The New Design for
"In an ideal world, our products would be designed and manufactured in a way that they could be used, reused, repaired, and remanufactured."
Pranjal Sharma, in a discussion with Corey Glickman, Global Head for Sustainability and Design Consultant Services, Infosys, delves into the emerging importance of building a circular economy as opposed to our current linear systems. And why companies now need to take ownership of the products they manufacture and sell even after the customer has bought it, used it, and is ready to discard it or recycle it.
Our economy has become inherently linear, and it may be difficult to reimagine how we make, use, and discard things unless we shift toward a more regenerative and inherently natural system. Ultimately, the new circular model will require a system change and a radical rethink about how we use resources to fulfil our needs and wants.
Going in Circles
A Circular Economy would use fewer resources for longer periods of time, recycle resources and regenerate resources. As the issue of sustainability and the circular economy has never been more pressing, the need of the hour is to emphasize the importance of environmental management, and the necessity to find ways to help businesses to save energy save money and save the planet."This shift needs to begin with the very design of the product," says Corey
and uses inkjet printers as an example, explaining that. In the past, companies were focused on manufacturing printers and selling them en masse to as many clients as possible. Then came refillable cartridges and printers did not have to be replaced as often as they used to be."Manufacturers began designing printers that last longer and ink cartridges that could easily be recaptured and refilled. Thus, they designed an economic model that enabled them to stay viable, grow organically, and provide better service without adding pressure on the environment,"he adds.
But how do we scale up sustainable design, manufacturing solutions, and cover a much wider range of products to make a significant impact? This would require a big paradigm shift in the way companies and large corporations currently look at production and distribution of their products. While developed countries are largely responsible for generating tonnes of waste that go into landfills, developing countries have already been practising age-old ways of reusing and recycling goods quite effectively mainly because of the lack of supply chains, unavailability of products, and the traditional culture of getting the most usage out of things. In fact, developed countries are now learning from these methods. The circular economy is an economic model meant to address human needs and fairly distribute resources without undermining the functioning of the biosphere or crossing any planetary boundaries.
The automotive industry is another good example where a shift towards new technologies such as electric or hydrogen vehicles is widely happening. It has consequentially had two direct impacts when it comes to supply chain circularity. Since the technology involved is quite new, there is a significant reduction in the number of suppliers in the EV and hydrogen vehicle space. Whereas, traditionally in the automotive world, it took seven years to design a new car series and there were possibly over 17,000 suppliers. And with the new EV technologies, there are probably around 4,000 suppliers and a two-year design cycle. Paradoxically, these newer cars and mobility solutions actually adopt reusable platforms and customers are meant to refurbish or reuse existing vehicles instead of buying new ones. Cell phones are another example of products that need to reinvent their design and usage as electronic waste is one of the biggest hazards for the environment.
The keyword here in a shift to a circular economy is culture-both – the culture of business and the culture of consumption. Technology has a role to play in this, and while it is mainly the problem it is also part of the solution. The sustainability cycle that is linked to Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning begins with data solutions and their deployment. While Artificial Intelligence can optimise systems efficiently, they are also big power consumers. However, technology can also create smart but tiny algorithms that can perform the same functions but use much less power and energy resources. Technology discussions and decisions are therefore crucial from a design aspect, from a material component aspect, and most importantly from a digital technology aspect as we move more and more towards the cloud. Changing regulatory systems also play a major role and a positive one as they define constraints or the unification of common rules that companies need to work with, plus guidelines on how to rework business models and design products that adhere to global environmental standards.
An effective circular model needs to match supply and demand of materials and find a way to reuse materials more by reselling those materials into their own supply chain or into somebody else's supply chain and still stay financially viable, as the ultimate goal is to eliminate waste and one-time resource usage. A classic example is the built environment that is causing major concerns. Right from the planning of buildings to actual construction of cities, the built environment accounts for 40% of all greenhouse gases. A good example is concrete used in this process which is also one of the least reused components in the whole cycle. Construction companies are moving to design for disassembly where the use of concrete in buildings or in major infrastructure is carefully planned to be taken apart and reused in future instead of ending up in landfills. Concrete components can be designed from day one for disassembly in future and can have a market for reuse across different industries. In order for this to work successfully, companies have to collaborate with other companies in the same industry as well as across different industries. There may be a need to create new segments within an industry to enable the recycling and the circular aspect. Finally, the collaboration with city governments is essential so that the recycling ecosystem becomes very robust and profitable for everybody. Landfills and waste management processes can be exciting, promising, and innovative areas for all stakeholders to benefit from as what we do with our waste as a society is one of the biggest questions we have to answer, going forward. The best model ultimately is always going to be a public-private relationship with proper frameworks at several levels. There also will have to be global protocols, national protocols, and subnational protocols depending on the activity. As landfills reach capacity, and micro-plastics pollute the world's most remote regions the need for change is eminent. From dark cities that cut 80% of light pollution to autonomous renewable vehicles to the prohibition of single use packaging, cities are working towards this change.
The World Economic Forum has brought out a report recommending an interesting model of global, regional, and local collaboration. Regulators are also working on models where personal data, which is anonymous can still be used at scale, and be made available to innovators who can then analyse the data and track consumer behavior, personal behavior, citizen behavior, and see how that can be applied for a larger good.