Circular Economy

Ditte Lysgaard Vind is a practitioner of circular economy and design, particularly within the built environment, working towards how we can use circular economy as a tool to deliver value for people while staying within our planetary boundaries. Ditte is the author of the book called Danish Design Heritage and Global Sustainability (2023) and A Changemakers Guide to the future (2018).



Article | 09:07 min read

Portrait of

Ditte Lysgaard Vind


Copenhagen, Denmark

Still photography by

Adam Morris Philp

Interviewed by

Katrine Philp

“Science has very clearly told us what we need to leave behind, but we don’t really know what we’re moving towards. What might it look like? How might it smell? What might it sound like?”

Ditte Lysgaard Vind

How did you get interested in circular economy and design?

I became interested in circular economy and the opportunities within design a little bit by coincidence back in 2015 through a product as a service startup that worked with baby clothing. Rather than having the traditional linear tech-make-waste model, they were introducing a circular business model where you don’t own the clothes yourself. You subscribe to a clothing solution. And the interesting part for me was that this was a business model where you were incentivized to create quality from a business perspective. And rather than the focus on exchange value, the focus was on use value instead. The design and the ability to create quality that lasted was what made the business successful. Not the other way around, as we mostly see today.

What did you get out of that experience?

First of all, it gave me the very clear perspective that we have an issue today because of our focus on exchange rather than use value. It showed me that there is a need for a systemic cultural shift in how we consume.

On the other side, there is opportunity and there is a way in which we can leverage business and design as a source for good. It just requires us to rethink and do things in a different way. The product as a service business model is one of those really great tools for that if we are committed and willing to force that change.

What are the challenges that we face now and will face in the future?

We have waited too long to act. If we had acted ten years ago the needed solutions would be different than where we are today. So today we need to have a long-term focus on creating a regenerative society. But we also need to be mindful of how we reduce all of those short-term upfront carbon emissions and avoid those horrendous tipping points that we otherwise face.

Things are dire. Absolutely. And we really need to be much more biased towards action than we have been before. We have more than plenty of reports and theoretical potentials, now we really need to start taking action.

Could you please describe what circular economy is?

Circular economy is a toolbox that can help us create value for people while staying within our planetary boundaries by decoupling the value creation from the use of virgin resources and most importantly, reducing our CO2 emissions and equivalence thereof. It really comes down to the opportunity to reduce, reuse, recycle and replace our materials.

Will we have to compromise our design in the future to produce sustainably? Will it limit the creative process?

Design is always within limitations. That’s what ultimately creates the good solution in the end. The reason why I’m so inspired by the Danish design heritage is that in its core social purpose is embedded as part of the solution space that doesn’t lessen the final design. It heightens the final design with the limitations being a positive creative constraint.

So how do we learn from that and start seeing the planetary boundaries as positive creative constraints and use them to be more ambitious than we are today? Without a doubt we still need to design new solutions. But if you look at most design today, it is something we need to leave behind.

For you being interested in Danish design heritage – what can we learn about the history of design?

In my opinion, we have a great deal to learn from the Danish design heritage. Some of the key elements being ‘form follows function’, but also the social purpose of rebuilding after the world wars was key to heighten the final solution of the design and it made them more ambitious. Having that creative constraint was a positive restriction. That for me is a key learning. And then simply taking the time to care about the aesthetics, the material and the craftsmanship to create beautiful products that gave value to the user whilst also being good businesses.

If you look at it today, there’s the industry around both the production of these design classics and the resale value, where products are now sold at an even higher price due to them never losing their value.

So we should learn from that and remember to design to create use value. It’s absolutely fine that there is a financial sector taking part in this. However, they need to be the service providing liquidity, not the design or the built environment or whoever services the financial sector. We need to recreate that better balance and alignment, ensuring that our societal system is the top system within our structure, and our overarching goal is to provide value for people while staying within the planetary boundaries. And I think we are starting to see great opportunities for that.

Do you think we should go back to producing as we once did?

I don’t think we should go back to only producing the way we did before, but I do think we should learn from it. But there is a lot to gain with innovation by remembrance, rather than being drawn to newness just for the sake of novelty. What I call innovation by remembrance is really about going back in time and being inspired by what we used to do and know. There are so many learnings that we simply forgot. But we can bring it back and really improve what we do today. The Danish architect and furniture designer Kaare Klint used to say that the future lies in the balance between tradition and opportunities of the present day.

One of the areas that’s interesting for me is bio-based materials. We used to use bio-based materials and we can start using hemp, wood and more via innovation by remembrance. On top of that, there are also next-generation bio-based materials, such as mycelium and algaes. If we utilize all the things we learned from the first-generation bio-based materials and mix that with new opportunities, we can create amazing opportunities within the next generation of bio-based materials.

What is good design?

Good design is design that helps shape the future. It enables us to imagine what a better world might look like. And that also comes down to the ability to question the status quo. The intentionality of design, whether it’s a colour, a shape, an object, it’s always done with thought and consideration, questioning everything that we do. It is also about taking the time to care from a quality perspective, being mindful of the use value, but also the quality of craft and of materials. This is something that we must get much better at again. Ultimately, design in my opinion should be measured on its ability to create value for people while staying within the planetary boundaries.

