How will my product be used? How can it be kept in use?
These are the questions designers should consider early on, according to recent research. To support designers in considering these questions in their creative process, a team from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation built on the findings of both the Circular Design Guide and ResCoM to create the Circular Strategies Framework.
This framework identified five circular strategies for consumer electronics. Each strategy reflects a specific approach that can maximise the utility of a product, whether performed by the user of the product or by technicians.
In addition to these five strategies, the team singled out three “must-have” design features that are necessary to incorporate in order to enable circular strategies:
The purpose of this framework is to provide a set of priority areas for designers to focus on, that can help ensure that the strategy they select truly makes the product more circular. The strategies are not mutually exclusive, and should be considered with regard to the business model and broader system in which the product will be used.
By looking at industry trends, interviewing dozens of leading industry stakeholders, and using publicly available information, this study sought to understand which strategies were the most relevant for consumer electronics hardware designers.
“Circular Strategies” for industry designers
From the study, it emerged that some powerful industry trends should be taken into account when designing electronics for circularity, most notably:
- The pace of technological innovation
- Miniaturisation of components
- The strong link between software development and hardware requirements
- The increasing use of devices as “fashion accessories”
Matching the identified design strategies above with current trends, the team came up with three primary scenarios that are especially relevant for the electronics industry:
- Design for maintenance and repair by technician. The iPhone is an example of such a strategy, with Apple improving battery and screen replaceability in recent years;
- Design for refurbishing by technician. For example, Gerrard Street, a headphone manufacturer based in the Netherlands, reuses 85% of the components and materials when refurbishing their headphones.
- Design for maintenance and repair by user. Fairphone have designed a smartphone to be repaired by the user, with spares and manuals available online.
Designing anything for a circular economy can seem like a daunting task. How can your creation fit within a wider, unpredictable and complex system? There’s also the reality that today’s prevailing economic model is firmly rooted in the linear, take-make-dispose way of doing things.
For most businesses, it’s not feasible to create a ‘perfect’ circular product from the get-go, and it can be tricky to identify the best place to focus their efforts. By looking at the way the current landscape for consumer electronics, the Circular Strategies research proposed that these were three areas that could be the good starting points for circular designers.
Start with partial disassembly
What is the right level of modularity to enable ‘circular’ products? It’s tempting to say that electronic devices should be completely modular, and indeed Fairphone, Google ARA and others have experimented with varying levels of modularity. All of these approaches came with tradeoffs in terms of device size, appearance or economic viability. Yet from a circular economy perspective, the need for a high level of modularity is unclear. Consider, for example, that 85% of iPhone repairs are for cracked screens alone. Does the entire device really need to be modular?
So the Circular Strategies Framework sheds a different light on the question. Combining these observations with designers, repairers and recyclers’ interviews, it was clear that products should be designed for partial disassembly. This means designing a product so that its major components are both cost and time effective to separate. For a smartphone, this would mean that printed circuit boards (PCBs), screens, batteries and shells should be easy and rapid to separate.
Partial disassembly presents two main advantages. First, it allows for easy repair of the main components of the products. Second, it increases the effectiveness of recycling, through cost savings and higher material recovery yields.
Reflections on planned obsolescence
Planned obsolescence was another hot topic in conversations with industry stakeholders. The Circular Strategies Framework can offer some clarity on this issue, allowing product designers to discuss obsolescence in the context of a product’s intended use.
For example, if a laptop is designed for durability, with robust components and materials designed to stand the test of time, a connection fault between electronic components could compromise the entire function and purpose of the design.
Our understanding of obsolescence, however, needs to be broader than physical material and potential malfunctions. For example, if a smartphone is not “emotionally” durable, is physical durability important? Emotional durability is the way users ‘love’ their possessions over time. It shapes the nature of our relationship with our purchases and our desire to hold on to them. Similarly, if the software in a product cannot be updated, or by extension, if a software update dramatically reduces performance, will ease of repairability truly extend the product’s life?
The Circular Strategy Framework described above outlines the main design features or product characteristics that should be considered for each strategy to succeed. If the design fails to include them, the product will not be ready for a circular economy. In this context, planned obsolescence could be defined as designing a product that cannot fulfill its circular strategy. Evaluating planned obsolescence using this practical and systemic approach could allow for more constructive discussions on design and longevity.
The authors would like to thank the input of individuals and organisations from inside and outside the Ellen MacArthur Foundation network, without whose help conducting this research would not have been possible.