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What is the future of design in the Middle East? It is circular

Challenges in embracing the circular economy include inadequate infrastructure, limited funding, and insufficient legislative support.

What is the future of design in the Middle East? It is circular
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Green initiatives are taking root worldwide as governments invest in renewable energy sources, businesses adopt sustainable practices, and individuals make eco-conscious choices. 

Alongside these efforts emerges the circular economy model, aiming to prolong the lifespan of resources. This approach prioritizes reducing waste, repairing and reusing existing products, and designing materials for a second life. Proponents believe the circular economy can address environmental issues and create new economic opportunities.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy can yield $4.5 trillion in global economic benefits by 2030, slash carbon emissions by 45%, and create approximately 700,000 new jobs. Additionally, the World Economic Forum highlights that circular economy endeavors could lead to annual savings of up to $2.4 trillion in waste management costs by 2030.

Several Gulf countries have embarked on ambitious initiatives to promote sustainability and economic growth. The UAE has launched a national strategy for the circular economy, which aims to lead in resource sustainability, waste reduction, and job creation. 

Saudi Arabia unveiled its circular carbon economy (CCE) initiative, targeting carbon emission reduction alongside economic expansion through investments in clean energy, carbon capture, and circular business models. Similarly, Qatar’s National Vision 2030 prioritizes sustainable development and highlights the significance of the circular economy. 


As the circular economy takes root, a new design philosophy is flourishing: circular design. Circular designers prioritize keeping products and materials in use for longer lifespans. This can involve designing products for easy repair and disassembly, utilizing recycled materials, and planning for a product’s eventual reuse or transformation. 

Karim Elgendy, Associate Director at Buro Happold and Non-Resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute, says circular design offers numerous benefits across environmental, social, and economic dimensions. 

“We reduce environmental impact by minimizing waste, conserving material and energy resources, and extending product life cycles. Socially, the circular design fosters sustainable behavior change and creates jobs in repair and recycling. Economically, it drives innovation and the development of new technologies to integrate circularity into new products and opens new market opportunities.”

Implementing circular design creates a vehicle to support the circular economy. Nicky Ure, Founder and Managing Director of sustainability-focused agency UreCulture, highlights the urgency of our planet’s plight, pointing to Earth Overshoot Day, the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources surpasses the Earth’s capacity to regenerate them for the year. This concept is closely tied to the circular economy. Earth Overshoot Day is projected to occur this year on July 25 (compared to August 2 last year). From July 25 to December 31, we operate under an “ecological deficit,” consuming resources equivalent to 1.5 planets within a year despite having only one.

“The biggest opportunity of the circular economy is to help bring us back into balance with what the planet can sustain for a healthy and thriving future for all. Beyond bringing opportunity, the circular economy and circular design are required for our collective future,” Ure adds.

“For designers, architects, artists, and strategic thinkers, it brings a world of opportunities to innovate to give rise to a new paradigm where the business-as-usual is to bring nature and our planetary boundaries into our creative processes,” she adds.

The momentum on circular design is picking up pace. Artists are incorporating circular design principles into their creative process, forging a deep connection with the materials. For example, the residue from painting sessions and sawdust generated while stretching canvases are repurposed as foundational layers for visual artist Hashel Al Lamki’s sculptures, underscoring the interconnectedness of all mediums in his artistic practice. 

Drawing inspiration from discarded objects, Al Lamki sees potential for new life and meaning in what others might dismiss as waste, transforming debris into beauty and narrative within his artwork.

Al Lamki says the circular economy principles deeply resonate with his artistic philosophy. “By adhering to the Waste Hierarchy, which emphasizes reducing, reusing, recycling, and recovering materials, I aim to minimize waste and contribute to a more sustainable future.”

“Ultimately, my goal is to send zero waste to landfill and integrate circular design principles into my artistic practice and promote environmental stewardship within the arts community,” he adds.


The Interaction Design Foundation says that MENA countries encounter numerous hurdles when embracing the circular economy. These challenges include insufficient infrastructure, restricted funding, limited awareness and comprehension of circular economy principles, inadequate legislative frameworks, and limited access to technology.

