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Circular Design is not about Wheels – Circular Design, Circular Economy, and how it is applied to the Automotive sector
One of a series of closed Discussion Sessions that Drive hosted over the lock down, dealt with Circular designa nd the Circular Economy. Design leaders from all aspects of the transportation and travel sector (rail, aviation, architecture, interior design, engineering, materials experts, sustainability consultants, circular design experts and, naturally, automotive), gave their insights and this paper aims to capture some of the ideas discussed that relate to the topic of circular design, and how it could be applied to the automotive sector. We by no means think we have all the answers, but it’s a conversation Drive are keen to support and contribute to.
The future audience and their appetite for genuine sustainability
Sustainability has become a buzz-word in recent years, but it is not just about making products that are eco-friendly, it is also about ensuring that your business will still be relevant in 10, 50 or even 100 years’ time. Corporate decision makers have seen that core-value-alignment to ‘sustainable’ goals creates positive brand sentiment, fuels growth, boosts customer engagement and forges greater trust with stakeholders. 70% of employees want to work for purpose-driven companies, and almost 90% of consumers expect corporations to meet a higher set of standards than just ‘shareholder return’; they want to see commitment to long-term goals that serve everyone, not just a short-term fiscal profit goal for a select few. Recent consumer insight has also indicated that products that offer genuine sustainability (of the environmental kind) grew twice as fast as their contemporaries in the same category. It appears that doing good business is good for business.
The Circular Economy – a new revenue stream
Circular design principles support and fuel a circular economy. This is essentially an economic model that generates new revenue streams by identifying opportunities to monetise the return-cycle of a product once its initial life cycle is spent, deconstructing things back into their raw elements and making those resources available for the next generation of products. Materials, components and products are regenerated with the aim of stimulating growth without impacting the natural world or damaging valuable ecosystems. Value is created both through long-term cost savings and the development of new market opportunities by creating new jobs in recycling, repair, refurbishment and all the supporting service industries. It can potentially deliver the ‘triple bottom line’ of the environment, humankind, and profitability, not just the latter part.
There is, however, two distinctly different paths to this; the first is a circular system that addresses biological residue where materials are safely returned to the environment after use – composting for want of a better phrase. The second is a technical cycle, where products and parts are designed to be re-usable, be that in their current form or deconstructed back into their most basic ingredients to be used again. While circular design is about taking responsibility for the entire lifespan of a product, not just the ‘usable’ segment, a circular economy finds ways to mitigate the impact of a reduced production line by monetising the return aspect of the fuller cycle.
It’s not all about EV’s.
The rapid development and success of the new EV models is a great thing, but circular design is not about abandoning the ICE and moving wholesale to EV powertrains. Circular design is, in essence, about a design model that moves away from the previous ‘take-make-dispose’ linear model and to a ‘make-use-return’ circle where the end of a life cycle supports the creation of a new one. It considers how we can maximise the resources we currently have available (minimising any need for new resources to be plundered) and designs objects to be as recyclable as possible, thus fueling the creation and generation of future products from the same resource pool.
In fact, the application of a circular philosophy may mean that the future is not necessarily the death of the ICE powertrain. As recently as April 2021 Toyota entered a liquid-hydrogen powered car in the Super Taikyu Series endurance race. The car was relatively competitive, and only required minimal conversions to the fuel supply and injection systems, although hydrogen engine consumption sits at around 4.7 mpg – so there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
Furthermore, there are companies looking to develop synthetic fuels through a Power-and-Biogas-to-Liquid process to enable fuel options that would enable us to power existing engines and propulsion systems, meaning we avoid the route of costly conversions or having to implement entirely new infrastructures. If the electricity necessary for the conversion process were generated from renewable energy sources we could have a viable carbon-neutral (even negative) fuel for the ICE powertrain that would avoid the toxic levels of pollution generated in the production of lithium-ION EV batteries. We’re not knocking the EV movement by any stretch, but we ought to look at it with fully open eyes, and also not limit our conversations or considerations to EV-only.
