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Going back to the drawing board can help demystify circularity

Sponsored: Success in circularity requires thinking systemically. These four key steps will help you succeed.


When in doubt, draw it out.

This article is sponsored by Edge Environment.

Sketching is a fundamental skill in the design world, and nothing can be more invigorating than putting pen to paper and seeing your idea come to life. A blank piece of paper or a freshly cleaned whiteboard is the pinnacle of possibility, a true blank slate. However, as I’ve learned working in design and sustainability the past decade, blank slates are hard to come by. 

Trying to develop a circular product or service — or to make an existing one more circular — can feel like trying to use someone else’s scratch paper as your own canvas. It can be unorganized, messy and filled with scrawled processes, models and systems, written over and over again in permanent ink.

Visualizing current linear models of production would result in straight lines spanning multiple countries, tracing the journey from raw material extraction to manufacturing, transportation, use and disposal across continents. Trying to create a circle out of this mess by simply "closing the loop" by joining disposal back to production becomes a logistical (and artistic) nightmare. So why are we still too often approaching circularity at the last possible intervention point in a product’s lifecycle?

Repurposing waste materials into valuable inputs is indeed a key element of building a circular economy, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Building true circularity requires treatment of the root cause of our waste problem, not just the visible symptoms. Addressing the root cause can be done through combining three strategic approaches. Design thinking, human centered design and systems thinking are all topical buzzwords that allude to a singular goal: approaching our problems holistically. This means thinking inclusively of every stakeholder and the systems they are a part of — from the individuals using our products, to those making them, to the environments in which our products are used. These considerations occur at a micro and a macro level, individual elements and complex systems, bottom up and top down.

A comprehensive approach to circularity requires "going back to the drawing board," so to speak. As tempting as it would be to stamp a large, metaphorical solid circle in the middle of that scribbled page, doing so would be akin to attempting everything all at once. Instead, approach this challenge one step at a time, starting with these four steps: 

1. Visualize the system

Circular design begins with understanding your stakeholders and the systems you’re operating in — or in terms of our metaphor, understanding what has already been scribbled across your page before putting pen to paper yourself.

In practical application, understanding systems and stakeholders can be done through dynamic tools such as systems maps and stakeholder diagrams to help your organization visualize the impact of its products or services. Systems maps can start simple by illustrating linear stocks and flows, showing how an increase of one input or activity may affect another. The more activities and actions that are layered into the map, the more comprehensive a picture of your system you’ll see.

An onion diagram is a similar tool for identifying your stakeholders. This model begins with a central goal in the center, with concentric rings expanding outward and stakeholder groups identified in each ring. Depending on what’s most useful to your business, the rings can represent different relationships of stakeholders or steps in a process.

For example, perhaps you’re mapping who is a stakeholder within your company, within your supply chain, within your customers, within your industry, within your geographic location and beyond. Take things a step further by comparing your stakeholder maps with your systems diagram. How do the two relate to one another? How does one inform the other? Once you’ve done that, you’re ready for the next step.

2. Start before the beginning

Now that you’ve identified your stakeholders and the systems at play, it’s time to determine what those stakeholders need and care about.

To find ways to meaningfully engage with your stakeholders, first consider what methods of communication and engagement your stakeholders will prefer. Use tools such as broad but targeted surveys, one-on-one interviews and empathy mapping to zero in on the needs and wants of your groups.

Make sure to listen to what’s not being said and read between the lines to find the root problem, cause, or need at hand. As Steve Jobs famously quipped about Apple, "People don't know what they want until you show it to them."

Consider how you might meet the fundamental needs of your stakeholders, while also delighting and igniting their wants. Do your stakeholders really need a new car, or do they need reliable transportation? Do they need a wardrobe of newly made clothes, or simply clothing that’s new to them? Identify your goal and vision for what your perfect circular process looks like, then it’s time to get drawing.

3. Take action today

What do the most effective designers, entrepreneurs and scientists all have in common? They know how that trying and failing at 100 plans will get them closer to achieving their desired result than endlessly pursuing a single "perfect" plan.

Whether you call it an experiment, a trial or prototyping, testing ideas and learning from your successes and failures is key to building a new circular economy. Because the circular systems often involve behavior change and adjusting to new systems, they cannot be planned in a vacuum. They need to be trialed and tested over and over again to find what truly serves all stakeholders involved.

To make progress, it’s necessary to balance our intentionality and planned efforts with rolled up sleeves and getting to work. Devise different levels of prototyping. Can you start a trial program within your team, your company, a group of loyal customers? How might you test new materials for circular products? Who could you partner with for more circular sourcing? That last question brings us to the final step.

4. Get connected

This step might be one of the most important of all, as cross-collaboration is a key pillar of circularity.

As your company begins exploring and experimenting, start finding connections in your community. Remember your stakeholder and systems maps? These are great indicators of the different communities you might not have even realized you’re a part of, whether they’re based on a common location, industry or service need.

Maybe there’s a local business with waste materials that would be perfect for the product you’re designing, or perhaps your services might be in high demand from regional government offices.

As one example, our consultancy helped a winery client find a use for the waste PET backing of their wine labels, repurposing it into recycled PET bottles for a home goods company’s dish soap. Both companies said that they would have never connected without our facilitation.

Look to connectors such as consultancies or other partners you work with, host or join circular innovation forums, or broach the topic at networking events — all ideally with companies both within and outside of your industry. Most folks working toward a circular economy share some sustainability values and might be willing to provide more open-source support to further the collective mission. 

Building circularity is undeniably challenging. Although it may feel drawn out, pausing to look at the bigger picture might just give you the perspective needed to move forward.

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