Elgendy lists other challenges that stand in the way of wider circular design adoption, including changing entrenched linear thinking in production and consumption, overcoming technical constraints in material selection and product design, and shifting existing supply chains. 

He advises designers and artists to start small, focusing on incremental changes in material choices, modularity, and design for disassembly. “Collaborate with sustainability experts, seek mentors, continuously educate yourself, and embrace experimentation. Remember, every step towards circularity means fewer resources are wasted.”

Ure says the challenge for circular design lies in its requirements for a completely new way of thinking and implementing major systematic changes. “It requires new internal policies and procedures, new job tasks, possibly resources and training, and in some cases a budget to support this. This transition may take some time, especially considering that as of today, reporting standards are still voluntary for most organizations, especially in the arts sector.”

“However, the biggest challenge sits with the mindsets and behavior of consumers and society. If we over-consume or support brands that do not have a circular design approach, the transition to a circular economy will be slow. A change in mindset is the basic building block of systems change, and this is where the arts have a powerful role to play,” Ure adds.


Al Lamki says a deep commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility initially drew him to explore circular design principles. Especially as he addresses themes like migration, globalization, urbanization, and life cycles in his art, he recognizes the importance of integrating these principles into my creative process.

He talks about how working with marginalized communities across Central and North America, as well as artisans and innovators in Bedouin communities and across the MENA region, has heightened his awareness of the environmental impact of artistic production.

Al Lamki says integrating circular design principles into art can spark conversations and raise awareness about sustainability. “Art uniquely communicates complex ideas and evokes emotions in ways other mediums cannot. By incorporating sustainable materials, techniques, and themes into my artwork, I aim to raise awareness about environmental issues and encourage viewers to reconsider their actions and choices.”

Ure echoes this sentiment, saying that art plays a major opportunity in raising awareness and bringing change. This influence on audiences can manifest in various forms. 

Historically, artists and art have possessed the ability to shape perspectives and spur societal transformation. Incorporating circular design principles into art, or its supporting ecosystems like exhibition design, serves as a conduit for conveying narratives to audiences, thereby heightening awareness about circularity.

“More subtly, audiences also look up to museums and artists as voices that point us toward what we should think about and do. Suppose an artist or museum starts to share reports on its circularity practice. In that case, the audience will understand that this is an important societal shift, and we should follow suit in our personal lives. This is where art and its ecosystem can take a leadership role in sustainability by leading by example,” she adds.


Al Lamki emphasizes the pivotal role of art in advancing a more circular economy in the years to come. He points to the endeavors of artists like Louise Bourgeois and Phyllida Barlow, who embody this ethos by integrating discarded household items, aged furniture, and fabric scraps into their creations. 

These artists give new life to materials and question traditional aesthetics and worthy ideals, showcasing the circular economy’s creative possibilities.

“Artists and the arts sector can adopt a circular mindset that encompasses not only the materials used in exhibitions but also extends to art packaging, storage, conservation, and the production process itself.”

Ure expresses her excitement for a future where circular design becomes the norm in business operations.

She discusses the innovation stemming from the field of biomimicry, where designers draw inspiration from nature to address man-made challenges. Biomimicry suggests that nature holds the most effective solutions.

“I am also excited that circular design, in essence, requires creativity and innovation, which artists and creative minds bring to our world. The idea that artists and creative thinkers can lead the way for a new paradigm for our economy is incredibly inspiring and can bring hope for a new regenerative future.”

Elgendy emphasized the power circular design holds. “By keeping materials in use, reducing resource consumption and carbon emissions, and catalyzing green innovation, and as circular design permeates various sectors, it will create ripple effects, influencing consumer behavior, policy decisions, and economic models, paving the way for a more resilient and regenerative future.”

Delve deeper into the design-thinking process and global design trends, encompassing urban planning, biophilic design, immersive technologies, and more, at the Innovation By Design Summit in Doha on April 24. Attendance at the Innovation by Design Summit is by invitation only. Delegates can register here to receive their exclusive invite.

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