Ben Hagenaars: From designer to director. Exploring the role of designers in addressing complex sustainable design problems.

Doctoral Project

Ben Hagenaars, Phd in the Arts

Today, product designers are confronted with complex global challenges such as resource depletion, global warming, a growing world population, increasing amount of poverty. Many of these systemic design problems can be linked to the way we design, produce and consume products. Most products today are created in a take - make - dispose system (Macarthur, 2013). They are produced by companies using scarce material and energy sources. They are sold to consumers who dispose them once they have served their purpose. This system has been really successful in offering affordable consumer products to many people. However, a lot of consumer products end up in landfills and increasingly pollute the planet (Chapman, 2006). The linear system is based on the assumption that natural resources are abundant. That assumption has been refuted by global reports such as Limits to growth: a global challenge (Club of Rome, 1972) and Our common future (WCED, 1987) issued by the World Commission on Environment and Development. However, the system remains in place and continues to negatively impact our collective environment (Hunt, 2005). Meanwhile, natural resources are declining while birthrates and the demand for affordable products are rising. It is clear that the limits of the linear system have been reached. A transition towards a sustainable way of designing, producing and using products becomes a matter of survival (Thackara, 2011). In contrast to the linear system, a circular system for designing, producing and using products holds much promise for the future (Macarthur, 2013). A system that acknowledges that resources aren’t infinite. Deploying material and energy flows as effective as possible by repurposing, restoring, reusing, recycling and sharing resources.
Following the Cradle-to-Cradle (Braungart and Mcdonough, 2002) principle where products are designed for disassembly so their parts and raw materials can be reused in infinite loops. A system where companies own the products and provide services for people to use those products, motivating companies to develop their products as efficiently as possible. Although the principle of a circular system is clear and holds much promise for the future, the transition towards it, is a complex societal challenge. It requires nothing less than a reorientation of our collective values on which the linear system was based. Whal and Baxter (2008) stress that; “The transition towards sustainability is about co-creating a human civilization that flourishes within the ecological limits of the planetary life support system.”
Emphasizing that the transition from a linear to circular system requires widespread participation from communities everywhere to shape local, regional and global visions of what a sustainable circular future might look like. Thackara (2005) argues that the complexity of sustainability cannot be resolved from a designer’s perspective alone; it requires an on-going and collaborative effort of people with various backgrounds to facilitate the transition towards a more sustainable society. Thus a transition towards a sustainable society involves both material and immaterial design challenges. Material: designing products, services and systems for optimising how resources can be used, reused, shared, recycled, etc. Immaterial: engaging communities to actively participate in shaping a circular system that promises a sustainable future. The material challenges are a prominent part of the design agenda and are represented by design movements like the Cradle-to-Cradle framework. However, the immaterial design
challenge is equally important in facilitating a transition from a linear to a circular system. The next chapter will highlight the relation between the material and immaterial nature of sustainabledesign problems.


  • Prof. dr. ir. Erik Mathijs (supervisor, KU Leuven)
  • Prof. dr. Veerle Van der Sluys 
    (co-supervisor, KU Leuven/LUCA)
  • Dr. Liesbeth Huybrechts (co-supervisor, UHasselt)

Research Unit: Inter-Actions

Duration: 2013-2018