8 min readJul 31, 2019

Notes on the circular design potential

World Circular Economy Forum 2019 / Helsinki-Finland

Circular Economy, in a nutshell, is the opposite of the make-use-waste linear economy. The linear approach proves not only to be inefficient and cause main Anthropocene era challenges but it is also at the risk of becoming obsolete in surplus economies where people have satisfied most of their product needs and it is simply hard to keep selling more. A circular approach to producing value in economies is restorative and regenerative by design. It aims at ‘closing the loop’ and returning resources to material cycles as well as to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times.

Therefore, a circular approach to economy deeply disrupts how design practice should operate & how design decisions are made.

Probably the most exciting fact of this transition is that circular economy is not about blaming linear models and stakeholders. It is all about large opportunities for developing new business models while saving human in nature and helping out our environment and societies restore.

The role of design, Design can be used in organizations at various levels. According to the “Design Ladder” developed by the Danish Design Center, there are 4 main depths in which you may use it. The 1st is ‘no design’ where design decisions are made unconsciously and it is not visible in the process. 2nd is styling, where design is seen only as of the final stage, usually of form creation. At the 3rd level, the design is not only a result but defines a way of approaching the product development process. Level 4 uses design as a strategy to analyze the whole concept, model, strategy or its part. In this case, the focus of the design process is on the business vision of the organization, the desired business areas and the role of design in the value chain of the company. At this level, the design is part of organization vision, strategy, and products.

Design Ladder developed by the Danish Design Center

What can design do for circularity? A circular design is applicable at the 3rd and 4th level — as a process and as a strategy. Design role is crucial in the disruption and change of linear process into circular. Therefore, designers bear both the key paradigm-shifting practice, as well as a top responsibility.

Designer’s response-ability, in this case, means an ability to respond to the current change we are making from linear to circular.

Being aware of such power to create an impact in response to change is, in my opinion, the best definition of a designer’s responsibility. Seeing design from that perspective may remind you of the timeless quote saying that:

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few” (Victor Papanek 1971, Design for the Real World)

Now, more than ever, we need to be more conscious of the earliest design stage and measure the potential impact before we draw strategic scenarios for new, circular products and business models. Thankfully, we have already learned a lot from the linear economy mistakes and its consequences. This gives us a lot of both emotional and scientific insights to transform towards circularity through design and create the right economic, societal and environmental impact. Let me give you 4 simple, straightforward examples of how this is already done.


Waste is emotionally the simplest challenge to address as it is one of the most visible consequences of the earliest design process phases. Whether it is a loss of material, energy or function, waste is a design decision. In the end, waste is a human invention — it does not exist in nature. It does exist in human nature, however, it is not the end consumer or user who should be responsible for it, especially for taking actions on it, such as recycling. At the end recycling or upcycling left out of the hands of the manufacturer is not a solution, but only just for producing waste.


Design decisions may stop waste at its starting blocks. Circular Material Passport is a straightforward example. It is an open-source tool, supported by the European Commission and shared on a dedicated platform. It may be used at the early design stages to make the right choices for material and assembly technology. It helps document it for the later stages of disassembly and recirculation into new products at the end of their cycles. Maersk Line, a global shipping container speditor, uses material passports as a key design component to produce marine vessels for reuse and recovery of steel. It is crucial for the industry, where up to 98% of the products are made of that material with high pressure for going green. As Jacob Sterling, Head of Charge Management Excellence at Maersk Line, says that:

“This is not just about shipping — it’s about how we manage steel as a resource globally”

In a consequence, Maersk regains greater control over the materials used ultimately making new ships from old.


’Western’ societies live in a surplus economy where it is hard to continue just producing and selling more products since most of the ownership needs are satisfied. This brings a transition from designing for ownership to designing for use, where manufacturers benefit from keeping the product within their range of influence. By selling the product-as-a-service they flip the traditional business model to a service.

The well-known example is Phillips pay-per-lux that offers light-as-a-service. How does it work? Client, e.g. owner of office space, pays a monthly membership fee to Phillips for delivering the best light solution matching the needs of office users. It provides the exact amount of light for workspaces that employees need for specific tasks — no more, no less. Also, this service takes care of the light design, set up, maintenance, replacements, as well as paying the electricity bills for light consumed. This shifts major design decisions that now focus not only on high quality and long-lasting materials or technology but also on early product innovation. Delivered lighting equipment is designed to require as little maintenance and replacement as possible. It is also energy efficient and placed only where and when needed by the users. Such service flip has impacted the lightbulb design, where it does not need to be fully replaced anymore as it’s new fuse component became the main replacement part. This shifts the design focus from obsolesce to durability, easy maintenance, and low energy consumption.

Phillips pay-per-lux


Currently, most of the products are manufactured before they find their user or owner. As a result, energy and materials are wasted to create things that take space in warehouses and stores for extended periods of time, frequently to be discarded at the end.

Made-to-order solutions help to respond to unique user expectations and produce only what is actually needed. Today, such a process can be almost instant in the economies of scale, thanks to the technology available.

Tylko is a Polish manufacturer producing made-to-order furniture on a larger scale. Thanks to their algorithm, blended in a user-friendly app, they produce customized solutions as soon as their clients choose exactly what they need. As a result, their warehouse is short-term filled with custom made flat-packed furniture ready for prompt shipping while no material is wasted on products that need to be sold. This brings a shift from designing the product right, as a first step, to primarily designing the right product, exactly the way that is needed.



Circular economy brings opportunities for new business models that can be used as a plug-and-play solution since they adapt to a wider spectrum of industries. Let’s take Grover as an example. It offers a rental service option (online and offline) to large retailers such as Media Markt or Saturn. Grover takes care of repairing and redistributing of returned products. This allows the equipment to be re-used multiple times and stretches the life cycle of the product. For users living in surplus economies, such solution gives access to many new experiences without a need for ownership.


What is most exciting is that Grover offers white label business model solutions as well as facilitation transition to creating circular products. For example, it may help any product manufacturer to rethink and redesign their models to create products for rental, repair, and redistribution. This may create a larger, scalable industry impact on the path towards circularity.

Such white label solutions help all actors in the economy not to compete on knowledge and models but rather on the implementation of a circular approach to different industries and product specifications.

It is one of the drivers bringing circular economy knowledge into action. No surprise, Grover has recently received a new investment from Circularity Capital.

Use what already exists. The circular design is about everything but blame and pessimism. Rather it presents us with new kinds of opportunities for disrupting old business and product models that simply do not work anymore in current economies. It points us to the value that is brought by transforming the design process from linear to circular.

In the end, the design is not about creating completely new things, but rather about creating completely new combinations of existing elements. It is often done by challenging the existing status quo and redefining strategic design decision at the earliest stages.

To know more visit: Circular Design Guide or The changing relationship between people and goods.

#circulareconomy #wasteishumaninvention #changepilots #circularchange #circulardesign

Text: Henryk Stawicki, co-founder of Change Pilots.




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