Can you briefly introduce us your research group and its activities?
Design.nexus is a new research group of Ghent University, Campus Kortrijk. Our aim is to create bridges through design between education, sustainability and industry. The ultimate goal is to bring innovation by exploring and designing new product-service systems. Head of the group is Professor Jan Detand, while I (Francesca Ostuzzi) personally focus on design for sustainability, meaning the design processes and outcomes that aim at generating positive impacts in both environmental and societal perspectives.
Design is a core word in your activities. Can you please elaborate more on the philosophy behind the designer work and how it can be applied to the circular economy?
Design is often misunderstood as being only a product with certain aesthetical qualities. More than that, design can be seen as the collaborative process of creating new product-service systems, that happens with the specific aim of improving our daily life. Designers often work as link (from which the name design.nexus) between different stakeholders. By creating certain materializations, as sketches, renders and prototypes, the designer helps multidisciplinary teams to have a dialogue about something that does not exists yet. Specifically, I believe that designers can help other researchers and organizations during the front-end development stages, not only in speeding up the processes of innovation but also in steering the direction of the innovation itself.
Might you give us some examples of projects you are/have been working on?
Design is a collaborative process, therefore designers never work alone. For this reason, design.nexus always works in collaboration with different organizations (e.g. industries, musea, schools, etc..). One example is the collaboration between the biodesign innovation hub GLIMPS and the international mushroom spawn laboratory and production Mycelia. The collaboration started a year ago, when I go acquainted with the possibility of creating new biological materials starting from mycelium, the vegetative part of fungi. These materials, often based on agricultural waste, lead to products that literally grow and disappear, closing the loop at the end of life. The mycelium-based materials were not yet commercial, which is the perfect moment for designers to generate some insights on what could happen in the next future. Thanks to the three different expertise and perspective of the team Glimps, Mycelia and UGent Campus Kortrijk it was possible to conduct the first big scale experiment (involving ca 60 students) of generating innovative concept ideas. All ideas have been prototyped in our labs and tested with users, to understand possible reactions in front of this new material/technology that comes with new functions and aesthetic qualities. Some of these concepts have now been explored in more depth, and might soon reach the market - one example is a mycelium-based urn, which aligns with the advent of natural funerals and that has been developed by Michiel Wierinck.
What do you think are the most important developments we can expect in the near future for the design in circular economy?
I expect, and already experience, very exciting developments in terms of design for a circular economy. The way we think of both design production and outcome is shifting radically under many aspects. My own research rotates around the idea that we must accept the open-ended nature of our design outcomes and processes. This asks for a different mindset where error-friendliness, spontaneity and systems-understandings are fundamental requisites. In my definition, an Open-ended Design is a design outcome that is intentionally made to change during its life, a change that culminates at the end of life, for example by fully closing the loop within the ecosystem, as the urn described before. Practical examples are biomimicry and biofabrication, both approaches that try to creatively shake the current industrial design paradigms by introducing and accepting natural processes into the entire life span of the industrial product we generate.
Photo credits: Frederik Van Allemeersch, Ellen Comhaire, Patrick Henry