A day of tear down and design up for the circular economy

Circular-Economy-ConceptAs part of the Disruptive Innovation Festival, SustainRCA, the Royal College of Art’s sustainability hub, hosted two events exploring innovation and the circular economy, practically and conceptually.  The hands on workshop, Business Modelling for a Circular Economy, was the perfect complement to the evening’s panel discussion, Peering into the Next Wave of Innovation. The phrase ‘circular economy’ is increasingly used by business, media and academia as a generic term for an economy that is regenerative by design.  As Ken Webster, Head of Innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, described during the panel discussion, the circular economy is defined by a set of principles: two, separate cycles (pictured left): biological materials, designed to re-enter the biosphere, and technical materials, designed to circulate with minimal loss of quality; diversity provides strength and resilience; the shift towards an economy ultimately powered by renewable energy; embracing systems thinking, to reflect the real-world where systems are non-linear, feedback-rich, and interdependent; and thinking of cascades, as products are repaired, reused, remanufactured and recycled realising more value, and managing resources with less waste.

The conventional, linear ‘take, make, dispose’ model has relied on large quantities of easily accessible resources and energy.  We live in a diffiernt paradigm, bound by legacy systems and resource constraints.  Input prices, which declined for most of the 20th century, are rising and increasingly volatile, driven by physical, and, as Mark Shayler, director of agencies, Ape, and TicketyBoo, noted, by political access.  Rapid consumption patterns are losing a lot of value to landfill:  around $2.7trillion of the $3.2 trillion created by the FMCG industry each year, according to Jamie Butterworth, Ellen MacArthur Foundation speaking at another DIF event.  With 3 billion more middle class consumers by 2030 and a finite planet, we have to do things differently.  Not just more efficiently, but more effectively.

Hugo Spowers of Riversimple began the panel discussion with a complete circular economy vision for car use, from ownership to mobility, a redesign of the car, business model and corporate governance.  Citing Joanna Macy, Spowers called for a simultaneous shift in method, methodology and mindset.  A service dominant logic places the user at its centre, as in We All Design‘s Circular Business Board which was presented by founder Rob Maslin, as a framework for the business modelling workshop.  At its heart are the ‘User Profile’, and the ‘Function’ (the problem or user need such as washing, rather than the machine), and ‘Solution’, how can we effectively, or optimally, meet the need. bm1

Against this backdrop, our first enquiry was a product ‘tear down’.  We huddled round an Apple MacBook with tiny screw drivers.  ‘Tear down’ suggests a heady abandonment, this was a more precise and forensic exercise.  Carefully teasing the tiny screws passed battery, RAM, circuit boards, and disk-drive, (its intricacy perhaps a clue to their redundancy) until ultimately a mucky keyboard.  Well-versed in product design, my colleagues were focused on the device’s limitations for repair and disassembly.  Many of the environmental challenges device manufacturers face are around resource scarcity and price volatility, yet these challenges are often missing from the designer’s brief, says Shayler.  The post-mortem revealed death by latte on keyboard, so our method imagined a keyboard that could be readily replaced, repaired or personalised.

We sketched out a tiered service (methodology) and pricing plan.  A confident and engaged user would buy their device outright, and any parts for repair or upgrade from the manufacturer or a reseller such as iFixit.or Restart Project.  A second profile, a fashion-conscious, brand-lover, desiring the latest device would pay a premium to customise their keyboard, laser-etch the case, and be one of the first 1000 automatic upgrades for new releases.  A third user profile, someone for whom their laptop is a service platform, predominantly for email and the internet.  This user would own their device for longer, and buy a service contract without either the confidence or inclination to tinker themselves.  This service-based model minimises the environmental, social and governance issues in the supply chain (using less raw materials); remodels delivery logistics to provide for the return of the physical asset; provides a tiered service plan, where the level of engagement or contract matched their service need. Barry Waddilove, Home Product Design, and team designed a network of technology clubs in charity shops for kids and young adults, making use of the ‘waste’ electronics they are given to create educational workshops and with an electronics brand as strategic partner, others kettles, hairdryers and other small electronics.Hugo-new
In leasing or buy-back model, product recovery is key to retaining valuable material resources.  The opportunities are greatest for durables.  The manufacturer has every incentive to design for product disassembly and material recovery, rather than obsolescence.   If Riversimple‘s car design is revolutionary, emitting only a tiny amount of water, and more than the equivalent of 200 mpg., then its business service model is even more so.  Based around a subscription, with a fixed element, and a variable element reflecting usage, Riversimple aims to maximise life-cycle profitability.  The user buys an ongoing service where the product is refurbished, upgraded and replaced as required, made from higher quality materials.

