A 21st Century

The Future Will Take Us in Circles.

‘The circle has tremendous visual power. This is true of any circle, any size, in just about any composition. The human eye loves the circle and embraces it’.

Kimberly Elam
Re – Quote #5 — LIFECYCLES
As we walk through time, our unit of measurement when viewed on a clock is most easily understood in its circular motion. The second hand makes circles within the minutes, whilst the minute hand makes circles around the hours. As days pass to weeks and months pass to seasons, these processes continue in their perpetual circularity. As soon as one summer finishes, we are already that much closer to the next. And as we live our lives we keep returning to the same physical and mental points over and over again, sometimes by necessity and sometimes by accident. We revisit these same reference points for reassurance, or as a means by which to help us learn.

Yet despite all this evidence that many natural processes are unavoidably circular, life on board this spinning rock at ground level can appear disappointingly much flatter. The passage of each day has a tendency to feel repeatedly linear, as do many of our working processes. In our professional lives we habitually judge our activity through the completion of tasks, sometimes to the neglect of the overall experience, what we learnt along the way, or what our findings help us prepare to do next.

It was Pythagorus who first suggested the world was round sometime around 500 BC, and Aristotle who first declared that the Earth was a sphere sometime close to 350 BC. However, people held onto their two-dimensional perceptions for much longer, some also believing the ocean to be filled with monsters large enough to devour whole ships. To this day, the myth of a flat Earth has persistently reappeared in history for a variety of perplexing reasons.

Christian Europeans used a similar manipulation of the facts to perpetuate a lie that an Italian named Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America – despite the somewhat obvious fact there were people already living there. Today, certain sides of the political and business spectrum actively attempt to erode the well-proven circular connections between carbon emissions and the escalating climate crisis. Blinkered falsities such as these can be linked throughout the Imperialist era to the very beginnings of 20th-century capitalism, and damaging belief structures such as ‘capitalist entitlement.’

Ignoring valuable lessons from the first or second Agricultural Revolutions where farmers first learnt the idea of the ‘rotation system’ and the importance of allowing time for the land to recover. Capitalism has long since promoted flawed ideas of linear economic and manufacturing systems. So much so, that much of our present-day thinking can be unimaginatively flat in many aspects of our daily living. Some causes of unhappiness relate to this style of thinking, where on the sequential path, we never quite reach the pinnacles of where we once expected we would be.

Tomás Maldonado tried to break this spell at the Ulm School of Design back in the 1960s. Here he orientated the curriculum towards a balanced relationship between science and design, and between theory and practice – incorporating planning methods, perceptual theory and semiotics into the process. He was effectively aiming for more harmonious relationships between not necessarily complementary elements. The optimum, he believed, embraced a fuller interpretation of both analytical and holistic thinking.

At the beginning of the 1959/60 academic year, Maldonado explained to his students: ‘Nowadays … design problems must be approached and solved on the basis of precise factual knowledge. We must admit that this knowledge is not easy to attain and that it demands a great deal from the students … For this reason, the academic year that begins today will be marked by an emphasis on methodology …’1 Designers working this century to more mindful principles of making, might have great empathy for the consonance of this important feedback loop.

The notion of ‘circularity’, which has re-emerged more recently, certainly is not new. But it is happily regaining the attention which it has long deserved, particularly within the context of industrial processes and manufacturing. With new catchphrases from the ‘circular economy’ to ‘Doughnut economics’, we are finally getting much better again at thinking and making in circles.

The idea of the circular economy catapults us to a more adaptable system which takes responsibility for the whole supply chain. It links the beginning of the process to the end so that whatever it is that you’re making, you care about where the raw materials and components have come from (at best they are carefully sourced from proven sustainable sources). You put the thing you’re making together in such a way that during its lifetime it is as clean, nonpolluting and energy-efficient as possible. And most importantly, at the end of a lifecycle, it can be disassembled, and the pieces reused, recycled, or turned into energy. This thinking replaces the old linear model with a more sustainable and circular method of making.

