Why we need to focus on “humanity-centred design”

Late last year the World Business Council for Sustainable Development released a Practitioners Guide to the Circular Economy highlighting design as the stage with the most opportunity for circular thinking - rather than procurement, manufacturing, use, disposal, etc. Add to that the stratospheric rise of design thinking as a strategic business process and it begins to feel like design is on-the-up.  This was front-of-mind as I joined a panel at Forum for the Future’s Circular Drinks - debating ‘the changing role of the designer in a circular economy’, with Industrial Design guru Rupert Wylie and Forum’s circular economy lead, Martin Hunt.

Though I trained as a product designer many moons ago and have worked on sustainability, design and innovation ever since, my overriding feeling is that the design world has been slow to grasp the full opportunities, and risks that sustainability presents. So I was pleasantly surprised that the evening delivered a good turn out and some lively discussion. This blog highlights the three main changes I believe need to take place.


From human-centred to humanity-centred design for a circular economy

Design thinking is revolutionising the way major businesses like P&G, Google, Apple, 3M and AirBNB innovate today and is helping improve health care, education and non-profit services too. Fundamental to design thinking is a human-centred approach – often referred to as Human Centred Design (HCD) – that puts customers and users front-and-centre of the process. Every design consultancy worth their salt has ‘customer journey’ or ‘touch points’ maps of the key steps a user goes through as they notice, buy, take home, open/install, use, reorder a given product or service. HCD has proven to make innovation more customer-centric and can improve usability, increases sales and build loyalty - all of which can be important to circular innovation.

Yet I believe that design thinking does us a disservice when it comes to circularity. The main problem is that HCD leads with users, and this fails to recognise the wider ‘product journey’ that happens before and after a product-service gets in the hands of users – which is circular economics 101. For example, failing to acknowledge wider systemic impacts associated with sourcing and disposal leaves HCD incomplete for circularity. The changing role of design must see us evolve the model from ‘human-centred’ to what I call ‘humanity-centred’ design, stretching beyond customers impacts alone to factor-in the wider impacts of an innovation on society and the planet.


From following to leading clients on circularity

Clients hire designers for many reasons, but often they are looking for some new thinking and external leadership in areas where they may be lacking or inadequate. Two important areas where clients look for design leadership today are digital technology and the aforementioned human-centred innovation. Clients are confused about the circular economy too, so why shouldn’t they turn to designers for leadership in circular innovation in much the same way?

Periodically I team up with design and creative agencies on circular economy projects for their clients, and I usually do a little experiment where I ask designers: “do you know your client’s sustainability targets or circular economy goals?”, or “do you know the main sustainability impacts of the projects you are working on?”. Blank faces are the usual response. Simply put, I don’t think many designers are able to lead their clients on circular economy today; at the moment its most likely the other way round.

Contrast that with how the management consultants’ community is approaching the circular economy to see a world of difference. Many big management consultancies: McKinsey, Boston Consulting, Accenture, PA Consulting, KPMG, etc, all have thought leadership, service offers or a growing body of work on the circular economy, and McKinsey has arguably done as much as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to advance circular economics. A new role for design is to lead clients on the circular economy, so they turn to designers for advice and leadership just as with human-centred or digital innovation today.


From circular designer to multi-disciplinary circularity team

There is an implicit logic in much of the above: “if the circular innovation is all about design, why not ask a designer?” This masks an image of the lone-designer superstar/genius whose all-conquering talent can solve any thorny challenge, which is just too simplistic for a complex, systemic challenge like the circular economy – which poses numerous “wicked problems”. Sometimes the key innovation or solution is not obvious from the outset, so you don’t know who to turn to. This is best served with multi-disciplinary (even multi-value chain) skills, involving supply chain, marketing, technical, legal and financial expertise, as well as design. While a designer can and should be part of the mix – indeed our strong generalist skills can be really useful for pulling all this together – circular innovation is a team sport not best done by designers alone.

Three changing roles for designers in a circular economy which give us plenty to think about going forward; well done Forum for triggering the discussions. 

Chris Sherwin