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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Design Matters, for the Circular Economy

A team from Seymourpowell, one of the UK’s most established design and innovation consultancies, were thrilled to spend an evening in the company of a select group of motivated Design & Technology teachers, at the recent Tunbridge Wells Teardown Lab led by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation. It proved a fascinating evening of new insight and practical hands-on learning.

As the sustainability lead at Seymourpowell, I was pleased to see four of our practicing designers join me to bring along their extensive skills and expertise. Part of my role is to educate and enthuse our design teams with the challenges of sustainability. So a high-profile, fun, interactive session such as this, run by such a thought leader, certainly comes in handy. My three big takeaways from the evening were:

A familiar creative format

The Teardown Lab exercises were strikingly similar to what we do in our creative sessions with clients. In workshops, we traditionally run knowledge spaces (intense bursts of inspiration and insight — such as short films of consumers using a clients product [often inappropriately!]), and then we run creative sessions to generate ideas and concepts based on these insights. So the Lab used a familiar format and our skills fit in rather seamlessly. Designing for the circular economy may not be that much different to ‘normal’ design — same process; different goals.

Visualising ideas in real time

One thing we and the Foundation were very keen to pilot was visualising ideas as you develop them — what we call ‘live sketching.’ In many ways this harks back to the pre-digital days of design, or what we used to call just ‘good old-fashioned drawing.' We find it particularly helpful to move ideas along if you can sketch them up as you are creating them. It helps bring ideas to life. See for yourself, as we’ve added a few sketches created on the night, below:


This concept tackles the problem that all products have different assembly techniques, screw sizes and fixings. Manufacturers group together to agree a standard set of product disassembly rules, and the I-Tool is the universal tool that can be used by any manufacturer to disassemble any electrical product.

Many electronic gadgets on the market have much the same technology — or brain — inside them. One circular economy idea would be if products were able to share these brains between products, which could be unplugged and reused in others during or at the end of a product's life.

printed wiring boards

Printed wiring boards within electrical products contain all the value, via precious metals in their components, so disassembly is largely about getting to the PWB. In this concept, the PWB itself is a low-tech, soluble material that could be dissolved in water to release the valuable components.

The Instant Disassembly concept uses sound waves or heat so that product automatically fall apart in order to dismantle them.

Circular thinking stretches current design

Circular economy thinking does stretch some of the traditional boundaries of design. Designing within and for systems is not new to designers, as they do it all the time. But traditional design systems are production or commercial; cultural or consumption; or even digital ecosystems. Circular economy concepts ask designers to think about different, broader systems such as living systems. That does change the way we design, plus in time, may also lead to new ways of thinking about who a designer is in the future.

The $64,000 question: were we more creative or innovative by having designers in the room? It’s hard to say really, without knowing how other events went, but EMF feedback suggests:

"Live sketching during the Foundation's third and final Teardown Lab 2012 provided the groups with the ability to develop and communicate their creative re-design ideas. The Seymourpowell designers enabled new concepts to be well thought-through, resulting in a range of innovative ideas for both products and systems to be presented and discussed. A very rich addition to this successful workshop series."

— Jules Hayward, Education Projects Coordinator, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

It certainly did surprise me how quickly people grasped the transformational nature of circular economy thinking, and how readily and easily people were able to move beyond creeping incrementalism, towards more breakthrough ideas and concepts.

Personally, I would have loved to spend more time on the design questions that the Teardown Lab’s disassembly process unearthed, which we only just began to unpack. The Seymourpowell gang left with an appetite to do more events like this, around circular economy topics, and more general involvement with design teachers and young designers.

Chris Sherwin is Head of Sustainability at design and innovation consultancy Seymourpowell and a guest editor for our Issue in Focus this May on Product & Packaging Innovation.