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Design Thinking for Circularity

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Louise Nash's experience spans 20+ years experience in global strategic brand development, human-centered design thinking facilitation and emerging disruptive technology. Her strategy work has covered the depth and breadth of business, goods and services, across Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Singapore.

In November 2018 Louise founded Circularity - a circular design and transformation partner that redesigns business for a resilient and regenerative future. Now less than three years since launch, Circularity has become one of the leading advisors that supports businesses in their transition from linear to circular. Projects span industries from consumer goods to construction and challenges of carbon emissions, waste and pollution.

In 2020 Louise delivered XLabs, New Zealand’s first circular economy lab in Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) in partnership with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED). At XLabs, Louise facilitated a design sprint over nine weeks, including lockdown for over 100 people at 18 businesses to unlock circular solutions that contribute to building a resilient and regenerative economy for Auckland.


What is design thinking?

According to leading global design firm IDEO, design thinking is a human centered approach to innovation that draws from the designers toolkit to integrate the needs of people the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success. thinking like a designer can transform the way organizations develop products, services, processes and strategy. Design Thinking brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.

According to EU research, over 80% of all product related environmental impacts are determined during its design phase, but design thinking can be used at any phase. enables people who aren't trained as designers to use creative tools to address a vast range of challenges. Because of this, design thinking is an effective tool to introduce circular economy thinking and circular business model innovation into organizations.

Design thinking and circular economy

A design thinking process is discover, define, design+ test, deliver. Louise adapted a design thinking process using circular economy principles because she needed to:

  1. Understand the problem from all angles with a systems lens, bring empathy into the process

  2. Design out the problem at the beginning

  3. Co-design solution in an iterative way to experiment and trial new solutions.

In her view, this will be how we accelerate innovation in this space.

Louise uses design thinking to unlock innovation across Circularity projects and XLabs - a circular economy design lab. While at Tech Futures Lab, 'the Graduate School for Social Impact' (note: at the time Priti was the Director of Innovation and Louise's advisor), Louise developed a methodology called circular by design (CBD, see below). The CBD design methods were developed from interviews with leading circular experts around the world and drawn from best practise case studies of circular innovations. They was created as a toolbox to guide and inspire businesses, government and innovators to unlock the value potential of the circular economy.

18 businesses attended XLabs including one of NZ’s largest supermarkets (Foodstuffs NI), a major homeware and fashion retailer (The Warehouse Group) to a construction business, a blockchain based transport app and a range of start-ups.

At XLabs, the six circular by design methods were used by the teams to explore and ideate potential solutions to the challenge they brought to the lab. At the end of XLabs, they pitched one validated circular concept to their stakeholders.

'Circular by design' children's shoes

Bobux one of New Zealand's export success stories, create soft-soled shoes for children. Their design challenge was to find a solution for the 1 million of pairs of shoes that go to landfill every year. By using the circular by design methods at XLabs, they were able to reframe their customers as custodians of the shoe, rather than owners. They prototyped a subscription service (serviced based usage) where their customers actually subscribe to either buying, or accessing first a new shoe that hasn't been used before, or one that's had one life to it. Having the customers as custodians and encouraging them by giving them tips on how to repair the shoes, offering take-back services (closed loop / product stewardship systems), they came up with this idea of passing love notes down with the shows as they travel through their uses (regenerative behaviours). So these love notes travel with the shoes.

Check out the Bobux shoes below and XLabs case study here

Creating the world’s first 'circular by design' marina

Advanced Floating Platforms are redesigning New Zealand’s marina infrastructure by combining renewable polymers with a closed loop recycling system on smart materials and a system of modular walkways and platforms designed to be easily maintained, replaced and recycled over a number of lifetimes — for up to 240 years.

During XLabs their challenge was "how might we create a circular marina that uses advanced floating platforms to avoid polluting the ocean and help our native species?” 

Many marinas are, shockingly. made of concrete-encased polystyrene. Polystyrene is of course a highly polluting material. Advanced Floating Platforms worked with partners on how they might put a UV treatment into the polymer they used, so that it became marine grade and could actually be stronger and more resistant to the conditions in a marine environment. They also researched how they could bring in recycled content, and have become part of a national recycling program on HDPE so that they could create a closed loop for the material.

They explored circular business models by working out the marina could actually be broken into two different types, one which could be purchased and the other, which is more likely to need to be redesigned, could be leased. So they restructured a whole circular business model around the marina system. Finally at XLabs they started to think about who their audiences and communities and what really mattered to these stakeholders.

See the Advanced Floating Platforms XLabs case study here

How should New Zealand support initiatives like XLabs to scale circular businesses?

From the XLabs process, which was an iterative learning process for Louise and her team, a key learning was that despite the huge amount of interest in XLabs from many Government departments and various impact investors, there was no funding support.

One of the key learnings from the XLabs process is just how challenging it is to find impact funding for these projects. Despite significant and publicity, there was not the funding support for many of the circular ideas that were generated.

Louise and the team at Circularity are working on this at the moment with a range of different impact investors to create what she hopes will be a circular fund for New Zealand to support the next round of XLabs businesses.


Listen to the Project Moonshot:City podcast with Louise on Soundcloud or ITunes:

To learn more and see the XLabs case studies, visit:

Visit circularity:

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