A Designer’s Vision for Circularity

We have a waste problem. The = linear design model of creating products with new materials, using it for its intended purpose and then throwing it away has prevailed as long as humans have been making products. Even with the monumental efforts to encourage recycling, our world is still coping with the huge impact of this model – in landfills, oceans, and waterways. To put it in perspective for my industry, in 2019, only 17.4% of the 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste generated was recycled properly. There is a better way – it’s called circularity. And put simply, it means turning what would be trash into treasure – reusing these materials to create new products.

As a company that creates technology used by millions of people around the world, we are taking responsibility, playing a role in advancing circular design. We’ve been working on this for over a decade, with our first OptiPlex desktop made with recycled plastics in 2007. But as an industry, we need to move faster. We need to move together. Which is why we set this moonshot goal for the future: By 2030, for every product a customer buys, we will reuse or recycle an equivalent product, and 100% of our packaging and more than half of our product content will be made from recycled or renewable material.

The drive to meet this goal is embedded across our entire organisation. Our pioneering work with closed-loop plastics means the display you have today, could contain recycled plastics from a display returned five years ago. New reclaimed carbon fibre technology means your Latitude could be made in part from waste from the aerospace industry. And plastic water bottles that once littered a beach are now packaging, protecting your XPS through our partnership with NextWave Plastics.  Early next year you will be able to buy the first PCs in the industry to use bioplastics derived from tree waste from the pulp and paper industry in their design. And our new as-a-Service “Project APEX” solution will extend the life of technology and increase the volume at which we can take back our technology to be refurbished or recycled.

To get where we want to be, we need to accelerate across our entire portfolio beyond anything we’ve ever done before. We need to try new materials, reinvent processes and push product design to the absolute limits of what is possible.

Driving Bold Design Concepts Forward

A typical laptop includes more than 200 parts and components made using plastics and metals. That adds a ton of complexity when considering reuse and responsible recycling. And we have learned this first-hand. Visiting recycling facilities and taking apart old technology ourselves, inspires us to make improvements – removing adhesives, limiting the use of screws and allowing common tools to be used. And last year, following one of these visits I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there had to be a better way.

The reality is that the countdown to 2030 is on. When we set our ambitious circular goal, we didn’t know how we were going to achieve it. What we did know is we were sending a strong signal across our industry for a call-to-action to drive new innovations broadly across our product eco-system. With only nine years left, now is the time to accelerate our expansive thinking, leaving no design avenue not explored, no boundary not pushed to help us test new concepts, materials and technology. Through exploring what’s possible tomorrow, we can gain deeper understanding of possible solutions we can implement today.

This is the challenge I brought to my team of industrial and user experience professionals. What came out of the exercise was the start of a new future circular design vision across all our product lines covering:

  • Reincarnation and longer lives: We will strive to design products that can be ‘reincarnated’ having multiple lives by enabling repeated lifecycles of reuse or upcycling. Supporting this will be pushing the boundaries of easy assembly and fast disassembly. Imagine a design that could allow an entire product to break down into component level with the removal of a single pin – that’s what we are striving for. Further out in our planning stages, we will focus on how future as-a-Service models could allow us to augment and design equipment that improves over time. Using 5G and strong cloud connectivity, regular, automatic updates we can make products that don’t degrade, they get better.
  • A focus on the sustainable core: Our biggest impact on PCs will come from shifting our components inside the box to be more sustainable. Internal components and motherboards are some of the most carbon-intensive components to manufacture. We’re evaluating ways to reduce how much we use, use recycled and renewable materials to make them, and shift to reuse of whole components, building a ‘new’ product around these valuable resources and giving them a second life (which is what you can see in the video above!)
  • The power of artificial intelligence and data: We’re exploring how to use artificial intelligence to design for behaviour change, predict failures, and energy efficiency. We’re working on “self-healing” devices that reconstitute or repair themselves through AI and machine learning. We’re building dashboards for IT admins to analyse the performance of their “fleet” and the impact on the company’s carbon footprint. For consumers, we’re planning apps to guide them on sustainable use and aid in recycling when a product is approaching the end of its usefulness.

Our objective is simple. The more we take back to reuse or recycle, the less waste there is on our planet. We will continue to drive and promote our global recycling and takeback programs at scale in service of our moonshot goal.

But it’s not enough to create change for ourselves and reach our 2030 goal. We want to inspire transformation for the entire technology industry in how we approach design and use resources. It will take industry-wide action to rethink existing approaches and move to designing an entire product for circularity. This is why we’ll engage designers and engineers both in the IT industry and other industries along the way.

This new circular design vision accelerates our leadership position and works towards creating solutions that will reduce waste, extend the life of technology, and bring everlasting positive environmental impact. I invite you to learn more about our 2030 goals and how we are advancing the future of circular design, today for tomorrow.

About the Author: Ed Boyd

Ed joined Dell in October 2007 initially to lead the Consumer Experience Design Group. In 2010 Ed’s role was expanded to cover Dell’s Commercial and Enterprise businesses too. Ed is responsible for Industrial Design, User Experience Design, and Advanced Design. Ed’s strategic vision is helping Dell define and deliver award winning products and solutions. Before joining Dell, Ed served as Global Creative Director for Nike’s Athletic Training Division. There his primary focus was vision and strategic design direction for Nike’s athletic training businesses, encompassing the total consumer experience (product, services, events, and retail). Ed had more than ten years’ tenure at Nike where he developed extensive experience in understanding consumer needs and desires and translating these insights into rich and meaningful experiences. Before Nike, Ed worked at Sony in New York & Tokyo. He worked on numerous product categories (home audio and video, telecommunications, television, professional mass storage, and in-flight entertainment. There he learned how to balance design and technology to create compelling customer propositions. Ed received a BFA in Industrial Design from the Columbus College of Design, Columbus Ohio.