26. October 2022

Rethink the system!

The future is circular

by Sarah Dorkenwald

A spe­cial kind of vac­u­um clean­er was already on dis­play dur­ing mcbw start up a few years ago. It stood out not only because of its unique aes­thet­ics with a hous­ing made of cork, but also because of its func­tion­al­i­ty, which con­sist­ed pri­mar­i­ly of extend­ing its ser­vice life. The vac­u­um clean­er was designed by Franz Jung­hans and Christof Mühe, then prod­uct design stu­dents at the Bauhaus Uni­ver­si­ty in Weimar. Instead of a com­plete hous­ing, the vac­u­um clean­er is made up of indi­vid­ual ele­ments that can be eas­i­ly replaced or repaired. Instruc­tions on the Inter­net are intend­ed to help peo­ple do this inde­pen­dent­ly and with­out incur­ring large ser­vice costs.

The entire life cycle counts

When it comes to a vac­u­um clean­er or oth­er com­mer­cial­ly avail­able elec­tri­cal appli­ance, most peo­ple asso­ciate sus­tain­abil­i­ty with ener­gy effi­cien­cy, mean­ing low­er pow­er con­sump­tion dur­ing use com­pared to oth­er appli­ances or pre­vi­ous mod­els. How­ev­er, if one wants to equate ener­gy-effi­cient with sus­tain­able, the prod­uct should ful­fill oth­er fac­tors. These include, among oth­er things, ser­vice life as well as the ener­gy used in man­u­fac­tur­ing. This in turn includes oth­er aspects that should be con­sid­ered from the out­set dur­ing prod­uct devel­op­ment: Can the prod­uct be repaired? What mate­ri­als are used and are they recy­cled or recy­clable? What hap­pens after the end of use?

Mate­ri­al­i­ty plays a cen­tral role in the ener­gy bal­ance and involves weigh­ing renew­able or finite raw mate­ri­als. But trans­porta­tion also con­sumes ener­gy, and is not only used to trans­port con­sumer goods from A to B. The pro­duc­tion of raw mate­ri­als and indi­vid­ual pro­duc­tion steps are also often dis­trib­uted around the globe. A lap­top, for exam­ple, con­sumes between one-third and one-half of the ener­gy it needs dur­ing its entire life cycle of sev­er­al years, from pro­duc­tion and use to dis­pos­al. The use­ful life of this device should be cor­re­spond­ing­ly long. (Source: https://www.ecodesignkit.de).

The entire prod­uct cycle must be considered.

Strict­ly speak­ing, we can also only speak of an elec­tric car as ener­gy-effi­cient or cli­mate-friend­ly if the entire prod­uct cycle is tak­en into account, i.e. not only the elec­tric­i­ty for dri­ving, but also the ener­gy for the pro­duc­tion of elec­tric­i­ty and the car, as well as the dis­pos­al of the vehi­cle. In addi­tion, due to the ener­gy-inten­sive bat­tery pro­duc­tion process, an e‑car ini­tial­ly gen­er­ates high­er emis­sions com­pared to a car with an inter­nal com­bus­tion engine. The lat­ter requires an aver­age of five to sev­en met­ric tons of green­house gas­es in pro­duc­tion, while the fig­ure for elec­tric cars is ten to twelve met­ric tons. (Source: https://www.verivox.de/).

So there is still a long but indis­pens­able road to cli­mate-friend­ly e‑mobility — and an even longer one to cli­mate neutrality.

Trans­for­ma­tion through design

Tech­ni­cal inno­va­tions alone are not enough to meet the require­ments of envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly alter­na­tives. Com­pa­nies are faced with the chal­lenge of tak­ing into account both eco­nom­ic and social issues along the val­ue chain and of ques­tion­ing and rethink­ing exist­ing sys­tems from the ground up.

Espe­cial­ly meth­ods, tools and mod­els of think­ing that come from design help to accom­pa­ny these trans­for­ma­tive process­es in a mul­ti-per­spec­tive and trans­dis­ci­pli­nary way in order to stim­u­late future-ori­ent­ed forms of pro­duc­tion and new developments.

The fact that it is not so easy to design bet­ter prod­ucts was illus­trat­ed in 2019 by the exhi­bi­tion “Cir­co­lu­tion,” devel­oped by master’s stu­dents of indus­tri­al design and archi­tec­ture at the Tech­ni­cal Uni­ver­si­ty of Munich. They addressed the ques­tion of why we still attach such lit­tle val­ue to things, mate­ri­als and recy­clables that they end up in the trash rather than being reused in mate­r­i­al cycles.

They want­ed to show how com­plex the ques­tion of the right mate­r­i­al is by means of sim­ple com­par­isons, such as a cloth bag and a paper bag. While the pro­duc­tion of the paper bag is usu­al­ly worth­while after at least three uses, the fab­ric bag, on the oth­er hand, must be used at least 130 times if the impact on the water or the acid­i­fi­ca­tion of the soil is also includ­ed in the life cycle assessment.

