Three years ago during a course on sustainable innovation, my classmates and I were analysing successful cases of companies bringing significant change to the market. We focused on the BMW group and our task was to understand the sustainability dimensions of their value proposition.
If asked the question of what is the business of BMW, an unaware reader would be quick to answer cars, right? Well, that is what they said their present was back in 2013, being the main provider of premium vehicles. However, by 2020 they wanted to become the "most successful and sustainable provider of individual mobility" and today they still use this as their vision. This shift from products, premium vehicles, to practices, individual mobility, happily exemplifies the transformation that is needed to move into the circular economy. Instead of focusing on developing circular products, we need to develop circular practices.
Practices and the circular economy
A practice has been defined by sociologist of consumption as a 'routinised way in which bodies are moved, objects are handled, subjects are treated, things are described and the world is understood' (Reckwitz, 2002). In simpler terms, practices are what people do in their everyday lives: showering, travelling, cooking, celebrating, etc.
Scholars working with practices suggest they are made of three basic elements that interact: stuff, knowledge and imagery (Shove, 2012). They are the result of many people doing the practice in a certain way. Practices depend on other practices and on how the elements that constitute them evolve. People are at the centre of the practice, they reproduce it or abandon it. Practices use resources in the form of materials, and how they use such resources depends on the other elements of the practice, knowledge and imagery, and other practices.
In a circular economy, practices would use resources in such a way that material loops are closed. Although many companies and consultancies are advocating for developing circular products, this will not be enough. Instead, practices need to become circular. But the question is how can this happen. As BMW did by shifting the focus from premium vehicles to individual mobility, we need to move from products and services to practices.
A method to address practicesAlthough practices have been used as a conceptual framework for developing policies on climate change and sustainable consumption, they are only now entering the field of design. In a seminal paper from 2012, Scott, Bakker and Quist gave the initial ingredients for developing a methodology for what is known today as practice-oriented design in order to design new practices.
In their paper, Scott, Bakker and Quist focused on the practice of bathing and used their methodology to co-create with practitioners interventions to make bathing more sustainable. This approach has been used to address other practices such as food provisioning and laundering. Their methodology borrows their main principles from participatory design techniques based on co-creation. Two main stages they propose, deconstruct and experiment. Very much in line with a design thinking process I would say.
Rip apart the chosen practices, identify and critique the stuff we use, the knowledge we need and the understandings we have and the conventions, social norms, expectations, values that are associated with the practice. Also, identify what other practices affect the selected one (this is not part of the authors' method but my small contribution).
Set the goals for the new practice and develop stories about how to deviate from the current practice to achieve such goal. Based on the findings, design 'practice prototypes', bundles of stuff, understandings and images for a specific doing. Test the prototypes in an everyday context and track progress. Evaluate the effectiveness of the prototypes and make a decision about iteration.
By using this approach designers and policymakers can address the shortcomings of more individualistic perspectives such as eco-design and design for sustainable behaviour. Resource intensive practices such as travelling, playing, and cooking would benefit from design processes that provide interventions co-created with practitioners. Such approaches do not only consider the material aspect of the practices, the products, but the imagery and the understandings as well as the interlinkages with other practices. By doing so, such interventions can challenge the concepts of 'normality' and trigger the radical change the circular economy requires.
For more information on practice-oriented design check these articles:
Kuijer, L., & De Jong, A. (2012). Identifying design opportunities for reduced household resource consumption: exploring practices of thermal comfort. Journal of Design Research 14, 10(1-2), 67-85.
Kuijer and Bakker (2015). Of chalk and cheese: behaviour change and practice theory in sustainable design. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19397038.2015.1011729
Pettersen, I. N., Boks, C. and Tukker, A. (2013) ‘Framing the role of design in transformation of consumption practices: beyond the designer-product-user triad’, International Journal of Technology Management, 63(1/2), p. 70. doi: 10.1504/IJTM.2013.055580.
I recently read the article about IKEA renting furtinture instead of selling it. It is sold as a step towards the circular economy and resource efficiency. Products-as-service business models are at the core of the idea of the circular economy, and at first glance, it make sense, specially for tools such as washing machines or cars. However, enthusiasm has gone from this to companies and start ups wanting to rent clothes and furniture. Does it make sense? A purist sustainability advocate may say yes because can be used by many others and their life does not end with one use cycle. Still under debate but feasible.
I am currently working on my PhD in Design focusing on the user perspectives of the circular economy. My research question is how to balance circularity criteria with customer requirements to increase acceptance and adoption. I am part of a network of 15 PhDs working on different issues about the circular economy. During our annual meetings we get to talk and discuss a lot. During one of these meetings, we had Ken Webster from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation visiting. I don't remember what we were talking about specifically, but I remember my colleague Viviann Tunn at TU-Delft asking a simple yet profound question: if everything is going to become a service and people are going to stop owning stuff, what happens when that person loses their income and is unable to make the periodical payments, will companies take away their washing machine, their couch, their cars?
No body had the answer. This question raises a very important topic that has been ignored systematically in the literature on circular economy and in the public discussion: to what extent does the circular economy worsen inequality. In the linear economy, companies owned the means of production and products were transferred to consumers, including their property rights. Workers were able to build their own capital and enjoy the benefits resulting from such capital. In a circular economy, where not only capital goods but consumer goods are owned by businesses, consumers, citizens become even more dependable on businesses which deepens inequality. What power will be left to consumers if they no longer have any property rights? The government? Insurance companies?
These are questions that seem to escape the public conversation about the circular economy and that need to be addressed by governments, civil society and consumer associations. A Netflix service for my furniture and domestic goods doesn't seem like a good idea anymore.
(Originally posted here)