Transitioning towards a circular economy

This project was a student finalist for the Service Design Award 2016 in the category: Commercial, Student work.

“Eighty percent of a product, service, or system’s environmental impact is determined a the design stage” - Jonh Thackara


We live in an era in which consumerism dictates the way we live.We think we need more stuff to be happy, when in fact, research proves exactly the contrary.

Did you know that we throw away 80% of the products we possess in the first six months of their life? Did you also know that in order to provide the resources we need and absorb the waste we create it would take 1.6 planet Earths to fulfill those needs? That means that currently we are taking more resources and creating more waste than our planet has the time to naturally heal.

Today, we are 7 billion people in the world, but our population is projected to grow to around 8 billion in less than 10 years. This means that a huge amount of people will enter the echelons of the middle class, and they will be demanding access to more cars, phones, TV’s, etc. If we don’t change the way we design our products and services, what will there be left?

We are seeing the catastrophic effects of what we call “design gone wrong” unfold before of our eyes. As designers we find ourselves before a paradox: never has design had so much freedom in its application, and never have designers been taken so seriously in government, in science and in business as in our era. But, with great power comes great responsibility. If 80% of the products we make are being thrown away in less than 6 months, then we as designers are failing.


Design as a discipline is actually very well placed to champion a transition to a different economy.There are many frameworks that propose an alternative approach to dealing with this immense problem, and one of the most spoken about is the concept of the Circular Economy. This model advocates for the elimination of waste through “the superior design of materials, products, systems, and within this, business models”.

Project Scope

The Circular Economy model was as the starting framework for our project. We decided to focus on the waste stream from the furniture industry, especially focusing on wooden furniture.

Currently we are undergoing a new industrial revolution, especially with the spread of technologies like 3D printing, who are democratizing design.

Our vision of the future of furniture involves an approach to open source. Why is that? Because when comparing the guidelines for developing a circular economy with those of the open source world it becomes clear that there are

many overlaps and similarities: practical requirements for transparency, repairability, modularity, open standards, etc. Also, in order to make the circular economy a reality, there is a big need for collaboration, and having an open source approach to it nurtures this kind of behavior.

This is why, for our project we decided to partner up with Opendesk, and explore the application of circular economy principles to their company.

Design Process

Kick off workshop Opendesk:

Meeting with key team at Opendesk to discuss the direction this project could take. Tool used: We led the workshop using the Importance/Difficulty Matrix from the LUMA Institute, which was very helpful in structuring different ideas according to business priority. We settled on three ideas to explore: the provenance of the furniture (the story behind it, transparency of origin, etc.); a second hand platform to sell Opendesk furniture; and the idea of “furniture as a service”, leasing furniture to companies instead of selling them. 

User & expert interviews:

We interviewed 8 companies that are current Opendesk customers, from startups to big firms commissioning several dozen desks. We asked very open ended questions as this is, we find, how most users give us the most interesting insights.

Design direction definition:

We synthesised the insights from the interviews and defined our design direction, which was slightly different

from the first three ideas we agreed on:

  • Designing for product attachment: Allow users know the story behind each product: where does the wood come from, who designed it, who made it, who owned it before, what’s its story? This touchpoint is also physical, and it is represented by the engraved code on each desk.
  • Design for longevity: how can users be empowered to take better care and even repair their own products? For this we designed a hub with tutorial videos from professional makers to help people take care and repair their Opendesks themselves
  • Design for re-use: where we envision a quality assured second hand market for opendesk furniture, which we called OpenMarket. 

We discarded the idea of “furniture as a service” after speaking to financial leasing experts as well as to current customers. This type of service model wouldn’t be suitable for Opendesk at the moment as it doesn’t add any financial value to any party.


We prototyped our service interventions in different ways: blueprints, user journeys, paper prototypes of the 3 online platforms plus paper prototypes of physical interventions, and finally also with digital prototypes of the online platforms


We tested our digital prototypes with several Opendesk customers. We did video taped sessions where we asked each participant to test the prototype while talking out loud what they were seeing, thinking, feeling, doubting, etc. This gave us a good understanding of what needed to be changed, what things were not clear or didn’t make sense from a navigational but also from a strategic perspective.


With the immense amount of feedback we were able to change our prototypes again. The testing sessions also affected our blueprints and user journey maps, which we adapted accordingly.


We did a final validation workshop with Opendesk. The output of our project are the digital prototypes plus user journeys and blueprints.


Currently we are implementing the first intervention live: the provenance platform. We designed the tags for each product together with Opendesk, and the first products have live provenance pages. Please refer to: to see the first example.

The second hand market will be carried out in a low key way at the moment: offering pre loved desks through email/twitter account of Opendesk.


The value we are creating is manyfold: If people are more attached tot heir product through the Provenance platform, they will hopefully not throw it away that easily. OpenMarket, the second hand platform, is there to support companies/ users to “get rid”of their furniture, through a quality assured platform. We know that there is a big demand for second hand Opendesk prodcuts, especially from startups that fail and need to sell their assets quickly, but equally from startups that don’t have enough funds to buy a brand new desk. Through the Care & Repair platform we are helping users take better care of their products, with video tutorials but also indications of what kind of oils, sanding methods, etc. are needed to make the desks look like new again.

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