In conversation: Talking Resource Revolution with the creatives

Two leading systems thinkers discussed how best businesses can break out of their linear mindset and work towards greater lifecycle thinking at a recent Sustainable Business resource scarcity conference. Maxine Perella chaired the session

Maxine Perella, Waste Editor, edie

Sophie Thomas, co-director of design, RSA, and co-founder of The Great Recovery Project and Jamie Burdett, co-founder of Worn Again and McCann Pioneers

Maxine Perella: How do we make circularity a reality?

Sophie Thomas: The issue I have come across is very much about the narrow definition of design. People immediately jump on the product … and actually in circularity if you are going to move that way you have to think in very different ways. You have to think about the design of the system; you have to think about the molecular design, so redesigning the actual structure of the chemistry. You have to think about the product but you also have to think about the services that surround it – the flow of knowledge that goes around it as well.

It’s about [making sure] the people that write the design briefs really understand what design is and how the effects of that can be. If you have a very narrow view of it, you’ll end up with a very narrow solution.

Jamie Burdett: There’s certainly not a single answer. It’s a systems answer, so it’s going to need answers from lots of different things to be all connected. For me, people need to care. At the moment, a lot of people don’t care. How many people in companies really care about circular economies?

There are some really important communications elements [that are needed]. It needs someone to stand up and do that breakthrough communication. You can make an enormous amount of money and nobody is leading proper circular economics. We have a country filled with designers, engineers, mavericks and entrepreneurs in a kind of busted economy.

Also, it’s just the drum beat. Don’t give up, just keep trying, trying, trying. Then, service the tiniest case studies you’ve got internally and try and enrol groups of people, create intra-planners in your organisations, inside any organisations that care and stick it all together.

Maxine Perella: Is there a problem with the terminology around the circular economy? How do we navigate terms like closed loop, cradle-to-cradle and net positive?

Sophie Thomas: I think in design there’s probably more phrases … there’s probably a place for all of them within the bigger circularity picture. It’s about staying on one path and that you stick to that path. You might find in your closed loop model because you have a multi-material product, you probably have three of those loops going in one product but as long as that information goes with that material flow and you can disassemble it and they know where they’re going or they’re going to a different place and then gets split, then I think that’s possible too. I think it’s a bit of a blockage that we need to move on from.

Jamie Burdett: I would say that it’s a red herring. The moment you dig into it, because it’s the same with the wider sustainability … they all mean the same thing – design properly, collect properly, reuse properly. I think the barriers are almost fronting that up for designers. I think some of it is really important because it’s specific in these areas. It’s language for the right sector, but ultimately it’s just jargon.

Maxine Perella: How do we get round some of the collaborative challenges in scaling up circular economy ambition?

Sophie Thomas: The one thing I would say is that we’ve really wanted to have a whole conversation about failures. Businesses are very scared about talking about failure and actually that’s the one place when you probably learn the most. The RSA is considering in the next phase – how can we build spaces where it’s safe for businesses to have that conversation where you don’t go into the intellectual property and you talk about the system around it or areas where we can collaborate and pass on information and learn from each other. Circularity really relies upon proper co-creation and collaboration.

Also, there’s the discussion of who moves first. If you are talking about industrial symbiosis, you’ve all got to take a shift together or you’ve got to pull your supply chain with you. A lot of the discussions centre on the big corporates saying “I can’t get my supply chain to change” so the answer is then you have to set up a new [supply chain] and then the old one goes “hold on a minute” and then they change. It’s setting the exemplar.

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