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.
Sitting in a typical session of a strategy creation class, the first question a professor asks to their students when analysing a case study is what could the specific company under study do to "sustainably" make money. For people that are trained in sustainability matters the obvious answer is at least three-dimensional: economics, social and environment. However, if you are sitting with people that have no train in these matters, the answer is uni-dimensional: money. And so it is for the well trained professor.
Sustainability in a company oriented environment is completely the opposite to what it means to the concerned environmentalist or policy maker: it is solely to make money indefinitely and as much as you can. Therefore, when you try to communicate the message of sustainable development to this key stakeholders' group, businesses, the receptors might get confused and fall into what behavioural scientists have called the confirmation bias: they believe you are talking about how to keep making money because that is what a sustainable business means to them.
If we want to avoid this and start a conversation about what we call sustainability, a change in language might be required. A new concept that correctly highlights the principles behind the "environmentalist" definition of sustainability is needed to convey the message to this specific audience and circular seems to do the job. Using the term circular when speaking to businesses may be more effective when bringing the message of acting sustainably. Instead of asking "is your business sustainable?" asking "is your business circular?" could avoid the answer "yes, we are making loads of money" and hope for a "yes, we have a closed-loop business" or "no idea what you are talking about, tell me more". This could keep the conversation going.
Of course this means we need to make sure that being circular is not only about being environmentally friendly, but socially responsible and still make money our of it. For what it has been written in the last three years it seems it does, but a consensus is needed regarding the meaning of this new concept in order to start bringing the "non-educated" audiences on board of what we call sustainability.