Which resources to utilise
Not everything about circular design will be wholly palatable – there is a current trend towards vegan interiors within the automotive sector, and while that certainly appeals to the ethical principles of both reducing industrialised agriculture and upcycling legacy plastics, the fact is over 70% of all cow hides are burned. A circular model could argue that rather than using plastics to create leathers for our interiors we ought to maximise the resources available and use 100% of the real leather that is available as a by-product of the meat industry. We’re not saying that we have to revert to leather seats in every car, just that we need to fully understand the current landscape in its entirety to make truly informed decisions.
With regards to plastic in its many forms, the development of products like 3D-Knit (made from 100% recycled PET bottles) or Nylon6 (made from discarded fishing nets) certainly helps to address the ‘legacy plastic’ issue while also producing great options for interior fabrics. Equally in the past few years companies like BASF and INEOS have also made huge progress in the development of viable ‘chemical recycling’ options – where plastics are broken down into their raw elemental ingredients. This would allow all plastics, including those wafer-thin corner-shop bags, to be recycled, and would mean that new plastic products would not require virgin resources. Currently it is estimated that only 8.7% of all plastic ever produced has, or can be, recycled, compared to the 95-98% of all aluminium ever produced that is still in use.
We have also seen the emergence of new materials that being both performance benefits and ecological benefits. Since 2011 Swiss company Bcomp has been developing sustainable materials for a variety of applications, the most recent of which have been included in the Polestar Precept in a number of ways including a front splitter made from a Flax based material rather than carbon fibre.
In very simple terms Circular design is about the responsible choice of suppliers and materials specified. We could choose materials that look luxurious or expensive, or we could choose materials that are renewable, have a low carbon footprint, are recyclable / biodegradable, and that perform as well if not better than our existing options. In all our conversations during the Discussion Sessions this ‘reversed approach’ was one championed by the CMF and interiors specialists time and time again.
What else we need …
We are by no means presenting a fully formed solution to the current situation that humanity faces, be those rising temperatures, reduced resources, increased waste and litter or any of the other challenges that we can no longer ignore. Designing alone cannot get us there, but exploring these ideas alongside engineers, marketeers, manufacturers etc. (i.e.: everybody involved should be involved – we need a circular conversation to find a circular solution) will mean that we are all pulling in the same direction, and that must increase our chances of finding an escape route. Ultimately as designers of any sort we need to continually educate ourselves, learn from adjacent disciplines, and share our knowledge.
The EU brought in the ‘Right to Repair’ act in 2021 which required manufacturers of electrical goods to make their products repairable (and offer the service) for at least 10 years after first coming to market – no more ‘planned obsolescence’. Electrolux have developed and introduced a ‘Hardware as a Service’ model where customers subscribe to use the latest robot vacuum cleaner the Pure i9. Similarly in the fashion sector ON running shoes recently developed the Cyclone – not only is the shoe made from 100% renewable materials it is 100% recyclable. Customers do not buy a pair of Cyclones; they subscribe to a service that replaces old shoes with new ones once the first pair have been returned – you don’t throw your pair away when they ‘die’ but return them for recycling / deconstruction / reconstruction. After 8 years of development Nike released a ‘materials sustainability index’ in 2011, solely to enable designers to select materials with low environmental impacts. This in turn lead to the development of the Space Hippie range – inspired by the concept of life on Mars, where “materials are scarce and there is no resupply mission”. Made from offcuts, incorporating scrap from the factory floors, the fly-knit yarn uses 85-90% recycled content. There are lessons that can be learned from colleagues and contemporaries, we just need to be engaged in those conversations.
As designers it is our duty to ensure that we’re as informed as possible, so constant self-education is key, but we can’t do it alone from our own little silo. As Aristotle said ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ – we can help make each other’s contributions to that discussion greater and more impactful, we just need to start working at this together.
linkedin.com bmw i vision circular image courtesy of BMW press https://www.press.bmwgroup.com/