In the face of a rapidly evolving climate crisis, there is an outcry for a new business-as-usual. The need for sustainable solutions addressing exponentially growing challenges requires unlearning old practices and adopting new mindsets. A good starting point lies at the shift from a purely Human-Centered Design perspective to a new framework: Circular Design Thinking.

Many opinions have rabbited around the change from Human-Centered Design to a more holistic approach (planet-centred design, environment-centred design, etc.). The essence of all these explanations is pretty simple. Humans are no longer perceived as the centrepiece but instead another element of a broader system or context. In addition, it is holding designers and entrepreneurs responsible for considering the triple bottom line already in the development phase of a new product or service. Letting Design Thinking, a human-centred approach to innovation, evolve by asking critical questions beyond a new creation’s desirability, feasibility, and viability seems crucial to address the most pressing and complex problems of our time.
However, to mitigate the ambiguity in a business or design context, one must understand the different dynamics at play. Or, using the words of systems thinker Peter Senge, we need to avoid «missing the forest for the trees». Doing this requires a broader systems perspective and adapted circular thinking.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
– Albert Einstein

Linear vs Circular (Design) Thinking

Ideas and applications of sustainable business and operating models have been around for centuries. Therefore, it is interesting to question why not every business applies sustainable principles? And what are the actual levers for organisations looking to transform their business models in favour of a circular economy?

In my experience, a lot of projects tend to follow a linear design and execution process. Symptoms of such linear thinking can be perceived when a team directly jumps to solutions before investigating the real problem. Moreover, there is often a bias towards assumptions without fact-checking or simply checking the wrong facts. Lastly, linear thinking puts rigid targets over analysing the entire (eco-)system we are innovating for.
Although a Design Thinking mindset implies working iteratively and testing early, the reality in organisations claiming to be ‹agile› often looks very different. One root cause lies in false beliefs that a linear approach is faster, therefore more efficient and cheaper. It can be in some cases! But certainly not when dealing with so-called wicked problems. Also, organisations tend to neglect the potentially high costs in later project stages if the product or service lacks a systemic approach. The design might fail to meet important stakeholder needs, requiring costly quick fixes or discarding the entire project in later stages. This take, make, use, dispose, pollute mindset is a root cause for the global challenges we face today. In other cases, the design harms the environment directly or indirectly, leading to various negative consequences from a damaged corporate image, less customer loyalty, legal penalties, unforeseen implications on other stakeholders, etc.
Circular Design Thinking aims to combine practice-proven approaches and methods to empower responsible designers, entrepreneurs, and business developers to make more sustainable decisions when shaping new business models. Think of Circular Design Thinking as a kaleidoscope. We give it a turn, and it creates new and curious combinations for more sustainable solutions.

Critical aspects for the application of Circular Design Thinking

If you are a responsible and courageous entrepreneur looking to turn around your business model or launching a new venture using the Circular Design Thinking Mindset, here is what you should pay attention to.

> Look at your business design challenge through a System Thinking lens to understand all dynamics at play.

Quickly perceiving interconnectedness and relationships and turning parts into a whole or silos into emergence is a critical future skill. Not only will it enable you and your team to make better decisions, more importantly, but it will also allow you to pinpoint the most vital success factors.

> Use the core elements of Design Thinking but drop the human bias.

Use the iterative, inclusive and playful mindset behind Human-Centered Design and Design Thinking but stop the bias towards human needs only. Incorporate the broader environment, e.g. by creating non-human personas, and look at the implications for our environment when designing new products and services.

> Consider exponential development and new technologies.

The climate crisis, along with loss of biodiversity and collapsing ecosystems, is moving exponentially. To move forward, we need exponential approaches. New technologies can be a crucial success factor, e.g., radically reducing emissions, adding resilience to climate change-related natural hazards, or improving our human capacity to act.

> Learn from nature and develop a new idea of it.

Nature acts circularly: Everything flows in symbiosis; nothing is wasted. Biomimicry principles teach us to adopt many brilliant solutions to a business or design context. While we are learning from nature, we need to let go of a romantic mental image of nature and instead move forward to a new state of nature and co-existence of humans and natural actants.

> Align your economic strategy with a sustainable strategy.

While 90% of executives think sustainability is necessary, only 60% of companies have a strategy for going about it. The number of those who execute such a strategy is even lower. So few companies are going down this road shows their focus on short-term thinking and rewards. Needless to say that the lost potential results in long-term risks. More and more Investors, however, see a strong link between corporate sustainability performance and financial performance. So they’re using sustainability-related data as a rationale for investment decisions and risk management like never before.

> Build on Circular Economy principles. (Duh.)

Re-think, reduce, re-use, repair, refurbish, recover, recycle. The first step is probably the hardest for most entities: Adopt a new mindset. Only after will the following Rs have a path into the new corporate principles and be incentivised. Part of the new mindset is not to look at today’s environmental challenges as a threat but as real opportunities for disrupting business ideas.

Helpful resources for practising Circular Design Thinking:

One you have the right mindset, you can go on to use the necessary tools. A helpful resource for creating sustainable design solutions is The Circular Design Guide. IDEO has partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to provide this free downloadable guide with various design methods.