We have now entered the era of the Anthropocene, a geological period defined by significant human influence on climate change and the environment. Acknowledging the environmental impacts from industrialization, Paris hosted the CPO21 Conference in December 2015, bringing together 196 global parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Meeting the needs of the people with an increasing population and exploding urban growth is leading to global resource depletion and continued waste production which presents what Rittel would call a “wicked problem”, a complex issue of multiple interacting systems-social, ecological, and economic that defies definition, for which there can be no final or exact solution.
Challenging a society to address and minimize their excessive consumption in consumer goods and energy use might bring resistance to change the comforts of the shared norm; one consideration would be eliminating the market of easy product disposability. The need for reorienting our business strategies and supply chains for building long-term sustainable solutions requires new ways of thinking.
An open and inclusive framework is needed to guide the attempts to address these complex problems. New economic mechanisms supported by policies can incentivize design & market innovation to support a shift towards moving away from our linear cradle to grave economic model of take-make-waste, and planned obsolescence in manufacturing product development. A few examples of society’s wicked problems of consumption and waste is evidenced by our dependence and over-use of plastic cited in this Plastic Pollution Indicates New Geological Epoch-Study and electronic waste disposal in third world countries.
Our future depends on the creative reinvention of economic drivers to harness the power of business markets and move towards designing products within a sustainable and regenerative circular economy & industrial system. While the current climate change impacts are alarming, they can serve as motivators for human ingenuity to reinvent new systems of design thinking that are inclusive of the full lifecycle in mind. Huge potential for economic growth and job creation could be the outcome of this “new economy” movement. Transitioning away from the linear production & consumption treadmill cycle of the last 100 years demands imagining new future blueprint. Innovation and vision are required for creating a circular economy that reduces our consumption, limits waste, and balances preserving our natural resources while continuing human development.
Ushering in a new design philosophy and industrial paradigm shift encompassing considerations of the environment and human interaction was outlined in the Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability for the World’s Fair in 2000, written by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. These principles set the foundation for their design framework and value system that continued to evolve over these several years. They paved the way outlining a new industrial era with design systems thinking approaches in their books Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) andThe Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability-Designing for Abundance (2013). Their seminal work created a foundation for the development of this emerging circular economy. McDonough states
“We don’t have a waste problem, or a toxins problem, or a population problem, we have a DESIGN problem.”
In their books they illustrate design concepts of “waste equals food” and “less can be more, but endless is most” using two different production cycles of outputs, either as a technical nutrient which remains in the flow of manufacturing never to become waste or a biological nutrient returned to nature. A circular economy is an industrial system that is restorative by design and calls for “a model that decouples economic growth from resource constraints, by reducing reliance on virgin materials. Instead, the goal is to keep the materials functioning at their highest utility at all time, preventing would-be waste from reaching landfills.” This approach has shown to reduce capital resource costs and improve the bottom line while protecting the earth at the same time.
Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute is leading the way, working to educate businesses about the Cradle to Cradle Certified Product Standards, which guides designers and manufacturers through requirements for how to develop their products sustainably. Business strategies, research & development initiatives, and policy incentives will be key drivers for a successful transition from our current economic structure to advocate for the adoption of this innovative economic movement to bring markets to scale. With the Anthropocene era upon us, it’s time to close the loop, and design our way to a sustainable future-developing the next industrial revolution using a framework that uses human ingenuity and technology to be efficient and waste free!