Image from Really who manufacture "high-quality engineered materials made from end-of-life cotton and wool sourced from fashion and textile industries, industrial laundries, households and cut offs from Kvadrat."

Systems Thinking & the Circular Economy

This weeks lecture was given by Niamh Shaikh, a tutor at the National Institute of Design in India. He talked generally about the way the role of the designer has changed over the years and what the future of design might be. He felt that the future of design lay in systems thinking, which I would have to agree with.


Systems thinking involves considering the experience of a service, product or brand holistically in a coherent manner. Each touch point and phase of the products life cycle has to be considered as part of the whole.


Traditionally, after a product has been manufactured it goes through a distribution network until it reaches retailers, who then sell the product onto the consumer. Once the product is in the consumers hands and the transaction is complete, the people involved in the earlier stages of the products life won't want anything to do with it again. The product comes to the end of it’s life and the consumer has to dispose of it. This model I feel is flawed: its linearity intrinsically separates the consumer from the product provider which I feel is a problem.


So this is where services and systems thinking comes in, they have the opportunity to close the loop. I feel products, even if they aren’t explicitly a service, could and should often be marketed as a service which would bring benefits to the user, service provider and the planet.


Take a really obvious example: car clubs. “Co-wheels is a pay-as-you-go car hire scheme, with vehicles available to hire in convenient locations across the UK.”, once you sign up and pay a small joining fee you are issued a smart card, you can then book a car using their online booking system or over the phone. You can book between 15 minutes to 12 months in advance and for anything longer than half an hour in 15 minute increments. Once you’ve booked your car, you take your smart card along to the car, hold your card over the reader and the car will open. When you are finished, you take the car back to it’s bay and your debit card will be charged. If the tank falls below a quarter full you have to top the tank up, there is a fuel card provided so you don’t have to pay. You also don’t have to pay for insurance. According to Glasgow City Council’s website:


 “Statistics also show that each Car Club car replaces up to 12 privately owned cars, reducing pollution, parking pressure and congestion in the city.”


This puts more value on resources: it reduces fuel consumption because you are encouraged only to drive when you need to and it puts more value on the materials the car is actually made from, more people are getting use out of it and fewer cars have to be made. I feel this is the way forward, it’s a more sustainable approach and I think this sort of thinking can and should be applied to many products.


Another good example is Patagonia, they make long lasting outdoor wear. They offer a repair service to make sure your garments last as long as possible but if they are beyond repair, they also facilitate the recycling of your garment. They’ve also recently launched “worn wear”, an online store for used Patoagonia clothing that would otherwise end up in landfill. So you can buy used or new from them, get the use out of your garment, repair it if required, then when you are done with it you can return it to them and get store credit for more used or new clothing.