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The Great Recovery

The Great Recovery is a two year project run by the Action and Research Centre at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and supported by the Technology Strategy Board.

Its aim is to build a cross disciplinary design community to drive forward a new resource efficient economy. The role of engineers will be crucial to this important movement and the RSA is extremely keen to engage with IET members. Find out more how everyone in the design and manufacturing process has a role to play.


Graphic showing the manufacture and recycle loop Since its launch in September 2012 The Great Recovery project has delivered a programme of hands-on workshops, events and round table discussions. These have supported the competition ‘New designs for a circular economy’, led by the Technology Strategy Board. Their initial investment of £1.25million awarded funding to help re-think products, components and systems that ‘close the loop’.

 The project has been travelling the length and breadth of the UK, visiting recycling plants, remanufacturing facilities, and materials mines trying to understand what happens to our products at the end of their lives. Mobile phones are a perfect example. There are an estimated 85 million handsets sitting idle in homes in the UK, each containing on average 40 elements including gold and rare earths like tantalum. These elements are all currently lost to us, in the same way that the millions of tonnes of resources in landfill are.

Eighty per cent of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the concept and design phase, and design plays a vital role when making the move from a linear to a circular economy. The RSA have mapped out four main models that they think designers can apply to their products and briefs. They are not all right for every product – part of the challenge is establishing which of these models works for your brief, and which needs to be done at the very beginning of the design process to ensure that the chosen system is properly embedded. It’s absolutely crucial that everyone involved in the design and manufacturing process is involved – and that’s why the Great Recovery team are keen for IET members to join this debate and give them the benefit of their expertise.

Design for Longevity

Products on this loop should be designed to have a long life span, extended through user action of upgrade, fixing and repair. This kind of relationship requires readily accessible information and product service manuals. Products on this loop should be designed to be desirable in their continued workability and trusted as something that has a long and adaptable life span. They should also be designed with consideration as to how users attach themselves emotionally, highlighting a key role for anthropological insight.

Design for Service

Digital platforms and changing consumer behaviours are allowing people to share and lease products as an alternative to owning or buying. Car sharing businesses are now a common and accepted practice, and this sharing model is rolling out to other products. Service design is a growing area and is a key component to effective circular economics. It allows for higher specifications of design and materials that increase life and durability. The material stays in the ownership of the manufacturer as the product is never sold, so value is kept within the system.  

Design for re-use in manufacture

The re-capturing of material through new system designs that guarantee the return of the product into their material stream reduces a company’s risk to increased price volatility. Increased Producer Responsibility (IPR) and new closed loop partnerships would push businesses to think further out from just their supply chains. This route requires designers to work more closely with manufacturers to see where remanufacturing opportunities lie, and also needs strong business models to provide an incentive to both customer and business to reuse technology.

Design for material recovery

On the outer loop the fastest flowing products like packaging need to be fed into a recovery stream as soon as they have finished being used. Proper network dialogue between designer, resource manager and recoverer is key. Fast moving consumer goods (FMCGs) should be considered for redesign to match the capability of recovery facilities. This collaboration will bring innovation on both sides allowing for true material capture. The design brief must be strongly influenced by the end of life of the product.

 None of these systems can be put into place by designers alone, and the role of engineers, materials scientists, manufacturers will be crucial. The Great Recovery is working to build networks across all of these different areas, promoting collaboration and partnerships to move towards more circular systems. The RSA would love IET members to help change the way that products are designed, produced and disposed of.

The first report ‘Investigating the role of design in the circular economy’ is available to download now from and if  members would like to find out more about the project, workshops and events are ongoing.