In the midst of our climate crisis there’s a desire for certainty. Show me a case study where a corporation has solved this. The thing is, they haven’t. If it was that easy, we wouldn't have the problems we do. But there is one standout case study of a renewable system that can go on endlessly and at any scale: the forest.
The nutrients created through photosynthesis are interoperable. Anyone in the system can use them. An underground mycorrhizal network connects individual plants so they can transfer water, nitrogen, and carbon based on the needs of the system. The big trees feed the little trees knowing those little trees are going to be big trees one day, and what's most important is the overall health of the system. It’s generous and collaborative and ingenious. It’s a circular economy.
Those principles that nature uses to create abundance can be hugely guiding for us. No one wants to be told we're heading toward a place where we will have less. And less is not IDEO’s vision—abundance is. But it’s a different definition of abundance, one that’s the outcome of a truly circular economy where the whole system is healthy, regenerative, and sustainable, where we’re not just exchanging value all the time, we’re building value.
Circular Design + Sustainability | IDEO
Data point after data point make clear that solutions are needed now. IDEO has long been working to surface some of those fixes, and through that process, our approach and view on how design can and should be part of the climate solution have crystallized. This marks our first piece in a series on climate, our chance to share how IDEO is thinking about and actively working on this challenge.
Since IDEO’s start we have seen the power that comes with having design in your toolkit across all industries. Design enables the development of purpose and strategy, can bring both like-minded and disparate partners together, and is proactive to change coming down the line. Its human-centered nature, tangibility, penchant for prototyping, and optimism allow it to cut through big, abstract challenges—exactly what we are staring down right now. The change that is required is a dramatic one: We need to move as a society into a state where we start living within our planetary boundaries. Circular design can help get us there by making the circular economy vision real.
The role of circular design
There are models for living in harmony with nature, and models that extract as much as possible from it. The problem is that many of our policies, governments, businesses, and lives have been based on that extractive model. We’ve long operated under a linear system: you pull resources, you sell, you consume, you dispose. Value ends. Waste is built into the system. Circular design is the antidote. You're designing with a continuous loop in mind, with the idea that value doesn't have to end. We don't extract as much from the Earth. We keep the products we use in the system.
For businesses, the circular economy is fundamentally about adopting a different kind of operating brain—one that doesn't focus on profit at all costs but instead looks at different ways in which we can create and share value. What if, instead of making money at the point that you sell something, you make it when you buy something or when you repurpose it? What if we give more weight to the people and communities who've been doing this for a long time, resurface what has been designed out by the dominant model, and find new pathways forward together?
But we still see a lot of businesses taking incremental steps towards sustainability. We'll cut a little bit of plastic off our packaging. The mindset is let’s make things less bad. That’s a model that deals with consequences rather than redesigning upstream. We aspire to be part of deeper, more foundational change. At its most successful, circular design can lead to creating a system of abundance because resources are regenerated and remain within the system. It’s a system that is not designed to be less than but greater than, and IDEO is actively working on moving us toward that greater-than future.
The pursuit of a circular economy can also be the pursuit of abundance. Instead of extracting resources to use once and toss, we regenerate and reuse them, keeping them within the system.
How we get there
Embedding circular design into your business requires transformation, which is something we as humans and organizations tend to fear. One way to circumvent that fear is to maintain a people-centric view. Who are the people within your company at this very moment who you can motivate and activate to start working toward climate solutions? IDEO helps companies and organizations take the first step by simply showing them they already have resources who can start to unlock gnarly problems like climate change, but we do so with empathy—acknowledging the pressures at hand and any current limits to their capabilities.
From there, you can begin to build awareness and understanding around what circularity means in the context of your organization and your leadership. What are the possibilities? What might change and how? What’s the first move that you can test? By doing that, you take a staggering question and start breaking it down into addressable parts.
It’s something we’ve done with the overwhelming question of how to end our dependence on single-use plastic bags. The planet uses one trillion of them annually despite their average use of just 13 minutes and lifespan of 400+ years. As the innovation partner of the Beyond the Bag Challenge we are working with major retailers, environmental organizations, start-ups, and individuals to prototype reimagined ways to easily and conveniently transport goods as plastic bags have done.
It’s an optimistic view: that there absolutely are answers that we can bring to life when the questions are global ones and the scope is hard to comprehend. We’re comfortable navigating in contexts with a high level of uncertainty and ambiguity and providing people with the creative confidence to come on that journey.
This optimistic view is a lens that is common in playful conditions. The curious and adventurous attitude that children possess is one that easily lends itself to engaging with complexity, as is needed now, rather than running away from it. While play can sound or feel frivolous in the context of the big questions we are facing and the large ecosystem of players, it’s a valuable design and collaboration tool. When we are immersed in playful conditions, barriers begin to lower, trust begins to build, and we become less adversarial and more cooperative. Play allows us to set aside our assumptions and engage with our imaginations. It allows us to imagine a future that does not yet exist.
And when it comes to that future view, a company’s individual climate concerns are almost never siloed, and that means they can’t be solved in isolation. Our bird's eye view across many different industries also has us putting a premium on collaboration. Our answer is to bring together coalitions of people, multiple stakeholders across the ecosystem who may not have collaborated together before but really should in order to design circular solutions for the future.
With the Circular Economy of Food CoLab, for instance, we work together to explore challenges the food system is facing with companies that include Danone, Kroger and Electrolux, as well as many experts and NGOs and foundations and others who are working on making a better food system. Together we are driving towards making some big systemic changes that address the big systemic questions that cannot be solved by any one organization, like how might we make circular behaviors the default in home kitchens? How might we leverage corporate procurement to mainstream regenerative agriculture? How might we increase biodiversity by encouraging a generation of new supply chains?
We envision moonshots and bold ideas, and we use the design process to break them down into actionable steps. We build to learn, to see, to think. Using design sprints, for example, we can make faster, more informed decisions with lower investment. In iterative loops, we test solutions in context, giving people tangible prototypes to use, so we can understand what's working and refine what's not.
Now is the time for bold ideas on climate, and we are uncovering them as we have long done when the problem is overwhelmingly large: with collaboration, play, optimism, and a fiercely human-centered view.
The way forward
Humans never set out to design a climate crisis, but we did. We designed linear, extractive systems that have created the conditions that we are all facing right now. Can design have a positive impact? Absolutely, and that's what gives us hope.
Our process of design thinking has for decades helped us connect deeply with consumers and translate those insights directly into opportunities. But the scale and scope of this problem goes far beyond just individuals. We’re applying the same depth of human-centered design to the industries ranging from food to mobility to consumer products and retail, using the same processes to understand the needs, desires, and constraints of everyone from farmers to boardrooms.
That allows us to see the intervention points with the highest potential—because while acknowledging just how complex and urgent this challenge is, we believe design’s ability to get tangible quickly, to hold both individual needs and the big picture at once, is what’s needed to change the system.
The best way to predict the future is to create it. A circular economy or a sustainable economy isn't just going to happen. We've got to make it. That's what drives us.
—A collaborative piece by global IDEO