The design work ‘Bot­tom Ash Obser­va­to­ry’ by Dutch design­er Christien Mein­derts­ma also shows us in a visu­al­ly cap­ti­vat­ing and impres­sive way how waste­ful we are with our envi­ron­ment. Mein­derts­ma exam­ined the slag from 100 kilo­grams of incin­er­at­ed house­hold waste. From 25 kilo­grams of bot­tom ash, the waste of waste, the design­er extract­ed a wealth of valu­able mate­ri­als such as zinc, alu­minum and sil­ver. Trans­posed as an ency­clo­pe­dic book, it illus­trates the amaz­ing wealth that this slag reveals.

The future is circular

What if we could find a way to design prod­ucts, ser­vices and busi­ness mod­els in such a way that they would ben­e­fit us humans as well as the envi­ron­ment and the econ­o­my? That’s the ques­tion posed by IDEO, an inter­na­tion­al design and inno­va­tion con­sul­tan­cy. It focus­es on the Cir­cu­lar Econ­o­my as a rad­i­cal promise, replac­ing tra­di­tion­al prin­ci­ples of indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion and its throw­away econ­o­my, in favor of the Cir­cu­lar Econ­o­my model.

Togeth­er with the Ellen MacArthur Foun­da­tion, they are com­mit­ted to help­ing entre­pre­neurs and design­ers use the cir­cu­lar design guide to design cir­cu­lar process­es that keep data, nutri­ents and mate­ri­als flow­ing and trans­form their busi­ness mod­el into one that is eco­nom­i­cal­ly, social­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly suc­cess­ful. Instead of a lin­ear econ­o­my where mate­ri­als remain unused after a product’s demise, and as waste cause us humans and the envi­ron­ment major prob­lems, these “take-make-waste” ele­ments should be trans­formed into cir­cu­lar processes.

Only when waste is avoid­ed and resources cir­cu­late can nature regen­er­ate, bio­di­ver­si­ty loss be mit­i­gat­ed, and social needs be brought into focus.

The BMW Group is set­ting a good exam­ple here and invit­ed star design­er Patri­cia Urquio­la to make Cir­cu­lar Design a play­ful expe­ri­ence with­in the Group. As part of the new com­mu­ni­ca­tion and expe­ri­ence plat­form “RE:BMW Cir­cu­lar Lab”, four excit­ing char­ac­ters rep­re­sent­ing this new approach were devel­oped under her direc­tion with a great deal of cre­ativ­i­ty and exper­i­men­ta­tion to cre­ate a deep­er aware­ness of sus­tain­able action and cir­cu­lar thinking.

What is need­ed, then, is a dif­fer­ent cor­po­rate cul­ture that has the courage to open itself up to the new and the unknown.

So what is need­ed is a dif­fer­ent cor­po­rate cul­ture that has the courage to open itself up to new and unknown things.

Steel­case, with its Learn­ing and Inno­va­tion Cen­ter in Munich, is also look­ing at new cir­cu­lar forms of pro­duc­tion. In coop­er­a­tion with BASF, in the future harm­ful or even tox­ic residues pro­duced dur­ing com­put­er pro­duc­tion will no longer be incin­er­at­ed dur­ing dis­pos­al, releas­ing vast quan­ti­ties of pol­lu­tants into the atmos­phere, but will be used to man­u­fac­ture a new, ful­ly recy­clable stool.

And the big play­ers are fol­low­ing suit: In ten years at the lat­est, Ikea wants to design all its prod­ucts accord­ing to cir­cu­lar econ­o­my prin­ci­ples and pro­duce them exclu­sive­ly from recy­cled or renew­able materials.

An ardu­ous path, but if we are hon­est with our­selves, this path is not an alter­na­tive to exist­ing sys­tems, it has no alter­na­tive! In this sense: Let’s rethink the sys­tem by design!

Portrait Sarah Dorkenwald (Foto: Anna Seibel)
Sarah Dorken­wald (Foto: Anna Seibel)

The grad­u­ate (Univ) design­er Sarah Dorken­wald prac­tices a crit­i­cal approach to design in her cre­ative and the­o­ret­i­cal work. In exchange with oth­er dis­ci­plines she ques­tions com­mon approach­es and social con­ven­tions and wants to show alter­na­tives in deal­ing with resources, pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion as well as liv­ing togeth­er with cur­rent posi­tions in design. She is a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and Design in Ulm. Togeth­er with design the­o­rist Kar­i­anne Fogel­berg, Sarah Dorken­wald found­ed the Munich-based stu­dio UnDe­sig­nUnit. They com­bine skills and meth­ods from design and design the­o­ry and work at the inter­face with oth­er dis­ci­plines and forms of knowl­edge. Sarah Dorken­wald writes reg­u­lar­ly for design jour­nals as well as trade publications.