The great recovery of Earth’s resources

The myth that our Earth can provide the human race with unlimited natural resources has been well and truly busted, says Sophie Thomas, co-director of design at the RSA

The rising cost and restricted supply of materials that go into making the products we use every day is creating a global race for supplies of oil, gas, water, metals and minerals, and fuelling geo-political conflicts around the world.

And yet more than 30 tonnes of waste are produced for every one tonne of products reaching the consumer, 90 per cent of which are thrown away – mostly into landfill – within six months of purchase, according to the World Economic Forum.

This linear model of “take-make-dispose” is lending new meaning to the concept of fast-moving consumer goods and is throwing up major economic, social and environmental challenges.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, businesses have pursued the model of “more, faster, cheaper”, but now, with growing extraction costs, increasingly volatile markets and the spectre of climate change upon us, it is time to rethink our basic systems of demand and supply, manufacture and disposal.

The Great Recovery project was born at the RSA in 2012 in response to some of these global pressures. Along with my RSA co-director of design Nat Hunter, I set out to discover what role design could play in the re-programming of our linear methods of production in order to achieve something altogether more circular, a system where products are continuously reused, repaired or reprocessed.

As a communications designer for many years, experience had taught me that much of our waste was, in essence, a design flaw. European Commission estimates show that more than 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design stage, largely through a lack of understanding, an uncaring brief and the lack of incentives to do anything differently.

The Great Recovery set out to challenge the case for “business as usual” by providing a space in which designers can come together with policymakers, manufacturers, academics, waste managers, chemists, retailers and consumers to understand the challenges, and co-create the new processes and products that will be needed in a circular economy.

With growing extraction costs, increasingly volatile markets and the spectre of climate change upon us, it is time to rethink our basic systems of demand and supply, manufacture and disposal

Over the last 18 months, we have been building these collaborative networks and using the practical lens of the design industry to focus on some of the problems and opportunities involved in “closing the loop”.

Our programme of workshops and events set in the industrial landscapes of recovery and recycling facilities, disused tin mines and materials research labs has brought people from across all sectors to participate in “tear down” and “design up” sessions.

By literally pulling products off the recycling pile and taking them apart to understand how they are currently designed, manufactured and disposed, and then trying to redesign and rebuild them around our four design models for circularity, we learnt some valuable lessons:

• The role of design is crucial to circularity, but very few designers understand or think about what happens to the products and services they design at the end of their life;

• New business models are needed to support the circular economy;

• The ability to track and trace materials is key to reverse engineering our manufacturing processes and closing the loop;

• Smarter logistics are required, based on better information;

• Building new partnerships around the supply chain and knowledge networks is critical.

This first phase of work also supported the Technology Strategy Board, which has invested £1.25 million into a range of feasibility studies proposed by business-led groups and collaborative design partners, through its New Designs on a Circular Economy competition.

The inaugural 2014 Resource exhibition sees the launch of the next phase of work for The Great Recovery in a two-year programme that will bring together material-science innovators, design experts, leading manufacturers, and crucially, end-of-life specialists to explore the relationships between design, materials and waste.

Our growing “re-materials” library will be a tangible way for people to experience the innovations and challenges associated with circular-economy thinking: we may have efficient recycling facilities to reprocess certain materials, for instance, but how are we innovating to create longer-lasting products or redesigning business models for service or leasing?

In a move to nurture disruptive thinking across the network, we will be developing short-term immersive design residencies that can set up inside recovery facilities around the UK. The design teams will be there to observe and experience the complexity of recovery systems, and to help inform thinking around current waste streams and new product designs.

As well as building our online platform and expanding our network with events and investigations, we will be establishing the first innovation hub in central London. The hub will be a physical focus for the exchange of ideas, prototyping and experimentation, and will also host bespoke business workshops and consultations.

The Great Recovery is part of the Action Research Centre at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Manufacture and Commerce (RSA) and is supported by the Technology Strategy Board

Sophie Thomas is co-director of design at the RSA and project director of The Great Recovery programme.