Coronavirus could nudge product design in a more circular direction

Archaeologic Vase (Series 5, Repair Test) (2019), Guy Keulemans w/ Kiyotaka Hashimoto. Vase left, detail right. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen.

It’s time for wide-open creativity as we work our way of the pandemic crisis. What about more local manufacturing and production – and a big eye on circular economy as we go? New research that just received grant funding might help lead the way.


For many of us, the pandemic is shifting our relationship with “stuff”.

Brick-and-mortar retail is on its knees, and although online shopping has surged, lower spending overall on anything other than food has left many retailers in a tough spot.

At the same time, hardware stores are doing great as people busy themselves with home repairs and renovations.

For design artist and researcher Dr Guy Keulemans, these conditions present an opportunity to plant circular economy principles into the minds of designers, manufacturers and suppliers in Australia.

Through his work at the University of New South Wales, Keulemans has run a series of research projects where he puts broken and obsolete products, such as plates and vases, into the hands of designers to fix or reimagine them for another life.

This work, with designers and craftspeople, is about to take a step up thanks to a new ARC Linkage grant to will help test out the viability of transformative repair in the market.

The project with UNSW Art & Design’s Trent Jansen and partner investigators Brian Parkes from JamFactory, Lisa Cahill from Australian Design Centre and Claire Beale from Design Tasmania aims to help develop a sustainable design economy in Australia.

Keulemans says this work can lead to a massive departure from the way most designers are accustomed to thinking. There’s a “massive emphasis on the creation of new things” in the design industry,  which will always be important because “we’ll always need fresh responses to new problems”.

“The problem is we’re buying our way through natural resources on a planet with finite resources.”

More often than not, new products are created that we don’t really need.

Copper Ice-cream Scoops (2012), Guy Keulemans. Collapsed investment casks repaired with epoxy and tin. Photo: Dean McCartney

Keulemans’ work is all about getting designers focused on the earlier stages of the three Rs that make up the waste hierarchy – reduce, reuse and recycle.

First response “in the emergency of waste” he says is repair and reuse because it takes fewer resources to keep an item in circulation than recycling it for another use.

“If we can keep products in function for longer, then we lessen the impact on the planet.”

Once a designer’s eyes are opened to the notion of circularity, he says, suddenly they start thinking about the entire lifecycle of a product.

“They are confronted with the difficulty of an old object that wasn’t designed for repair and that can’t be dissembled easily.”

Designers start thinking about remanufacturing and recycling as well.

The momentum behind design for circular economy is increasing in importance, Keulemans says and will pick up further as Australia brings more manufacturing onshore in response to the coronavirus.

Although entirely speculative at this stage, there could be a shift away from the offshore manufacturing trend that’s endured for at least 30 years.

“One of the things we see being tested by COVID-19 is globalism and the decades-long agenda for off-shoring manufacturing and production. Obviously any near-future changes will happen first with medical products, but I think there may be a renewed interest in critically examining our country’s supply chains and re-investing in local manufacturing.

“This might be a response to address unemployment, or reduce precarious casual employment, or neither, but regardless it would be good news for our designers and craftspeople.”

The other benefit of local manufacturing is a less energy intensive supply chain, which will likely result in less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Government also needs to step up

Although educating and shifting perspectives for designers and other stakeholders in the product supply chain is crucial in the pursuit of a more circular economy, governments will also need to step up.

“It needs government regulation to make it an even playing field.”

Keulemans says the best work is coming out of Europe, where some countries are planning “obsolescence laws” that deem it a crime to intentionally produce products that break and can’t be repaired and refurbished.

Jugaad Plate, repaired with sterling silver rivets (2017), Guy Keulemans, Kyoko Hashimoto & Trent Jansen. Photo: Lee Grant.

Product stewardship laws could also be improved so that companies have more financial incentive to collect and handle the disposal of their own products. Implementing these laws across whole industries could help make product recapture and manufacturing become a money-making strategy for businesses.

Lockdown an opportunity to discover the rewarding activity of repair

While Keulemans doesn’t research DIY repair and reuse, lockdown conditions are an opportunity for everybody to engage with the extremely challenging but rewarding activity of repair.

“When you repair an object or reuse it in a certain way, and you manage to maintain and conserve a part of its history but in a new product, or perhaps with a new function, it can be a very exciting – kind of a mix of the old world and the new world.”

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