The Circular Design Project: Introducing the Circular Economy

The Circular Design Project’s series of discussions for the Global Design Forum in collaboration with London Design Festival, began with a panel discussion hosted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and SAP. An engaging and accomplished panel of experts presented their views on the understanding of logistics, feasibility and the role the concept of circularity will have on design in the years ahead. As we stand on the precipice of a climate emergency, it’s evident we need rapid change.

Greg Williams, Editor of WIRED, did a great job moderating the conversation between industry leaders Andrew Morlet CEO of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Daniel Schmid the Chief Sustainability Officer at global software company SAP, Lena Kovac the chief Sustainability Officer at IKEA, and Tim Brown the Executive Chairman of global non-profit design studio IDEO. The panellists introduced the concept of circularity, highlighting some of the main areas in which it can be applied ahead of the other four discussions as part of this LDF series throughout week; materials, built environment, fashion, and food.


This introduction highlighted the contrast between the simplicity of circularity in its theory and the deep complexities posed in executing it. We currently live in a world in which production, manufacturing and consumption are generally experienced on a linear flow where materials are sourced, formed into products, used and then disposed of, finishing the cycle. Take the one billion disposable coffee cups being used worldwide every. This pattern is evidently one of urgency that needs to be addressed.

If the principles of circularity were applied, this destructive cycle would be broken. Andrew Morlet was reassuring of circularity’s potential. If products and materials flow through the economy and are kept in use, waste will be kept out of our natural systems, dramatically impacting the way we create value, protect from pollutions, and enable a transition into renewable energy.


Lena Kovac discussed how the future of sustainability starts with design thinking. Alternative ideas from designers and changes to the discourse are crucial. While practices of recycling and take back schemes already exist, circularity needs to be a new process that filters through all supply chains to ultimately break the destructive linear patterns we have today. IKEA has begun its own process with digital solutions to understand the material roadmaps of its thousands of products. Daniel Schmid followed up with the example of his own pair of swimming shorts made from 100% recycled plastic bottles, as a wonderfully simple illustration of the benefits of transparency between the consumer and the manufacturer. This transparency will see a shift in the way people consume.

For circularity to be rolled out at a wide scale, governmental regulations like the ban on single-use plastics are important. Though, Andrew Morlet indicated that it is major businesses like Nestle, IKEA, and Unilever that are able to design and industrialise global solutions. It was mentioned a few times throughout the event that the unprecedented times of our year so far with the global pandemic have highlighted the inherent weakness of our current systems and the fallibility of these supply chains. This is, however, an ideal moment of reflection necessary to instigate the drive for transformative change and kickstart a better trajectory. Encouragingly, it was pointed out by Tim Brown how there is not a design school on the planet without a serious ethos for sustainability. Creativity often comes from constraints, so we can expect a lot of discovery and innovation still to come.

If circularity can be adopted on a systematic scale, we are close to seismic shifts in the approaches to product and service design, filtering down from the global enterprises, to the start-ups, to the digital software, and ultimately to the consumers. It will be a great challenge, but this talk underlined how designers are going to play a monumental role in constructing the landscape in which this change will take place.