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Circular Economies

Your constantly-updated definition of Circular Economies and collection of topical content and literature

What are Circular Economies?

A circular economy is an economic system that reduces waste by keeping resources in use for as long as possible. This includes recycling, reusing, and using renewable materials.

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Circular economies are the key to sustainability. They are a system that heals or at least doesn’t actively harm the ecosystem, leading to a longer-lasting society. A circular economy has renewable energy, products free of plastic or other non-renewable materials, and a means of disposal. This disposal method should then generate new resources, like how composting creates new soil for new crops.

This model doesn’t rely on unsustainable practices like deforestation or strip mining. The economy can better avoid the collapses that happen when resources run out.

What is a Circular Design?

Like many complex, large-scale solutions, a circular economy requires designers. Circular designs involve the creation of products and services that support and create a circular economy.

It entails designing durable, reusable, repairable, and recyclable products. Designers consider a product's lifecycle, from raw material to distribution, use, and disposal. A circular design product or service aims to create a positive environmental and social impact at every stage.

For UX design, circular designs fit the principles of the circular economy. The product's lifecycle should be sustainable, from manufacturing to disposal.

The Principles of Circular Design

The circular economy requires circular design. The three principles of circular design are:

  1. Eliminate waste and pollution, including toxic substances that harm the soil and water and reduce emissions. Design plays a key role here. Almost every product generates waste, and so we need to redesign everything.

  2. Circulate products and materials at their highest value for as long as possible. For example, we can build machines to last a long time and be dismantlable so their parts can be repaired easily and reused in new products. They should be recyclable so that no more resources are mined from the earth.

  3. Regenerate natural systems by returning natural resources to the earth. For example, food waste can help regenerate farmlands.

The circular economy butterfly diagram by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation illustrates how we can minimize waste using both renewable and non-renewable materials.

© Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Fair Use

How Do We Make a Circular Economy?

Creating a circular economy is a daunting task and may feel almost impossible. Yet, it’s important to remember that lasting change doesn’t happen in a single day. Designers and professionals from all backgrounds must work together to reform our economy in bits and pieces. Only then can we have a fair and sustainable economy for countless generations.

Learn More about Circular Economies

For more on circular economies, take our course: Design For a Better World with Don Norman.

For more about sustainable design, take our course: Design for the 21st Century with Don Norman.

Norman, Donald A. Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered. Cambridge, MA, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.

For a visual explanation of the circular economy see The butterfly diagram: visualizing the circular economy.

See Circular economy examples and case studies.

Literature on Circular Economies

Here’s the entire UX literature on Circular Economies by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Circular Economies

Take a deep dive into Circular Economies with our course Design for a Better World with Don Norman .

“Because everyone designs, we are all designers, so it is up to all of us to change the world. However, those of us who are professional designers have an even greater responsibility, for professional designers have the training and the knowledge to have a major impact on the lives of people and therefore on the earth.”

— Don Norman, Design for a Better World

Our world is full of complex socio-technical problems:

  • Unsustainable and wasteful practices that cause extreme climate changes such as floods and droughts.

  • Wars that worsen hunger and poverty.

  • Pandemics that disrupt entire economies and cripple healthcare.

  • Widespread misinformation that undermines education.

All these problems are massive and interconnected. They seem daunting, but as you'll see in this course, we can overcome them.

Design for a Better World with Don Norman is taught by cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Don Norman. Widely regarded as the father (and even the grandfather) of user experience, he is the former VP of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Don Norman has constantly advocated the role of design. His book “The Design of Everyday Things” is a masterful introduction to the importance of design in everyday objects. Over the years, his conviction in the larger role of design and designers to solve complex socio-technical problems has only increased.

This course is based on his latest book “Design for a Better World,” released in March 2023. Don Norman urges designers to think about the whole of humanity, not just individual people or small groups.

In lesson 1, you'll learn about the importance of meaningful measurements. Everything around us is artificial, and so are the metrics we use. Don Norman challenges traditional numerical metrics since they do not capture the complexity of human life and the environment. He advocates for alternative measurements alongside traditional ones to truly understand the complete picture.

In lesson 2, you'll learn about and explore multiple examples of sustainability and circular design in practice. In lesson 3, you'll dive into humanity-centered design and learn how to apply incremental modular design to large and complex socio-technical problems.

In lesson 4, you'll discover how designers can facilitate behavior-change, which is crucial to address the world's most significant issues. Finally, in the last lesson, you'll learn how designers can contribute to designing a better world on a practical level and the role of artificial intelligence in the future of design.

Throughout the course, you'll get practical tips to apply in real-life projects. In the "Build Your Case Study" project, you'll step into the field and seek examples of organizations and people who already practice the philosophy and methods you’ll learn in this course.

You'll get step-by-step guidelines to help you identify which organizations and projects genuinely change the world and which are superficial. Most importantly, you'll understand what gaps currently exist and will be able to recommend better ways to implement projects. You will build on your case study in each lesson, so once you have completed the course, you will have an in-depth piece for your portfolio.

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