Designing a Circular Economy

Gülin Ölçer, MSIM17, develops systems that circulate products—or make them differently from the start—to reduce their environmental impact

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Gülin Ölçer, EG17, is reimagining Dubai’s food system with circular economy principles —an economy that eliminates waste by reusing or repurposing products, rather than disposing of them—through her work as a head of sustainability portfolio at ATÖLYE, a Dubai-based strategic design consultancy firm. New business and service models that keep products—be they food, cars or t-shirts—out of the recycling stream or landfill are urgently needed, she says. Designing for such sustainability depends on a “different kind of thinking about one’s responsibility for the future of a planet that is clearly in crisis. It’s time that people realize they can take action.”

A native of Turkey with a background in psychology and business, Ölçer followed her entrepreneurial calling to Tufts, where she earned a master’s in innovation and management at the School of Engineering’s Gordon Institute. After Tufts, she founded ZERO, the first design studio  in Turkey to be focused on circular design, then joined the new age design firm based in Istanbul, ATÖLYE to create larger impact with her work. She’s been leading strategy and sustainability practices at ATÖLYE since 2019.

Pivot Point

Ölçer vividly remembers when her climate change light bulb went off. She was a student at Tufts, watching “The True Cost,” a documentary about the clothing industry’s harmful effects on the environment and labor conditions, as illustrated by such catastrophes as the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh. “It changed my life,” she says. “From that point on I knew: ‘I'm going to make this the focus of my career.’” She also changed her shopping habits. “I try not to buy clothing or major appliances firsthand,” she says. “It’s another way I can direct my choices to support my values.”

Waste Not

The circular economy model challenges a pervasive attitude that more is better. “We live in a world that is systemically telling us to buy more,” says Ölçer. “We are used to products being consumed, used, and discarded, and then we buy all over again. It could be your car, your washing machine, your sweater, a plastic cup. Once you are done with that product, then it is considered used up. What you are doing, though, is wasting all those resources that went into making that product.”

In contrast, the circular economy model considers all the steps in the supply chain of a product: how it is sourced, produced, distributed, and used, and what is done after it is used, she says. “We close the loop.”

Sustainable Thinking

Ölçer acknowledges that the nascent circular economy won’t gain traction quickly in countries where traditional manufacturing processes and throw-away consumer habits are entrenched. In the modern, fast-paced city of Dubai, however, “we’re generating a lot of innovation in terms of materials, business models, and funding,” she says.  “It is exciting to be here now because such a young and ambitious nation presents opportunities to completely disrupt conventional thinking.”

One project she recently worked on is evaluating the interlocking parts of Dubai’s food system, including what is imported or locally produced, how food is distributed, and how hotels, restaurants, cafes, and households use and dispose of food. “The roadmap that we proposed includes initiatives such as engaging food recovery startups to repurpose edible food from hotels and restaurants to be shared with communities in need, introducing dynamic pricing in supermarkets that will reduce price of food as best before date approaches, and measuring food waste data across the value chain to identify hotspots that will guide circularity efforts further” she says. “Our goal is that 98% of Dubai will be participating in waste reduction programs by 2040.”

Incremental Change

Ölçer is optimistic that change will emerge, even if it is imperfect and incremental. “There has to be radical change if the countries live up to their carbon-neutral pledges,” she says. “There is definitely a movement coming.” She feels lucky to be part of the effort to develop sustainable solutions. “Working in design, you create something tangible” she says. “You put a prototype out there. You test it, you see how it works, and then you create something better.”

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