News: 21st August 2017

Designers will save the world

First published in: Blueprint Issue 352 – May/June 2017

In his essay from 2016 ‘Why wait for the future? There could be a present without waste’, Herbert Kopnik speculates about the launch of the iPhone 10. Here he suggests that Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook has changed the whole emphasis of Apple’s modus operandi, from a company selling products, to a company selling services. Cook’s justifies this massive corporate U-turn as a ‘win-win-win situation’. ‘Winner number one’ is the consumer, as they will have a place to return their old Apple products instead of putting them in a drawer to deal with some time in the future. ‘Winner number two’ is Apple itself who ‘only have to buy the majority of the raw materials needed a single time rather than yearly. The third winner is of course the natural environment.

Back in 2002 Prof. Michael Braungart and William McDonough published their seminal book ‘Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things’, where they constructed a near future world ‘where everything is beneficial….. where all materials are nutrients and everything is designed to become part of an ongoing biological or technical cycle, where we can celebrate abundance’.

So how do the above statements sit within a world where humans create nearly 6 million tonnes of waste every day as a consequence of nearly $100 trillion of economic activity annually? Well obviously Apple Inc haven’t launched their iPhone 10 yet, but if they did, and they decided that Kopnik had a very good point, then there would be some pretty staggering benefits for Apple Inc. as well as for Planet Earth. Kopnik points out that ‘Obtaining one tonne of gold by recycling 40 million used mobile phones is not only much easier and cheaper than getting one tonne of primary gold out of the earth; such a method is much less harmful to workers and to the environment.’ Crucially he also states that ‘We have the technology to recycle over 95% of the 15 precious metals that are in a mobile phone’! In other words if Apple Inc. adopted a ‘Cradle to Cradle’ approach and viewed waste as food or nutrients for their mobile phone leasing company, they would only have to mine for raw materials every one hundred years.

So why haven’t Apple Inc. adopted the principles of what many people are calling the ‘Circular Economy’? Well they are beginning to take back old iPhones and have made a bit of a noise about the robots that are doing the disassembly. In the meantime a number of corporates are having a go at turning their linear processes into closed loops. Companies such as Interface; the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet systems, has pledged that by 2020 all source material for new product will be manufactured from waste material. For over five years it has been using waste fishing nets as the source material for a range of carpet tiles (NetWorks). Adidas has just partnered ‘Parley for the Oceans’ to produce training shoes and sports kit made entirely from ocean plastic waste. Architect Thomas Rau has set up a parallel company, ‘Turntoo’, that works with companies to turn their current ‘linear’ business plans (take/ make/ use/ throwaway) into those suitable for a circular economy. Turntoo famously worked with Philips on their ‘Circular Lighting’ initiative where Philips offer to ‘lease lux’ to the end user rather than buy a light fitting. Turntoo also invented the concept of ‘Material Passports’ that will help architects and designers understand the exact makeup of buildings being constructed today when they are due for ‘re-manufacture’ some time in the future.

This particular concept works very well with the world of BIM (Building Information Modeling) as buildings, old and new, are being completely (re-)quantified anyway. So additional passport-type information describing how a particular material or component can be efficiently taken apart of re-use instead of merely demolished for rubble, is relatively easy to comprehend. However, this concept of considering ‘Buildings As Material Banks’ (BAMB) asks many questions of the way contemporary buildings can be designed-for-re-manufacture today. If one considers that most buildings from before the 20th Century can be easily adapted, or their materials re-used, relatively easily for new developments, it was only humankind’s (understandable) pre-occupation with plastic and cement/concrete in the 20th Century and beyond, that rendered most recent buildings as nothing more than future rubble.

Mud Jeans will lease you a pair of jean as long as you return them once they are ‘worn out’, as Mud want their valuable resource back to turn into new products for hire. Armstrong Ceilings produce products completely made from material normally considered waste. However, for products to have a real authentic end of life strategy that can fit into either the ‘bio-sphere’ (re-use or compost) or ‘tech-sphere’ (perpetual re-use of toxic and synthetic materials), humans need to test the concepts within a Circular Economy by completely re-designing new systems, new materials, and new products that allow us to perform as the rest of the natural world does, i.e., where one system’s waste, is food for another’s.

Meanwhile dumb materials or dumb products without an end of life plan will still need recycling (crushing/ shredding/ melting down etc.) until they can be disposed of cleanly. I describe this process in my latest book (The Re-Use Atlas) as ‘Mining the Anthropocene’, in other words working with stuff that has already been mined and processed. This includes landfill sites, ocean waste plastic, whole cities, and the communities sustaining them. The work of Lacaton & Vassal renovating un-loved residential towers in Paris and Bordeaux are an example of this. Rotor in Brussels, literally dismantle buildings one screw at a time and re-use the material again, often re-installing it back into the original site. Superuse from Rotterdam are inventing the digital platforms ( and the new working methods (‘Harvest Mapping’) to enable this new form of mining for second-hand resources.

Although this work is extremely important, not least for cleaning up the natural world humans have polluted, and admittedly these are closed loop systems of sorts, what Braungart & McDonough (and many others) demand for a truly Circular Economy are new intelligent materials with clean end of life strategies, as well as new products designed for perpetual re-manufacture. I believe that there is only one way to achieve this noble ambition, and that is by mobilsing designers of all kinds to create the systems, products and buildings that can be designed for perpetual re-use or the enrichment of our ecosystems.

So is the design community up to this task? I believe it is. Although at present it is still a peripheral occupation, consultancies such as The Agency of Design, Arup (Foresight), C2C Expolab and Architype, together with academics such as my colleague Professor Jonathan Chapman and Professor Dirk Hebel of ETH Zurich, and of course The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the RSA, are all making progress testing this concept and beginning to get the attention of national governments, RIBA, The Design Council and others. However, how many practitioners reading this article have had the opportunity to give the circular economy a chance? As Professor Braungart states, sustainable design was all about being less bad, about guilt and doing your bit for the environment. A circular society would allow humankind to live in harmony with the natural world because the concept of waste would be an anathema. However it can only happen if designers rethink their own practice, if manufacturers rethink their supply chain and chemists invent clever materials that don’t end up as toxic waste.

Organisations such as LWARB (London Waste and Recycling Board), and CIWM (Chartered Institution of Waste Management) are leading the way in supporting these concepts. They are changing the emphasis of their interest from seeing waste as a low value product for burning or burying, to a new material flow for perpetual re-use. However it is my hope that designers will be the real innovators and lead the way towards a truly circular economy.

Duncan Baker-Brown is founder of BakerBrown and Senior Lecturer at The School of Architecture & Design University of Brighton. He has just published his first book ‘The Re-Use Atlas: a designer’s guide towards a circular economy’ (RIBA Publishing) and he is currently planning an exhibition and symposium entitled ‘Mining the Anthropocene’, which will open in 2018.