The most important brief of our lives

Today, signs of the climate breakdown are impossible to miss. Tackling this crisis head-on means changing how our economy works (and how it doesn’t). No sector can do this alone — but designers can make an impact by shifting from linear to circular ways of making, using and living. Next to this, the most important role of design is that of radical imagination: seeing what does not yet exist, making ideas real, and forging ahead with optimism. If we can distil this vision into widespread, collective action, we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build an entirely different future: one that’s more equitable and hopeful than the past.

The responsibility of design

Everything around us has been designed: the clothes we wear, the buildings we live and work in, even the systems that deliver our food and mobility. Unfortunately, most things have been designed to fit the linear model, where life cycles are short and materials are nearly impossible to recover. And in our quest to make, sell and consume more and more stuff, we produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon, methane and nitrous oxide, which cause global warming.

All of this places an incredible burden on both human and planetary well-being. The good news is that everything that has been designed can be redesigned. By embedding circular and regenerative principles into the creative process, we can prevent waste from the start, and even shift what people see as valuable and desirable. We can also promote climate repair and justice by committing to practices that are intersectional, inclusive and collaborative. If we understand the challenges facing communities around the world, designers can even help them adapt to local climate urgencies and deliver impact where it is needed most.

…of greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we make everyday products
…of a product's environmental impact is influenced by decisions made in the design phase
Making the transition to a circular economy could reduce our resource use by 30%

Circularity as a starting point

We know that in recent years, circularity has become a bit of an industry buzzword. But under all the hype, it’s still one of the most powerful concepts we have when it comes to building a more sustainable economy. In fact, research suggests that if we made the transition today, we could halve the amount of CO2 emissions in our atmosphere by 2030. It would also allow us to grow prosperity, jobs, and resilience while reducing the natural resources we use by 30%.

Although this makes circularity useful as a framework, we prefer to see it as a starting point rather than as a panacea. Because for any transition to be truly sustainable, it needs to be bolstered by progress in other sectors, for example in conservation, human rights and renewable energy. In this, there’s still a lot we have to learn. What circularity does provide are plenty of exciting opportunities for innovation, and a valuable set of goalposts for creatives and entrepreneurs everywhere.

Circular design is the creative engine of the circular economy. It is a framework for change that is based on three key principles: preventing waste, keeping materials in use and regenerating natural systems.

8 strategies for change

So what does any of this look like in practice? While circularity is often equated with practices like recycling or repairing, there are many other pathways to change in the designer’s toolbox.

With the help of researchers from around the globe, we’ve defined 8 key strategies that designers should consider. Some are more practical and are based on common approaches found in the circular design rhetoric. Others will push you to think about change on a different level: looking at how we might shift entire paradigms, systems and ways of thinking. All are needed in order to make redesign a reality, and to create a balanced vision of the future that also acknowledges the interconnectedness of our existence.

Reduce

This strategy reminds us that the true goal of any circular system is not just to handle waste more responsibly, but to consume fewer materials and products. That means reducing the amount of non-renewable resources we use, minimising the amount of emissions we produce and changing the way people think about wealth, abundance and growth.

Refuse

Taking things one step further, designers can drive systemic change by refusing harmful trends and practices that place profit before people and the planet. Here, design can play the role of agitator and facilitator, working with scientists, policymakers and industry leaders to make new ideas compelling, and social movements irresistible. In this way, we might help to redirect people’s hope, anger and anxiety into collective action.

Reframe

In our search for solutions, it’s also important to consider whether we are asking the right questions. This is why we encourage all designers to practice reframing the problem by focusing on local urgencies and opportunities. This will make it easier to respond promptly and effectively to the needs of your community, helping them adapt and recover from the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

Reconnect

Another powerful way that design can make a difference is by bringing people closer together. This strategy reminds us that climate action is a team sport — and one that requires us to reconnect individuals and communities across social and political divides. This can be done by building better tools for exchange, creating spaces for people to gather, or designing opportunities for healing and learning.

Restore

Reimagine

Last but not least, it’s important to remember that the climate crisis is also a crisis of imagination. To change the world, we need to tell a better story than those who are destroying it. This is why we need fresh, provocative alternatives to the everyday structures that we take for granted — from what makes up our diets to who owns a city’s energy. Can design help us come up with new narratives for all this — and more?

What to read next

Over the duration of the Challenge open call, we’ll be sharing more stories, resources and tools to help designers develop their ideas and impact. You’ll find this content on our blog and social media channels, alongside a series of digital zines that will be published every two weeks. Each issue will dive into a specific theme related to our 8 strategies for change and can be used as a guide to better understand the role of design in circular and climate action.

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