A world of flows

The lens of circularity helps us see and unlock nutritious flows.

Such nutritious flows can come in the form of matter at different scales (from particles to parts to products), as well as nutritious flows of information, energy, and money.

The circularity lens allows us to view the flow of nutrients - at any scale - in the context of value creation1:
  • Where could nutrients address a particular need and create something valuable1? How can design unleash the flow of nutrients to the particular place of value creation1? How can it contribute to the thriving of life
  • What is currently ‘waste’ and under-utilised? What is stuck? How can we unclog and unleash flows?

We can find nutritious flows everywhere around us

  • In natural systems, such as forests, where materials and information are circulated through networks2
  • The human body, where nutrients travel to and address the needs of trillions of cells
  • The circular economy

While we often think about circulation in pre-determined cycles, nature teaches us the power of leaky circular systems, too.

A deer dies in the forest3. The nutrients don’t have to become another deer but instead flow into the fox, the funghi, and plants. The nutrients ultimately are the food for all life in the forest.

1 Value creation in a broader sense: The creation of something valuable that contributes to the thriving of life. See, for example, Forum for the Future on The Five Capitals: Natural Capital, Human Capital, Social Capital, Manufactured Capital and Financial Capital.

2 Smithsonian Magazine: Do Trees Talk to Each Other?
“Trees share water and nutrients through the networks, and also use them to communicate. They send distress signals about drought and disease, for example, or insect attacks, and other trees alter their behavior when they receive these messages.”

3 A beautiful metaphor I first heard from Ken Webster

The circular economy: A model for a thriving economy and society

In our current economic model, most of the materials we lose and often after just one short use.

They are part of a take-make-waste model. We take finite resources and use them for a short period, after which they are lost. We miss out on the opportunity to keep products and materials in circulation, including all the creativity, labour, and energy that went into them. And we often end up with waste and pollution. In industries such as fashion and plastic packaging, more than 80% of all materials in our products and services are destined for landfills or incinerators, with a significant amount leaking out of the system and into natural environments.

That’s why we need to adopt a fundamentally different approach in the way we create the products, services, and systems around us. We need to look ‘upstream’ to tackle the challenges we are facing — tackling them at the design stage rather than treating the symptoms of problems. We need to look at systems as a whole to understand how our creations fit into the bigger picture. And we need to have an inspiring vision and framework that can work in the long run.

The circular economy offers such a framework, built on the principles of
  • eliminating waste and pollution from the outset 
  • circulating products and materials at their highest value, and 
  • regenerating natural systems

Just like in nature, by design, everything is food for something else — materials flow from one (life)form into the next. It is a model that can work for aeons. Just like it has in nature for 3.8 billion years.

By decoupling economic activity from linear material flows, it is a model that goes beyond “doing less bad” and focuses on regeneration — for customers, businesses, society and the environment. It’s about better design and meeting our needs within a life-friendly system.

Circular economy resources

You can find an introduction to the circular economy on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website

The ‘butterfly diagram’ provides a good starting point and visual overview of the circular economy. 

It emphasises the importance of:
  • Distinguishing between the biological (in green on the left) and technical cycle (in blue on the right): While technical materials, such as metals, play a role in a circular economy, they are circulated in closed systems and do not leak into the biosphere. Biological materials, in contrast, are compatible with the biosphere and should not be mixed with technical materials.
  • Prioritising ‘inner loops’: Keeping products, parts and particles at the highest value
  • Going ‘upstream’: Addressing the root cause rather than fighting symptoms. This means, for example, designing out waste and pollution in the first place rather than dealing with it ‘end of pipe’

Source: Ellen MacArthur Foundation