The potential scope is much greater than decoupling product design from raw materials.   As we are five years away from losing key skills into retirement, Shayler argues, there are compelling reasons to boost innovation and engineering enterprise in the UK.  There are barriers, but the mindset is shifting, with a Government report, arguing there are, “potentially billions of pounds of benefits for UK businesses in becoming more resource efficient.”, and calling for producer responsibility regulations and lower VAT on recycled goods.  Spowers called for a more sustainable financial system, and also on the podium, Andy James, Founder and Managing Director of Six Degree People, described the need for greater collabbm2oration and advisory boards to support CEOs embarking on disruptive innovation strategies.  A few days later Andy’s comments were echoed by Professor Vlatka Hlupic at the launch of her new book, The Management Shift.  Her research demonstrates that a collaborative culture is central to developing organisations that are more resilient, more innovative and generate better returns for all stakeholders.  Innovation is joyful!

Image credits: Ellen MacArthur Foundation; Riversimple

Last Chance to see Useful + Beautiful

ub1Over a hundred years ago William Morris advised “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”.  The current exhibition at the Geffrye Museum useful + beautiful: contemporary design for the home revisits Morris’ ‘golden rule’ bringing together products from a range of emerging designers and established names. Each of the products is innovative in some way, whether through its use of a new material, technology or adaptation to the way we live today.

What is more, 2014 is the centenary of the former almshouses’ conversion into the Geffrye Museum, so it is fitting that the exhibition celebrates the local furniture-making trade of London, and Shoreditch in particular; one of the original aims of the museum.  

As Annabelle Campbell, Head of Exhibitions and Collections at the Crafts Council notes, “Good design is about innovation, it’s about elements of sustainability”.  Design is also dialogue, influencing the way we live, as well as responding to it.  The form and function of the objects around us influence our physical and emotional experience of a space.  ub2Climbing inside Freyja Sewell‘s felt cocoon, Hush, you have an immediate sense of retreat, even sanctuary in the midst of the museum. Our lives are so immersed in the omnipresent worldwide web, and constant connectivity of digital technology, solitude and respite are rare.  Hush creates an immediate moment of calm.  The pods are cut from a single piece of 10mm industrial wool felt and lined with padding made from recycled wool fibres, a by-product of the British carpet industry.  Wool is naturally flame retardant, breathable, durable, biodegradable, and provides great acoustic insulation, hence the name, Hush.

PLUMEN-in-John-Lewis-150-years-pop-up-exhibition-currated-by-Design-Museum-3-250x160Digital technologies are providing new materials, new ways of making and marketing products.  Crowdfunding sites offer designers the opportunity to leverage their fan base for financial support, for example, Hulger, the company behind designer-low energy light bulb brand, Plumen, raised the $20,000 they needed in a week on Kickstarter.com to launch their second product, 002, an energy efficient alternative to the 30W incandescent light bulb, in January 2014 (they eventually raised nearly $60,000).  The original Plumen 001 is exhibited at useful+beautiful, and as part of the Design Today exhibition (pictured left) celebrating 150 years of John Lewis  until August 31st.

ub3The internet enables distributed manufacturing models such as OpenDeska global platform that connects local makers and international designers.  As the customer you can browse a range of furniture collections, download and then make the furniture yourself, or get it made on demand by a maker close to you.   The Edie child’s stool (or bedside table) was designed by David Steiner and Joni Steiner to be made from a single piece of plywood on a CNC router with ‘air-fix’ construction. The OpenDesk platform provides an affordable route to designer products made in your community, and you can customise the finishes!

ub4Using the same technology as cardboard tubes, Seongyong Lee developed a process for making tubes from thin wood veneer.  The tubes are further strengthened with a coat of laquer and used as legs for the Plytube stool.  The stool weighs less than a kilo, making it more energy-efficient, and is very strong.  Plytube was part of the Craft Council’s Raw Craft exhibition earlier this year.   

ub5Both Plytube and William Warren‘s reinterpretation of the traditional woven-top stool reflect a renewed appreciation for traditional craftsmanship.  The Weave Stool is made from four identical plywood forms, with black  ash veneer, that slot together.  Simply elegant.  

