companies would have the urgency to act, otherwise they could not be in business, this is not the case yet, but I think it's going to happen.

It's just gonna take some time because, in the backend of all this, there is the issue of material scarcity. A lot of materials that we need to sustain our economy are depleting, are finishing and for instance, the materials that you need for batteries for electric vehicles are not available in Europe. They need to be imparted a lot of these, often from countries like China, Russia that have different interests compared to Europe. 

European legislation is trying to monitor these imports and make sure that in the future the EU will not be too dependent on these other countries. And to do that, these materials need to be kept in the loop. We cannot just throw them in a landfill: we need to keep them alive and keep reusing them. 

This is exactly the goal of the project that I'm involved in, the port of Rotterdam is so that project, in particular, is about recovering magnesium from wastewater. 
Now it's largely imported from China and Russia. We need magnesium for a lot of different things: you need it to make electric cable covers, fire attack them, for example. So then, if we don't trash the magnesium in wastewater, but we recover it, we can keep using it for these industrial applications. And we are less dependent on imports. 

There are a lot more materials that are really important that come into play into this issue like batteries, energy, batteries of electric vehicles, it's also a large part of it.

The different sustainable transitions on a local and global scale

You need both levels: the global scale and the local scale. At some point, these levels come together and in time a transition is happening, but it's not so structured: there's not a single approach. 

There is European legislation that cascades down at the level of the municipality and it forces a local context to change the way it operates. For example, in the case of the new project that I was mentioning, there is also a case in Spain. When a company that is producing some chemicals is discharging dirty water in a river and to discharge this water, they actually need to first purify it and send it to a treatment plant, which is owned by the municipality of this place in Spain. They need to pay the municipality to treat this water now because the legislation at the European level is becoming more stringent and in this way, the cost of treating that water is increasing. So the company has to pay more. 

Then they have an interest in actually implementing technologies to make wastewater treatment more efficient because then they can actually either pay less to discharge it or increase the production volumes because if they can discharge up to a certain level of toxic substances when they reach that level, they cannot increase their production processes.

Have you seen how legislation cascades down shaping changes at a more local level, there are also cases where this happens more bottom-up. For example, I was working on this project a few years ago in the South of the Netherlands, where there is a chemical factory that emits heat and CO2  as a side effect of their processes.

It's located next to some fields where there are some greenhouses with tomatoes. So then someone - from a local initiative -  had the idea to channel this heat and carbon emissions into the greenhouse because it is necessary to keep the temperature high for growing the tomatoes. 

The approaches are different, the sources of funding are different, the drivers can be different, but at the same time, it sought part of a transition that at some point will need to happen because the economy keeps growing and the materials are not infinite. So in one way or another, this will need to be optimized. And this is what we are all trying to do here in China.

In China, for example, the very big ecological driver is pollution because the industrialization that took place over there in the past decades had very severe effects on the environment and the front on the health of people. So the Chinese government started to worry about this and then transitioned to a circular economy also to reduce pollution, to reduce waste in the air and the water. 

3 different approaches to facilitate the circular transition of companies

If you read about the circular economy, especially the scientific lectures, you will realize that mainly it boils down to the idea of reducing environmental impacts of production and at the same time preserving this idea of economic growth.

There are thoughts and theories about this since the sixties and a lot of people have been putting forward different concrete approaches to make this happen. 

So it's a big body of knowledge that can get quite detailed, it can get quite complex and therefore sometimes it's difficult for organizations to actually use it in practice.

The work that we've been doing with circular strategies as academics has been mostly about reading all this stuff, making it simpler and then translating it into a format that companies can use. So to bring this knowledge to these companies and help them to work with these theories themselves to change the way they're operating.

We've been working a lot as translators and facilitators, so for example one of my colleagues Yan has been studying different strategies that companies can use to consume fewer resources. For example, selling services instead of products, recycling... There are many different strategies that you can use. He read about all this stuff and then he created a set of cards that make it very simple to understand, so companies can go through these cards and brainstorm ideas.

Phil, my other colleague, has been studying the dynamics of collaboration, where you need multiple companies collaborating if you want to keep achieving economic growth, but also reducing environmental impact. 

He's been studying all these strategies and different ways that companies can use to collaborate more effectively and then he created a tool, as a poster template, which allows people from different companies to sit around the same table and discuss how they're going to collaborate taking into consideration their vision, their mission, the risks that are involved in this. Because when you collaborate with other companies one of the main issues is the risk because the success of the giant effort is also dependent on people that are not your employees. So as a manager, you think "okay the manager from the other company is going to handle his job properly. And if it doesn't, this will affect me". This workshop about collaboration is largely about this, getting all these concerns on the table so that they can be discussed upfront.

And going back to the beginning, being a designer, I've been thinking about the specific actions that you can design and do to translate a collaborative idea into an action plan. So you need to build prototypes, you need to plan specific contact moments. You need to also make use of drawings to make sure that all the factories understand what's going on. And I created an intervention to help these companies to make this data plan of all the actions we need to do.

The benefits of the set of facilitation tools that follow the circular transition process

The benefit of this approach, in general, is also the value that I try to deliver with my work, I think it's not necessarily about what exactly it's going to be done. There are many different approaches and many different things that could be done. The reason why these things that need to happen for making the transition possible are not happening is that sometimes it's political, sometimes it's economic. 

It's very difficult to understand why the transition to a circular economy is so slow, it's a complicated condition. But I believe that the collaborative approach that we propose, it's important because it catalyzes discussion between different actors, and in the end this discussion is essential to promote the cultural shift.

If everyone keeps talking about the need for a circular economy, eventually the more people talk about it, the higher chances that this will happen fast. So that's what we try to promote: a collective dialogue because no one alone can make this happen. We need as many people as possible on board. And for people on board, you need to make theory simple to understand. And sometimes, in academia, you dive into complexity, but being immersed in complexity, you tend to forget that things outside work are different. And this is what we've been trying to be really aware of during our academic efforts to dive into this complexity, but at the same time, remembering that it must be used outside and therefore it must be simplified.

Two different approaches to stimuli: from academia to industry

In the academic world and the industrial world, the language is different and the time you have is also different. So in academia, you spend a year writing an academic paper and in industry things happen much faster. 

So if you're writing a paper in just six months when you're into the process, there is COVID, you're still writing on that subject, but what happens in the industry it's completely disrupted, but you can't disrupt what you were writing about in the paper, because you're into a process that you cannot change at that point.  

In academia, you work slower and sometimes there is less flexibility to respond to external stimuli, but at the same time, you really take the time to understand.

In industry, sometimes you don't have the luxury of having all this time because at the end of the year, the bottom line, the profit and loss statement needs to be positive and you need to prioritize that rather than discovering the truth. 

So, I think it's very nice to be at the boundary between academia and industry because you can find ways to bring knowledge outside and make sure that it is used.

About the author

Brian Baldassarre

Circular Economy expert