Illustration – The Future Will Take us in Circles!

Now that new technology is allowing us to create previously unexplored connections not just in how we make, but also between the things we make, it will soon no longer be viable for any of our processes to continue to be flat, or treated in isolation. Old linear models that still sees us bury waste in the ground, will one day seem as archaic as the belief that the world was once flat. The transformation may well hold a similar significance in world history as well.

According to Kate Raworth, the future is shaped like a doughnut. Poignantly she believes: ‘Humanity’s 21st-century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet.’2 Her breakthrough model for economics helps to illustrate the delicate balance between social and planetary boundaries, and provides an effective way to frame the challenge of creating harmony between the two.

In other words, in order to ensure no one falls short on life’s essentials – from food and housing to healthcare. We must also collectively ensure that we don’t overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems – a stable climate, fertile soils and a protective ozone layer being amongst those we have taken for granted for far too long.

By reframing the way we measure the health of our ‘economics’ in terms of both the Earth’s natural systems and the needs of humanity, Kate reminds us that we are more than just workers and consumers. We’re just as dependent on our natural systems, and the circular flow of energy and materials between the two. The Doughnut model thus has the potential to act as a valuable compass for our thinking throughout this next century.

With more circular systems in place, we might begin to see the process of manufacturing as closer to that of farming. Where a ‘crop’ of products is made (or cultivated) cyclically, continually adjusting to changes in demand with each new cycle. ‘Garment farming’ already sounds like a more natural process than manufacturing, and suggests a system that could be more creative, flexible and organic too.

Ideas associated with the incoming Fourth Industrial Revolution may well prove to have more in common with previous practices from quite some time ago, and take greater inspiration from the Earth's natural systems as well. 360-degree processes can be applied to almost any system. From ‘sponge cities’, designed to capture and release rainwater in patterns similar to forests within the natural world, to ‘energy-positive’ buildings that generate more energy than they consume. In circular models awkward problems get flipped to become tomorrow's solutions.

Herbert Girardet nails it when he says: ‘Continuous regeneration must be a guiding principle for human action.’ He goes on to suggest ‘it is high time that these realisations were embedded in the teaching of economic theory at universities and business schools all over the world.’3 In the long-term it would be wise for these these ideas to be embedded into international law as well.

It’s here that eventually we’ll get something that is no longer a set of connected systems, but an ecosystem instead. The musician Brian Eno is fond of ecosystems, perhaps because they offer much richer and more nuanced connections. ‘Now this thing about ecosystems’ he explains, ‘is that it’s impossible to tell what the important parts are. It’s not a hierarchy, you know. We’re used to thinking of things that are arranged in levels like that, with the important things at the top and the less important things at the bottom. Ecosystems aren’t like that. They’re richly interconnected and they’re co-dependent in many, many ways.’4

On the grand scale humanity has always attempted to create a better future through the continued process of imagining, reimagining, dreaming, redreaming, working and reworking together. Always with the best knowledge we have at our disposal at any point in time. To adapt and ‘repurpose’ an old Bill Moggridge quote: ‘If there’s a simple, easy design principle that binds everything together, it’s probably about starting with the people and nature, and ending with the people and nature.’ To put this in its simplest terms, we’re essentially talking about creating more robust loops for living, and then maintaining their harmony.


Next ︎
Chapter 19 —
Where do we go from here?

Credits & Notes

Hatje Cantz
Ulmer Modelle / Modelle nach Ulm
Ulmer Museum | HfG-Archiv

Kate Raworth
Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist
Random House Business (2017)

Herbert Girardet
‘Sustainability is unhelpful: we need to think about regeneration’
The Guardian (10 Jun 2013)

Brian Eno
John Peel Lecture
BBC Radio 6 (2015)


To purchase your own exclusive copy of the book, or a limited run A3 / A2 poster.

Head over to the shop ︎︎︎