It is interesting that when we talk about planetary boundaries and the climate crisis, we almost talk of it as a social construction that we can change when we have the time and when everything is convenient for us. At the same time we talk about financial markets as a sort of a natural state when in fact, it’s the opposite way around. The financial markets are a social construction. The planetary boundaries and the climate crisis is natural science, a physical crisis in every sense.

I think all design fundamentally needs to be assessed on whether it creates value for people while staying within our planetary boundaries. If it doesn’t it’s something that we should consider phasing out.

The construction industry is one of the industries that burden the climate the most. What can we do to make it more sustainable and reduce its carbon footprint?

Due to the large size of the problem in the built environment and the construction sector, the potential is similarly grand. If we continue business as usual, the UN predicts that we’ll build the same size area in square meter as Manhattan every month until 2040 due to global population growth, urbanization, and a growing middle class. It’s a good thing that people are currently leaving poverty and getting running water and a roof over their head for the first time. However, we need to find completely new ways of solving this because otherwise we’ll run out of materials while wrecking the climate beyond repair.

There is no one silver bullet. It will be a number of different things that need to happen. Some of the key areas are the materials we use and the focus on bio-based materials. We need to significantly reduce the amount of concrete and particularly cement as a binder we use, only using it where it has a necessary technical functionality.

Next we need to look at behavioural change. How do we live? How do we utilize our building? How do we make sure that we really use our square meters to the full extent and not as today, where we have so many unused square meters for the majority of the 24 hours of the day.

Everything needs to come together in synergy. We’re not going to get there with a purely material focus, behavioural change perspective, or with a new technological perspective. It will require everything coming together.

Can design and architecture help solve major global challenges?

I think the key role of design and architecture in the future is the ability to shape something that we don’t know. Science has very clearly told us what we need to leave behind, but we don’t really know what we’re moving towards. What might it look like? What might it smell like? What might it sound like? It becomes less about sub-optimizing in the existing state and what we won’t have in the future and more about what it is that we actually want to move towards.

How can we get architects and designers to create responsibly?

What I see will be new generations of designers and architects working together combined with new regulatory requirements and an increase in demand. They will have to be mindful of doing something that is better than what we do today. I think for the coming years there will be some that are more focused on doing less harm and others that really see it as an opportunity for a design renaissance of doing good and finding new and better ways that are challenging how we produce today and the system from which we produce.

How can waste be used as a resource?

We have designed our society in such a way that we have no understanding of our materials’ values, which means we end up throwing away resources with great value. We see them as waste because we have structured our society in a very siloed way, which means if something is of no use in one industry we won’t see a use for it even if it could be of high value in another industry

A lot of what I’ve been working with is seeing that waste resources from other industries can become high value materials in the construction sector. The old saying of ‘one man’s trash is another woman’s treasure’ really comes to light. Whether it’s plastics or textiles, all of these different materials can be utilized much better than what we see today.

Cross-sector collaboration and global collaboration is at the essence because it’s the only way we can get there in time. Helping each other and learning from each other’s experiences, but also the sharing of resources across sectors. Understanding that what is waste to some is value to others and really working within that frame.

Can you give us an example of how recycled material has been used on a larger scale?

One example is Upcycle Studios in Copenhagen Ørestad alongside its sister project, the Resource Rose, who are able to convey the idea that we can change things and recycle materials.

The Danish metro company building the new metro system in Copenhagen had steel pipes transported up through Europe and once they reached their destination in Copenhagen, all that high-quality wood was considered a waste resource they had to pay to get rid of. Whereas for Upcycle Studios it was actually a high-quality material that could be utilized in large amounts. The wood was used for exterior facades and some of the interior flooring and wall panels. In Resource Rose the wood was partly used for the balconies as well.

We need to get much better at cross-sector collaboration because as shown in this example, there is a grand opportunity to take advantage of. As awareness grows, more and more people are starting to be focused on how to avoid throwing away resources. It is something that we need to work on by professionalizing and scaling systems from where we share our resources with each other, both end of life, but also from a design perspective. We need to be much more mindful of what the second, third, fourth life of this material could be, so that we can design for it from the start.

Many may be reluctant to convert to green production as they are concerned about the economy and whether it’s sustainable for their entire business. How do we make green initiative financially sustainable?

When it comes to making green solutions more financially viable, the first thing is that we need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, which we currently do to a great extent. Then we need to be more mindful that banks, institutional investors, etc. stop both funding and lending money to those industries. It is still happening at a large scale today and that needs to end.

We have entered the Anthropocene and we now know that our actions have consequences for the planet, which affects our ability to thrive on Earth. We know there is a cost attributed to our actions, but it is not currently calculated. The market can never work when that cost isn’t calculated. We need a carbon tax that puts that cost back in terms of what it actually costs in terms of pollution and CO2 emissions. This needs to happen sooner rather than later or the market economy won’t work.