‘Systems thinking’ - the future of product design

‘Systems thinking’ - the future of product design

June 30, 2023
The majority of the environmental impact of a product is determined at the design stage. TG0’s head of R&D and sustainability lead, Olivia Cowling, discusses why product designers and the companies they work for need to think about the whole of a product’s life cycle right from day one.

Driven by tightening regulations, pressure from investors and shifting customer preferences, sustainability is being discussed in every boardroom, across every sector. And amid the discussions about changes to supply chains, switching energy suppliers, and component shortages, questions are also being asked about how products are designed, engineered and used.

It’s thought that 80% of the environmental impact of a product is determined at a design stage. Design decisions determine how easily a product can be repaired, recycled or reused at end of life. They dictate the amount and type of virgin or bio materials used, and the number of manufacturing steps required. Products have a big impact on a company’s overall carbon footprint – almost 70% of Apple’s gross carbon emissions are attributed to purchased goods and services. For BMW, it’s 81%.

Getting this right has real benefits. Recent research into the impact of sustainable product design initiatives by the technology services company, Capgemini, found 67% of organisations that have introduced them have seen a reduction in carbon emissions, 73% have seen higher rates of revenue growth and 70% have experienced an increase in customer satisfaction. Despite this, only 16% of product designers say they have an accurate understanding of the useful life of their products.

That needs to change. TG0’s head of R&D and sustainability lead Olivia Cowling discusses why.

What is 'systems thinking' in product design?

Traditional design thinking focuses on designing for the ‘use’ phase of a product life cycle, which is critical for the success of a product. By contrast, a more systematic approach to design requires the whole life cycle to be considered. This includes the impact of design decisions later in the product life cycle, such as how it’s disposed of or recycled at the end of its use.

The linear economy isn’t sustainable long term. Raw materials are extracted, turned into usable goods, purchased and then quickly discarded – much of which ends up in landfill. More than 50 million metric tons of e-waste is already generated globally every year, amounting to around 7kg per person. A closed-loop, circular economy aims to eliminate waste and pollution, circulate products and materials (at their highest value), and regenerate nature. Design is one of the tools we have to make that happen. By looking at the system a product exists in, commonly referred to as the product life cycle, designers can make decisions that promote circularity.

What levers can product designers pull?

As designers, we should all be thinking about disassembly, longevity, reusability and modularity right at the start of contemplating a concept. This will help inform the decisions made at prototyping and mass production stages.

One big consideration is around the materials we use. Product designers might consider replacing raw materials with more sustainable alternatives, or using materials which are recyclable or reusable. Reducing the variety of materials also makes products easier to dismantle and recycle, as does not using finishes such as films and sprays, which contaminate waste streams. We can also make decisions to improve the prospect of repairs and upgrades. Then there are choices that reduce the amount of energy that has to go into producing or transporting a product by minimising the number of manufacturing steps required and number of parts, for example.

It is a balancing act though. These decisions need to be made based on the system within which the product operates. In some cases, it might make more sense to use plastic, rather than bio-plastic because of certification or safety requirements. That will then mean the focus should be on preserving the material's value so it can be recycled. Another example is to make sure that promoting modularity doesn’t encourage unnecessary upgrades.

How are different sectors approaching this?

Different sectors and different companies within those sectors prioritise different things, but there have been some good examples in consumer electronics. In 2018, Dell became the first PC manufacturer to use recycled gold instead of mined gold in its motherboards when it introduced the Latitude 5285 convertible notebook. Framework is another brand that prioritises the repairability of its products. Its laptop has captive screws and magnets to replace glue, contains labels for all components and a QR code to direct customers to its affordable spare parts online shop. In 2020, the company refurbished and resold 40 percent of phones collected. The rest were recycled for parts and materials.

The automotive industry is also making progress. Automotive designers are thinking a lot about sustainable materials choices, material value retention, light weighting and reduction in parts. In most cases, that discussion is centred around the body materials of the car itself (the steel, aluminium, carbon fibre, etc) to help vehicles run more efficiently. But, the focus on interiors is increasing, and we are seeing more automotive companies moving towards natural fibres for soft fittings.

‘Right to repair’ legislation, which was introduced in the UK in 2021, has put pressure on other sectors to make changes. This gives consumers the right to repair the goods they purchase, and aims to prevent planned obsolescence, which manufacturers use to encourage people to buy something new. In the UK it currently only applies to certain product categories, such as dishwashers, washing machines, fridges and some other white goods, but should be extended in the future.  

What do you hope the future of sustainable product design will look like?

Sustainability is an interdisciplinary problem, and it calls upon designers to add another parameter to their design thinking when developing a product. Ultimately, we need to move to an approach where designers are thinking of systems and life cycles as part of the design process. That might initially take more time or add a layer of complexity to projects. But eventually, it will become a natural part of the process. And every designer and decision-maker needs to do their part to create a more sustainable world.

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