Jack Smith’Folding Stool, also made of ash, is similarly clean and considered in its design, and so versatile.  The three hinged legs meet in a Y-shaped hole in the stool’s seat.  Sitting down gives it strength, yet stand, pick up the handle and the stool folds flat for easy storage in our space constrained homes.ub6   Pia Wüstenberg’s colourful, sensual and tactile vessels for Utopia & Utility illustrate Alvar Alto’s observation that “Beauty is the harmony of purpose and form”.  Stacked the vessels are decorative sculptures, but each of the ceramic, glass and wooden parts is a bowl with its own use.

With the aid of technology design can now be mass produced.  ub8Good design is available to everyone, along with the bad.  As prices of goods have fallen, so interiors now have seasonal colours and looks that are ‘bang on trend’.  The products on show at useful + beautiful have more than fleeting appeal.  Many of the designs have also consider the lifecycle of the product.  Piet Hein Eek‘s Scrapwood classic cupboard is made of new and found wood.  Hein Eek has been experimenting with offcuts and scrap wood for more than twenty years and the range now includes a chair, table, sideboard and wastepaper basket.  The Scrapwood collection is available from SCP.  ub7The Tip Ton chair, designed by Barber and Osgerby, is manufactured from a single mould, without any mechanical components. The chair is made entirely of polypropylene, so it is durable and 100% recyclable.  The chair’s forward tilt position helps to keep the spine and pelvis straight, allowing better circulation to core abdominal and back muscles while at work or rest. Greater well-being certainly makes everyday living more joyful!  The Tip Ton chair is available from Vitra, and other stockists, in eight colours. 

useful + beautiful is a wonderful prompt to consider more than the aesthetic of the things we choose to live with.  Products that have form and function are beautiful everyday!

useful + beautiful: contemporary design for the home runs until 25th August 2014 at the Geffrye Museum, so see it while you still can!  

 

 

A conversation with Unto this Last

Unto This Last Shop 1A conversation with Olivier Geoffroy, founder of Unto this Last, was a much anticipated treat.  Unto this Last is a contemporary workshop in London that makes furniture using digitally-controlled cutting tools.

As you walk in you are struck by the manifesto suspended from the ceiling.  The name, Unto this Last, comes from a book by John Ruskin (whose picture hangs on the adjacent wall), published in 1862, in which he advocated a return to local craftsmen and workshops in reaction to the monotony and conditions of the rapidly industrialised working class of his time.  For recent generations, this would have been a nostalgic process affordable to the few. Mass produced furniture was for the many, just as today, Olivier observes, Ikea make good value furniture on a global scale.  The efficiencies of repetition, high volumes and uniform products allow low industrial prices.  The flat-pack design of the products is dictated by the need to package and transport them easily.  Unto this Last is turning this economic model on its head with local craftsmen creating products that are made to measure, and hand-finished in a workshop, but at an affordable price. “Unto This Last’s purpose is to offer the convenience of the local craftsman’s workshop at mass-production prices.”

Unto This Last WorkshopDigital technologies can change the economics of small-scale manufacturing.  The Future is Here exhibition last year at the Design Museum, of which Unto this Last was a contributor, characterised the changing boundaries between designers, manufacturers and consumers and new distributed manufacturing techniques as a new industrial revolution.  In fact, Unto this Last was launched in 2001, and CNC (computer numerical controlled) routing is not a new technology, but perhaps the wider interest in micro-manufacturing reflects a confluence of trends: revisiting making things in Britain; a focus on provenance and who is making things; a concern for materials and how things are made.

Our conversation began with Olivier’s definition of the environment.  So often we are bombarded with global definitions, but at Unto this Last, the environment is the workshop, the immediate physical surroundings and conditions in which he and his team work.  Every aspect of design, material choice, production, and delivery is examined through this lens.  Perhaps because the enterprise is so closely connected to its environment, there is an imperative to tread lightly.

boardThe workshop is characterised by 3 principles.  The first is less mass generated by using more data.  Starting from software designed to make aircrafts, it took 6 or 7 years to develop a special biometric format able to adjust to the variations of the wood, and clients’ needs.  Tools that are easy to use, and flexible reduce waste.  Nearly every square centimetre of a standard 2metre plywood board plywood is utilised (see picture).  Small areas are used to make candlesticks, utensils or toys.  The remainder is used for heating, or recycled.

