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Thomas Rau on closing the circle

5 take aways of his Etion keynote

Architect and innovator Thomas Rau is one of the today’s most inspiring voices when it comes to circular design. Last month, he talked at the Etion Forum on ‘Closing the circle’. We listened carefully to Rau’s keynote and distilled 8 take aways for the (near) future.

The "new" does not exist

According to Rau, consumers don’t buy new products. They buy products that are almost broken. He gives the example of the infamous Phoebus cartel. ‘In 1925, European and American producers of light bulbs gathered in Geneva. They decided that light bulbs should be programmed to stop working after 1,000 hours. The manufacturers basically said that it’s not up to them to provide customers with solutions.’

The Phoebus cartel set a new standard, Rau explains. ‘Other industries and other companies adapted the limited life expectancy for their products. Today, products are still programmed to die after a certain amount of time. Hence, new products simply don’t exist.

2 different things Circularity ≠ sustainability

Circularity and sustainability are two different things, Rau explains. “Sustainability is about optimizing our current system. But optimizing simply isn’t enough. We need transformation. Circularity means designing a brand new system. Circularity turns the tables. It makes the manufacturer responsible for his own choices. That’s the definition of Products-as-a-Service.

When we designed the new arrival hall at Schiphol Airport, we told the lamp manufacturer: ‘we don’t need lamps, we need light’. All of a sudden, they came up with light bulbs that last for 15 years. The energy consumption went down by 32 percent. That’s what happens when you turn the tables: you get rid of the problems manufacturers purposefully organize themselves.’

‘I often hear architects saying they designed a 100% circular building. That’s impossible.’ Rau is convinced that circular products simply don’t exist. ‘There are only products with circular potential. It’s up to the next generation to activate that potential. That’s why we don’t just need circular design, we also need a mental switch to activate its full potential.’

We don’t just need Products-as-a-service, we need to move towards Materials-as-a-Service (MaaS)

Thomas Rau

We need to move towards Materials-as-a-Service

Nobody owns the earth. Not Shell, not Esso, not Volkswagen’, Rau states. ‘We won’t leave this planet alive and we are only here temporary. We are guests on earth and we need to respects is house rules. The earth is a closed circle.

Volkswagen discovered it will need 130,000 tons of cobalt for its electrical cars. But the earth only has a limited supply of 123,000 tons of cobalt. When that supply is gone, it’s gone. We have been pushing the limits of this earth for way too long. There’s no way of creating more resources, we can only re-use them. It’s that simple.’

Rau has a clear definition of waste: products without an identity that end up anonymous. ‘That’s why we invented the so-called ‘Madastre’, in which we document and register every single material we use. When you give products back their identity, they stop being waste. You eliminate waste. When you document and register every material, you can also give value to that material. And when you know how much the materials in your building are worth, you know just how much your building is worth. It will never become worthless. You don’t write off the building to 0, because the materials in it will always fulfill new needs.”

We don’t just need Products-as-a-service, Rau claims we need to move towards Materials-as-a-Service (MaaS). ‘Today, the value creation chain of a product begins with the earth and ends with the consumer. Most products end their life as waste. So it’s not a value creation chain, it’s a chain of destruction. We need to turn that chain around and make sure we will never again waste materials. Why don’t we organize the mines where we get our copper as libraries? ‘You want 30 tons of copper? Ok, but make sure to bring it back in 10 years!’ It’s not just the planet that benefits from a backward value creation chain, the developing countries can count on continuous revenues as well.’


Climate change is way too big of a problem to only do what’s possible, we need to do what’s necessary to tackle it!

Thomas Rau

Don’t do what’s possible, do what’s necessary!

Rau isn’t a big fan of the global climate agreements. ‘The problem is that they are a compromise. Governments agree on what’s possible. But that will never be enough. Climate change is way too big of a problem to only do what’s possible, we need to do what’s necessary to tackle it.

Imagine you are in a relationship with an alcohol addict. When that person promises to stop drinking in 2054, the relationship probably won’t survive. If we really want change, we need to do what’s necessary and we need to do it right now.’

The circular economy is closer than we think

Rau is optimistic about the future. ‘I’m not talking about some distant future. Materials-as-a-Service is right around the corner. In Germany, the big car manufacturers are closing in on an agreement on cobalt as a service. The limitedness of resources on earth are forcing companies towards a mental shift. They realize they can’t be owners of cobalt or other natural resources anymore, because there simply isn’t enough of it anymore. They realize Materials-as-a-Service is the only way to keep on producing new cars. They are voluntarily shifting towards a circular economy.’

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