Putting the circular economy at the heart of cities isn’t just a job for the waste sector – it also needs product designers, says Useful Projects’ director of circular design and founding director of Thomas.Matthews, Sophie Thomas.
“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them… Never before in history have grown men sat down and seriously designed electric hair brushes, rhinestone-covered shoe horns, and mink carpeting for bathrooms, and then drawn up elaborate plans to make and sell these gadgets to millions of people…
“By creating whole new species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed.”
It is not enough to create beautiful things that leave a trail of waste and scarred earth behind them.
As a female member of this dangerous group – as set out by Victor Papanek in his 1971 book Design for the real world – and considering the climate crisis, what should designers like me do?
Designing for circular systems right from the start is more important now than ever. Papanek calls design ‘the most powerful tool that shapes the world’, and this demands high social and moral responsibility from those who wield it.
It is not enough to create beautiful things that leave a trail of waste and scarred earth behind them. Your work must be useful, educating, and regenerative – that is, it should leave the world in a more flourishing position than it was before.
Many, like me, believe this is possible. Hard, but possible – and it’s the more rewarding road to take. With such an uncertain future ahead, I want to be part of the positive transformation to recovery.
The kind of paradigm shift we are talking about is ambitious to say the least. Think of the entire global economic system, extensive global supply chains, multiple stakeholders, regulations, governments, cultures, etc. So, we must deal with complexity at every level. Designers are suited to doing this, with the skill to think about big systems before zooming into details, from material specifications to use life.
Reuse and repair have big roles to play as we move away from single use and try to move our way up the waste hierarchy.
We often get it wrong. I have met frustrated citizens who, when quizzed about their recycling habits, admit to being ‘material illiterate’. This is probably not their fault. We have designed paper that feels like plastic and plastic that behaves like wood. This is not helpful when we want materials to come back into use again and they get put in the wrong recovery stream because people think they are something else.
Sometimes, we don’t think with systems in mind. Reuse and repair have big roles to play as we move away from single use and try to move our way up the waste hierarchy. However, designing for these systems means considering different issues: using hard-wearing materials that won’t break after a couple of uses; circulation design for reverse logistics; cleaning, repacking, and so on; reluctant business uptake and citizen confidence; and more stringent regulations.
All too often, designers don’t look far enough into the future. We can get stuck on our design solutions being the ultimate result, but we need to think beyond first-user experience and consider post-material recovery and conversion back into raw material. The phrase ‘100% recyclable’ is as unhelpful and misleading as it gets – it guarantees nothing. A design outcome is just a blip in the life of those atoms of the materials.
When you look at the whole picture, however, gather the data, talk to the whole extended supply chain, understand materials and processes, and align to the systems, you can see where design becomes the tool for good and will catalyse the paradigm shift that we all need so urgently.