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Design kicks out old business models

At the end of September when the capital was in the throes of the London Design Festival, the Great Recovery Innovation Hub at FabLab London opened its doors.

FabLab London is the City of London’s first purpose-built digital fabrication and rapid prototyping workspace.

It was the realisation of a vision we had some two years ago, when Nat Hunter, co-director of design at the RSA, and I were brainstorming about what would bring about a new type of behaviour needed for a circular economy.

Work under the Great Recovery banner had signalled to us that design was the creative stimuli needed to kick old business models and managers that were stuck in established routes to market back into the innovation light. And so a sketch was drawn, like a yin-yang diagram of two worlds colliding: the slightly revolutionary creative disrupters of the FabLab world and those who inhabited the business landscape desperate for new ideas but not knowing where to turn.

These spaces are not new: innovation hubs, fabrication hubs and maker spaces have been around for a while. What is key is accessibility, and what is new is the articulation around circular economic thinking and redesigning. Why have circularity in a FabLab? Here are my compelling reasons:

  • Disruption

Feedback from businesses we work with at the Great Recovery talk about their need for ‘disruptive thinking’ to shift the stagnant business-as-usual stalwarts to being able to see the opportunity. This needs different types of thinkers; FabLab members are hot in this area.

  • Rapid prototyping

A circular economy at this scale is something of an unknown, so rapid routes to market and fast prototyping are crucial. Designers and businesses need to print out, test, put together, take apart and put out into the marketplace quickly in order to get a fast iterative design process going.

  • Knowledge sharing

This is an obvious one and key to successful circular activity. FabLab members know stuff that we do not. It is humbling to watch someone with technical knowhow work, and it is no wonder that businesses who are looking for innovation in circularity want some.

Closing the loop in design is not easy to get your head around. You need to have a lot of the supply chain network, including those at end of life, sitting around you when you redesign products because often it is a complete system reboot that is needed. This is where our circular network comes in.

  • Longevity through personalisation and attachment

Encouraging reuse by fixing and hacking takes the circularity focus closer to the tighter loop, where our use of the product makes the most of the embodied energy from the initial production.

Rather than see a defunct product through a technical lens and immediately break it down to raw materials, as is often the case, we can extend its use by hacking and fixing. We work with businesses and community groups such as Restart and Bright Sparks to teach us where reuse value lies, as well as point out bad models of product obsolescence.

The FabLab has additive (3D) and reductive (laser cutter) printing kits which are also key for the circular designer. A new cooker knob can be open sourced and printed on a 3D autobot; a laser cutter can optimise your cutting for minimal material wastage or customise your product for greater user attachment.

  • Re-thinking the waste stream

In one of our first videos for the Great Recovery, our facilitator Mark Shayler talked about a product being a transient moment in time for the materials stream that flows around the economic system. This deconstruction is the basis of our process in tearing down and designing up.

Working with those who hack electronics is eye-opening. For them, opportunity lies in the component building blocks – part of a washing machine can be reutilised in urban aquaponics or a motorised unit from a broken printer can be used to create a 3D scanner. We see a broken product, but they see valuable components that do specific and transferable tasks.

  • Unlocking the information flow

FabLabs are hotspots for sensor technology development and Arduino, a tool for making computers that can sense and control more of the physical world. Circular thinking needs this to help unlock data. We cannot build solutions to waste reduction if we do not know where things are and how long they stay there. To understand where our materials are in the societal flow at any given moment, we need to develop some serious sensor-driven data.

Our programme is about networking and action, testing and piloting. The FabLab allows us to make open calls to those who want to learn about circular design. It is usable and rentable – get in touch for a tour or a chat about its possibilities.      

Sophie Thomas is co-director of design at the RSA and leader of its Great Recovery project

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