Circular design doesn’t start with the user

Partnerships and material take centre-stage in circularisation

I have been very fortunate to take part in Luxinnovation’s Circular Design Challenge as a Head Coach this winter. It has given me a couple of “a-ha” moments that I’d like to share, about how the concept of circular affects our work as design and innovation practitioners. It is about how to play with materials, value chains, partnerships, and business models as material for innovation – and removing the user from the centre of the equation.

The concept of Circular Economy is gradually making its way into innovation work. Personally, I’m convinced that it is a concept that is going to spread quite quickly to every corner of the business world – with a reach and impact potentially so big that “Circularisation” might be the next big thing after digitalisation. Digitalisation is a movement towards more efficient, scalable business models. Similarly, circularisation represents a move towards resource efficiency and new business models. So, if circular is going to be a main ingredient of innovation – how will it affect how we work? First of all, it will require us to invert the innovation process by lifting the user out of the centre, and instead focus on partnerships and materials. I’ll explain why:

Circularisation will require us to invert the innovation process by lifting the user out of the centre, and instead focus on partnerships and materials.
Jan Walter Parr, CCO of EGGS Design

Two examples of circular business models

Capriole Concept – turning coffee waste into business

Conceived with an entrepreneurial spirit by Marko Klacar, together with the project partner Mondo Del Caffè the Capriole concept centers around using coffee waste (grounds) as raw material for new products. Read more about Marko's story here.

While many of us are aware coffee waste can be used for many purposes (fertiliser, growing mushrooms, …) we have seen few examples of exploiting this resource on an industrial scale. Through research and dialogue with potential partners, Marko has piece by piece put together a model that scales – potentially turning tons of waste into a valuable resource.

CEGO Concept – space saving furniture to improve quality of life

Skillfully crafted by Julie Conrad, the ideo behind CEGO, is to offer space saving furniture elements as part of “semi-furnished” apartments.

The furniture can be beds, closets, tables or other, made from recycled and recyclable fibreboards, offered to tenants as part of the rental scheme. The circular logic of the concept is to replace big pieces of furniture with locally sourced and recycled materials – covering valuable functions in the home.

Key lesson #1: Partnerships as pivot point

Throughout the winter, the teams of the Circular Design Challenge have shaped and moulded their ideas into solid circular business models. I have seen several examples where the decisive element for deciding the direction of the model, was dialogue with potential partners. In the case of Capriole, it was a talk with a coffee roaster that made the pieces of the puzzle click into place. For CEGO, it was a fruitful meeting with an actor in the building industry. In both cases, the idea didn’t quite find its form until the opportunities provided by a partnership were identified. The impact of the partner dialogue was so big that it represented a decisive “pivot” point in the process – after which the product, value proposition, material choice, etc. were redefined. Could it be, that the key to Circularisation, is acknowledging that partnerships is one of the main design materials?

Could it be, that the key to circularisation, is acknowledging that partnerships is one of the main design materials?
Jan Walter Parr, CCO of EGGS Design

Key lesson #2: Material knowledge is needed

Another, perhaps more obvious observation, is that circularisation requires deep material knowledge. In the case of coffee waste, a great deal of blending, mixing, roasting, drying, googling, and other material experiments was a prerequisite to finding the idea. The material has a tough job: If circular economy is a movie, then the material is the superhero. It needs to be available in abundance, preferably locally, not require additional energy, be shapable to something desirable and useful, remain intact for a long time, and preferably be reusable for other purposes. In the case of furniture, such a superhero material was found in fibreboards – which could be sourced locally, shaped desirably, and reused to infinity. In our work with circularisation, identifying materials to work with is a craft of its own.

The material has a tough job: If circular economy is a movie, then the material is the superhero.
Jan Walter Parr, CCO of EGGS Design

Flipping the innovation process

All in all, we can say that the most significant change in how we innovate and design for circular value streams is that it requires us to postpone the user focus. For those of us used to working in the “human centric” school of innovation – the two key lessons in this article can represent a turnaround in the way we practice innovation. We are used to putting user insight and identifying human needs at the start of every process. But piecing together the puzzle of partners and materials in a circular value stream requires a more systemic approach. Many are already advocating the move from human centric, to planet centric. I believe partners, materials, and value chains are essential building blocks for this.

Sounds interesting?

Jan Walter Parr

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Jan Walter Parr
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