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Tools for Systems Thinkers: Designing Circular Systems

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Over the last five chapters in this series on tools for systems thinkers, I have looked at fundamental concepts, feedback loops, dominant archetypes and shared systems mapping tools. I have worked on synthesizing the critical tools that assist with the development of a more three-dimensional perspective of how the world works. By no means have I covered it all, but I hope to have helped ignite curiosity around the power of a systems-based perspective and the opportunity that we all have in learning to love complex problems and embrace challenges in more proactive ways.

In the final chapter of this series, I cover some of the ways that thinking in systems can transition us to a circular economy. Specifically, I discuss how we can design circular systems that facilitate sustainable and regenerative outcomes. For a more detailed introduction to these concepts, take a look at the Circular Systems Design Activation Pack we created.

On Design

First let me say that while I am a designer and advocate for professionals to make intentional sustainability and systems based contributions through their creative productions, when I say ‘design’ in this piece, I am referring to design as the common practice of producing ‘things’. This can be anything — artifacts, conversations, or policies, all of which have impacts on the world. From supermarket designs, to government regulations, to how we design our own lives, these are all the product of design — the intent to direct or construct the world in a particular way.

Design is a conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order. Design is both the underlying matrix of order and the tool that creates it. — Victor Papanek

I have written and spoken extensively on the role that design plays in scripting out lives, influencing our minds and curating our experience of the world (see here, here, here and here).

In some cases ‘designs’ have massive impacts, and in others, only minor roles. Nonetheless, everyday design is the act of creating something new, so let’s dive into how we can design circular systems that build in intentionally for positive impacts on people and the planet.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” ― R. Buckminster Fuller

The Circular Economy

For many people the term ‘circular economy’ is still new, so allow me to briefly explain what this is all about. Our current economy is based on a linear system of production where we take raw materials and natural resources out of nature, process them into usable goods to meet human needs, and then discard them back into giant holes in the ground that, ironically, were often where we took the raw materials from to begin with.

This entire system is in opposition to the natural systems that sustain life on Earth — which are circular and regenerative — and it’s counterintuitive to the way we function as living organisms (for example we all require nutrients to survive, which is part of the beautifully designed of nutrients cycling through bodies and back into the ground to grow the next generation of food, this is one of the fundamental eco system that sustains life on Earth).

Basically humans designed a broken system that creates waste and constantly loses value through the economy. Our linear economy does not fit in a circular world.


The opposite to a linear system is a circular one. When you use the natural world as a design reference, you quickly see that everything not only plays a role, but also puts back in what it took out.

Most organisms in nature, as well as the principles that nature plays by, are regenerative; humans, however, design systems that are the exception to this rule. Herein lies the problem that the circular economy movement, and many other attempts (cleaner production, eco design, life cycle assessment, industrial ecology etc.), that have come before, have tried to address.

These attempts have all worked hard to solve the complex puzzle of meeting humanity’s growing needs while not screwing up the life support systems that both nourish all living organisms (thank you food, air, and water) but work effortlessly in amazing complex ways to make life happen on this magical ball of water and soil that we all share.

I could go on and on about this missing link in our current economic and social structures, the design mistakes that perpetuate it, how our education system devalues circularity and prioritizes reductionism… But right now I’m going to invest this time in the more interesting part, where we figure out how to not make a mess of this beautiful planet and instead, start to design out waste and find unique ways of being a productive contributor to the planet (to this end I am working on a project for a post disposable future, check it out here).

Everything is Interconnected

All of this all boils down to the simple reality that we all have an intuitive understanding of — everything is interconnected to everything else in some way. Nothing living is in isolation, and we are require other systems to survive—thus we are all in an interconnected, interdependent relationship with everything else. I say this in a non-hippy way, look at the design of a tree and you will see the same fractile patterns in your lungs, your life is reinforced every few seconds as you breath in oxygen that was produced free of charge by a bunch of trees and phytoplankton.

We live of a closed ecosystem that is perfectly calibrated for success. Our bodies are small versions of this, and we benefit every second of the day from the services that this giant ecosystem provides us.

Many of the human-created systems that we have, such as cities, factories, governments and industrial food production, are failed emulations of the way nature designs things because they have not been designed as a system that nests within other systems. They are isolated and siloed, linear and reductive.

This is where humans have really messed up: we have made things based on our reductive one-dimensional perspective of the world, rather than taken on the more detailed, systemic and creative perspective of what makes everything work on Earth.


So when we are seeking to solve and evolve some of the more complex problems humanity faces, we must start first with a shift in mindset from the one dimension of a linear plane to a three-dimensional perspective of the interconnected and dynamic nature of systems at play in the world around us.

This requires not only developing systems thinking skills, but also understanding sustainability sciences and developing reflexivity, creativity and fostering more divergent neurological practices that enhances creativity. These 3 things form the pillars of a practice in creative systems change and can be applied by anyone who has invested the energy in learning the practice tools.

We are not born ignorant to the systems that sustain us (hang out with a curious 5-year-old to learn all about how nature works), and we know creativity is a learned skill that maximizes the hidden potential of the human brain. We have the building blocks for designing a circular and regenerative future.

Circular Systems Design

Designing for circular systems is about considering the full-picture perspective of how the status quo of the natural, industrial, and social systems play out, and then uncovering ways of shifting these to facilitate circular and regenerative outcomes.

In some cases this is extremely complicated (like how to circularize spent nuclear rods, for example), and in others, it’s a no- brainer (like how to change our collective addiction to disposable items like coffee cups). But all of the systems changes we need to design have the same basic elements: people, products, places, and processes. They can all be redesigned to maximize benefits and minimize negative externalities.

Yes, there is a level of complexity to this approach. But everything worth doing requires work, and purpose-driven creatives in this world are at the forefront of helping to activate this change from linear to circular design. I will work on more content (additional to what I have already produced for this new field) to help fuel this shift in the future, but for now I encourage you to seek out resources that help you start to circularize your thinking and doing in the world, from how you consume products through to the decisions you make in your professional role.

There are many narratives of the future being all f*$cked up, but I personally refuse to believe in a dystopian future as nothing is actually defined about what will happen next. We are all making up the future based on our collective individual actions today.


The futures funnel concept (Candy, 2014)

There is no definite fact that robots will take over our jobs and that presidents will push the big red button, just as there is no reason why we can’t rapidly change the way we get the goods and services we desire and need. I am completely confident in our capacity as a species to figure out how to be a sustainable and regenerative contributor to the magic that is life on Planet Earth.

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If this is your thing, check out my 4-week advanced training in circular systems design, an online rapid learning journey and mentorship program for professionals wanting to level up their skills in circular systems design (starting in Jan 4. 2018). I offer one-on-one mentorship and tailored content to help get you to a confident knowledge and leadership position.

If you are not quite ready for advanced training, take my systems thinking class at the UnSchool online.

Beautiful illustrations by the talented Emma Segal

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