The second principle is optimising logistics.  Digital technology streamlines supply chain management and scheduling.   The local, made to order production process means that there is no overproduction, warehousing or packaging costs (or materials).  Everything is delivered wrapped in blankets within the range of the big electric-van.  And when your clients are local, you take great pride in the quality of your work and care over your choice of materials.  The Latvian birch plywood is from a man-planted forest, where plantation is growing at 10% a year, and certified FSC and PEFC.   To simplify the supply chain products are made with the same material, even down to the hinges, so easily recyclable.  The only metal parts are shelf-pins.

Underpinning both of these principles is a stringent focus on improving productivity and absolute precision.  Influenced by production methods developed in the car industry, assemblies are timed and analysed to ask ‘can we do it better’.  It is an iterative process with feedback revealing a more elegant and efficient dynamic.  So the team at Unto this Last are selected not only for their skill as designers and makers but also for an enquiring mind.   This spirit of enquiry and desire to do it better has relevance and merit far beyond this Brick Lane workshop.

Unto This Last TV Stand bespoke coloursThe third principle is that the workshop is the brand.  From the street, through the shop, the workshop is visible.  Everything is on display, and this literal transparency is integral to Unto this Last’s approach to micro-manufacturing.  Clients are buying the story, and involved in tailoring their piece with a wide choice of finishes.  As the workshop, and process is open, no solvent-based paints are used anywhere in the process (pictured right is a TV stand and colour chart).  The plywoods are laminated in the workshop with impregnated paper, cold-bonded with PVA glue.  The surfaces and edges are finished with hard wax oil from OSMO, a food safe mix of sunflower, soya, linseed and thistle oil with wax.

Unto This Last Kids ChairThe aesthetic is clean, contemporary and sensual.  When I mention Unto this Last, without prompting people remark how they just wanted to touch the furniture.  Servicing a local, loyal clientele necessitates a wide catalogue of products.  The design is inspired by the production process, the environment, and Olivier’s requirement to furnish the needs of a young family (kids table and chair, pictured left).  Every detail is considered.

Unto this Last does more than make joyful products, as they hope their “workshop contributes positively to the life of the city”.  It is an enterprise with a tangible and transparent integrity.  Olivier tells the story with a combination of passion and eloquence, I hope I hear it again in other cities and enterprises.

Photo credits: Unto this Last, except for photo of plywood board, which is mine!

The Future is Here: a new industrial revolution

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‘The Future is Here’ exhibition at the Design Museum (24.07.2013-29.10.2013) explores the relationship between designer, manufacturer and consumer.  The traditional boundaries defining the relationship are changing with the advent of 3D-printing, crowd sourcing, distributed manufacturing.  The exhibition looks at how this new industrial revolution is transforming the way we make, design and use objects.  And how we unmake objects in a world of finite natural resources.  New technologies and approaches have the potential to improve efficiencies in consumption and make more of our scarce resources.  One example close to home illustrated in the exhibition is furniture design and manufacturing company, Unto This Last, whose “purpose is to offer the convenience of the local craftsman’s workshop at mass-production prices”.  Based in a workshop in London, the company makes furniture to order, using digital tools.  All the products are made from the same birch ply composite with software optimising the use of each sheet to reduce waste and avoid industrial fittings.  To find out more about how the things around you are made, and the how that might change see the exhibition before it goes…..

Improving reading

ImageIt does what it says on the cover – a guide to sustainable materials, processes and production techniques.  Manufacturing and production methods are changing (more of that later), and in a bid to better understand how design can be produced efficiently and in an environmentally sensitive way, I set myself some homework.  The book, by Rob Thompson, describes the environmental impact of materials, manufacturing processes and product life cycles.  From injection molding bioplastic to water-based printing, 15 materials, 14 processes and six production lifecycles are illustrated with case studies.

After my course on the circular economy with the Ellen McArthur Foundation, I want to see where the theory can meet with best practice!

The book is published by Thames and Hudson and retails for £16.95.