The past century has witnessed unprecedented economic expansion with global resources being depleted at historical rates. While this economic prosperity has fueled the development of the modern world, the trade-off of environmental impact threatens the future.
With the impacts of linear expansion looming, the economy cannot expand infinitely on a finite planet. We are nearing our limit to growth (Meadows et al 1975, 2005). It is time to adapt. To take a second look at our economic design and develop a new version better able to meet our planet’s needs. By redesigning our economic system, we can leave a more resilient environment, economy, and civilization to our future generations.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the circular economy as an economic structure that eliminates pollution and waste, circulates resources at their highest value, and regenerates the environment. Our current economic structures function linearly; resources are collected, made into products, and eventually discarded. Along the way, production mechanisms and processes produce hazardous waste and unusable by-products. Using circular design principles, the global economy may still source material from the environment but determines alternative uses for waste streams, reabsorbs waste back into its internal processes and systems, and converts waste into valuable resources to create a positive impact on the global environment (Figure 1).
Circular designs integrate economic demand into natural flows and sustainable cycling of resources through the environment. By focusing on circular design, companies have the opportunity to increase value and resiliency in their production cycles and for all stakeholders, including the environment (Bocken et al 2019). Although transitioning to circular economies breaks away from the traditional business models primarily used in the global economy, it has the potential to evolve the infrastructure of commerce and create sustainable systems by optimizing revenue, shortening production cycles, and reinforcing economic resilience (Boons 2013, Lewandowski 2016).
How do we integrate circular design into the systems we build?
While the task can seem daunting, taking a simple approach of evaluation and adaptation is the foundation for this shift:
- Where are the materials needed to fuel and or sustain the system coming from? Can they be sourced sustainably? Can they be sourced regionally?
- Examine the “waste” streams created by the system; can they be repurposed to fuel a different stage of the cycle or a production process in another sector (Figure 1)?
- Is it possible to provide “positive” ecosystem impacts through the cycling of the system?
Systems thinking has the necessary techniques to approach the redesign of the economy. A complex intersection of civilization and the biosphere, the problem calls for professionals across industries capable of envisioning new possible economies. The capabilities of MBSE can meet these redesign challenges by evaluating and perfecting systems in the theoretical stage reducing the event of unforeseen complications.
Though the global economy has far to go, many companies are already integrating circular economic principles into their business initiatives and designs:
Cyclic Design: The Oceanid Design
Cyclic Design uses an ecologically inspired approach to designing products. By taking into account the purpose, resource demand, and life cycle of a product they develop designs to maximize efficiency and eliminate waste. In the design of the Oceanid, they aimed to address the wastefulness of domestic water use. The average person flushes a toilet 5 times a day accounting for 31% of home water usage. The system design stores water from handwashing until it is used for the next toilet flush. Optimizing material use by combining the sink and toilet structure, the Oceanid conserves water, space, and material. Check out this innovative solution here.
To build a resilient economic future we must consider the environment and future generations as a stakeholder in our analysis and systems design (Gamage & Hyde 2012). By focusing on the development of systems and processes using circular design principles we build resilient infrastructure capable of taking on the unknowns of the future. Though the task appears monumental, it calls for global innovation and collaboration. Employing circular economic principles is an opportunity to redefine what it means to be a citizen on this planet. It is a chance to lay a foundation for resilient and prosperous economies, environments, and generations.
Bocken, N., Boons, F., Baldassare, B., (2019). Sustainable Business Model Experimentation By Understanding Ecologies of Business Models. Journal of Cleaner Production, 208, 1498-1512.
Boons, F., (2013). Organizing Within Dynamic Ecosystems: Conceptualizing Socio-Ecological Mechanisms. Organization & Environment, 26(3), 281-297.
Gamage, A., Hyde, R., (2012). A Model Based on Biomimicry to Enhance Ecologically Sustainable Design. Architectural Science Review, 55(3) 224-235.
Lewandowski M., (2016). Designing the Business Models for Circular Economy—Towards the Conceptual Framework. Sustainability. 8(1):43
Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., Behrens, W.W., (1972). The Limits to Growth. Universe Books New York.
Meadows, D.H., Randers, J., Meadows, D.L., (2005). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Earthscan London. ISBN-10: 1-84407-144-8
The Ellen McArthur Foundation (2023). What is Circular Economy?.