Open Source Modular Design for the Circular Economy: The Business Benefits

When we talk about the circular economy, we often talk about encouraging materials cycles, similar to those in nature. This analogy works great for materials recycling but, breaks down if we think about modular design. We can’t remove the branches of a tree, and rearrange them to make two smaller trees. But with modular design of technology, facilitated by an open source approach, we could do the equivalent – and it could lead to a new way of doing business.

In product design, practitioners aim for design for manufacturability. In high value products, we may design for serviceability. When it comes to the circular economy, we need to design for reusability. That is, the ability at the end of the service life of a product, to disassemble it into useful parts that can be directly reused in another product.

A simple example from today’s products would be

Scenario: Life in the Year 2100

Energy and Living Well

Life in the year 2100 is all about energy. No, that’s no longer true. It’s about living well.

We had to completely reinvent civilization in the face of fossil-fuel shortages and increasing climate change. Permaculture become the basis of our new sustainable civilization.

Housing looks familiar, if a little fatter with all the insulation that was added. The retrofit passivhaus concept went global as energy prices rose. These days, excess energy is very expensive, but for most people it just doesn’t matter. Most communities are locally self-sufficient. Everyone grows food using permaculture principles. Agricultural monoculture became deeply unfashionable during the great GM disease outbreaks of the 2030s.

During the chaos, we were

Thoughts after my Permaculture Design Course

It’s interesting watching yourself have your own world view changed.

As I drove to Steve and Fiona Hansons “Permaculture Eden” for my two week design course, I was wondering if after two weeks I’d finally know what to plant with what. I guess I had permaculture fixated in my head as “hippy gardening”, and the only reason I was really going was because the Transition Handbook strongly suggested it was a good thing to do.

I’ve always liked nature – I enjoy hiking on mountains and in forests, but I guess I viewed it as a kind of nice to have thing. Great to get into, but nothing to do with the real world of people.

Then came the two week immersion, with a fantastic group of intelligent people, coming at the whole topic from different angles. We had different cultures, ate different foods (I am not, and almost certainly never will be by choice, a Vegan), spoke different native tounges, and came from different backgrounds. A mix of practical and hopeless (I’m still working on my tree and herb identification), but all with a great desire to learn about the subject.

On day one, I was sceptical. All this talk about the people that started it. By the end of day two I was hooked. This wasn’t hippy, this was really design science! I was in my element. By the end of day seven, we were due a break. I needed it, pleading “my head’s full”. But we kept discussing, and kept learning. By the end of the course, we’d learned all sorts of things, some new, some not so, and could piece it all together. We were so pleased with our design, and all of us wanted to stay on and build it, and see if it could really be done. I’m sure we’ll all build part of it somewhere.

Before we all left, we held a party, and I drove to the supermarket for beer. It seemed so strange going into this enormous shop and buying things that we could just grow.

The following day, driving home, I realised that I would never see the world in the same way again. What had been nice pretty hedges on the way in, had become fabulous edges, full of interaction, co-operation and competition. What had been nice fields became lifeless deserts, with a monoculture crop standing in a lifeless dead ex-soil supported by pesticides and fertilisers. And the trees! Not just satisfying to look at but a source of so much, capable, if managed properly, of sustaining many of our needs.

When I got back to Ferney-Voltaire, my pensive mood continued. Who knew there was so much food lying around growing in the town already? I had thought growing food in town would be really difficult, but now I know that by working with nature, rather than against it, it’ll be much easier than we think.