IKEA and DS Smith embraced the circular design, transforming the way they do business


This article originally appeared on Circulate the news.

Over the past decade, design has been recognized as a force for change by organizations large and small. From the creation of innovative products to the launch of disruptive business models or the transformation of entire companies, design methodologies have been adopted to address the strategic challenges of companies and a user-centered approach has been recognized to deliver results.

But designing for users is not enough. Organizations today are faced with growing expectations. They must continue to provide a great user experience and remain relevant and innovative, while recognizing and addressing their role in global challenges, including climate change and biodiversity loss. It’s a tall order, and traditional user-centric design practices limit organizations’ ability to do it all.

This is why leading organizations, fully recognizing their impact and eager to transform themselves to become positive for the planet, adopt circular design: the practice of applying the principles of the circular economy throughout the design process. This approach uses systems thinking to address some of the biggest interconnected challenges we face today. Circular designers adopt a mindset based on the three principles of the circular economy: eliminating waste and pollution; conserve products and materials in use; and regenerate natural systems.

From climate strategy to circular design guidelines

Once organizations have identified the circular economy as a useful framework to help them achieve their goals, such as business success while tackling climate change, the question remains: how to put it into practice?

Start at the design stage

People who work at the design stage of a product or service, whether or not they have the word “designer” in their job title, by definition work upstream of business operations. Their decisions can affect the operations and supply chain of the entire organization. This is the case with a company such as IKEA where the decisions of designers regarding the product line will affect material sourcing, production, sales, etc. For a B2B company like DS Smith, a cardboard packaging company, designers are also in direct contact with their customers. They are on the front line where they hear their customers’ concerns about the environmental impact of packaging and receive increasingly demanding and sometimes contradictory specifications. Provide those who design with a tool navigating these complex discussions has become a priority.

As any designer knows, it’s by doing and testing that you learn and improve your practice. The same goes for the circular design.

Writing circular design guidelines for your organization

Following the Ellen MacArthur Foundation circular design guide, released in partnership with IDEO in 2017, companies are looking to create their own version, to meet their own design challenges. To do this, there is first a learning period, where the teams paving the way for the transformation of a company must immerse themselves in the framework of the circular economy and apply it to their own chain of procurement, material flow and design practice.

Alan Potts, Director of Design and Innovation at DS Smith, explained: “We started with understanding circular economy theory, but then we had to tackle the practicalities – how designers can help our customers in the process. transition to everyday design. This is how we began to formulate the principles of circular design. The output of this process is the circular design guidelines, a framework, and a set of protocols that will guide the design team’s work to become circular.

Because circular design is a new discipline with many unknowns and many solutions to explore, creating circular design guidelines is an iterative process. IKEA, for example, has rolled out its third version. Hanna Ahlberg, IKEA circular project manager at Inter IKEA Group, explained: “At the very beginning we started with a circular design guide which was, in hindsight, more or less a simplified description of the circular attributes of a product. It was very important. creating the mindset shift necessary to move us from ‘this is how we design products’ thinking to ‘this is how we design circular products’ thinking. But the first guide created many challenges. It was full of high-level ideals but was incredibly difficult to translate into measurable solutions for the circular design. “

The circular design guidelines are intended to be refined over time, in line with the maturity of the organization’s circular economy. Indeed, the implementation of circular design guidelines should create a new design mindset and open up new ways of working. As any designer knows, it’s by doing and testing that you learn and improve your practice. The same goes for the circular design. In the first version of IKEA’s circular design guidelines, for example, one of the principles was to “design for assembly and disassembly”. This made sense in the context of IKEA’s transformation journey, when they had to think beyond the traditional lifecycle of a product. But once IKEA designers started to think about the next phases of the product’s life and more specifically how to extend the life of the product through repair, upgrade, relocation, adaptation, etc., they realized that the key action to make things last was the ability to reassemble.

“It was kind of a ‘aha’ moment for us,” Ahlberg said. “We know how to design for assembly. We were the ones who originally put things in a flat box and let customers assemble things themselves at home. The key to the new circular world turns out to be allowing everyone to take things apart, move them, fix them, and live with them life changing for as long as possible. So the new principle is “design for disassembly and reassembly.” And today, customers can see the result of the first step in this process by accessing the teardown instructions.

Implement circular design guidelines

Of course, implementing circular design guidelines takes time and requires training. Along with its circular design guidelines, DS Smith has created its own circular design training course. First, the pioneering design team led this journey. Then, when DS Smith launched its guidelines, 700 designers embarked on a six-month training process. Shaun Stamford, Head of Customer Value Team at DS Smith, outlines why this step is critical and why training needs to resonate individually for people to take action: “A statement from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation that resonates most with me is that ‘waste and pollution are not accidents, but the consequences of decisions made at the design stage, where about 80 percent of environmental impacts are determined.’ As creative designers and good stewards, we are now charged with finding innovative ways to reuse or reuse and recycle our packaging solution. “

Changing the status quo and disrupting decades of linear business optimization is not a smooth process. The first step is to create a buy-in.

In the process of implementing its circular design guidelines, IKEA has evaluated its 10,000 products on offer today. The assessment created a basic understanding of their current position in relation to their circular economy ambition. The assessment also helped IKEA deepen its understanding of what constitutes a circular product and where to go to increase circularity in the product line. Simon Skoog, Project Manager at IKEA, said: “We clearly see that products made with less material that can be easily separated are prepared for circular flows. We also find that standardizing the types of fittings, finishes and sizes greatly facilitates the circular potential of a product. “

Challenges are to be expected – and overcome

Changing the status quo and disrupting decades of linear business optimization is not a smooth process. The first step is to build buy-in – the first rollout of the circular design guidelines is an opportunity to engage with various teams, managers and sponsors, and assess their understanding of the circular economy and their appetite for it. change. This will inform subsequent training and implementation of the guidelines. IKEA and DS Smith found that there was little perspective on the circular economy as a framework for change in their design teams. The challenges came to clarify how the circular economy applied to their organizations and current design practices: how to answer practical, everyday design questions. This reinforces the need for a feedback loop with design teams and iterative circular design guidelines that improve and refine over time. And like all other transformation strategies within an organization, finding the right pace is essential.

Ultimately, circular design guidelines are tools to accompany an organization – and the designers within it – in a transition to a more circular approach to business. For DS Smith, this means giving designers the means to challenge themselves and their customers to come up with packaging solutions in a spirit of circular economy. It reinforces the role of designers as advisers to their clients to help them navigate between demanding requirements and environmental impact. For IKEA, this has helped the company deepen its understanding of the circular economy with the ambition to become positive for the planet by 2030. Exploring design for reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing or recycling has led IKEA to think about what needs to be implemented so that these actions are – in practice – taken. It means exploring new business models and systems that actively encourage these practices. In the transition to a circular economy, much remains to be invented, making circular design guidelines valuable support tools for businesses.


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