Doughnuts and design – the circular economy and sustainable communities

Alastair Somerville
4 min readNov 17, 2017

I’ve done a couple of talks/workshops lately for World Usability Day in Rome and for the UK’s cross government meet up. Underlying both talks were ideas either drawn directly from or inspired by Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics book.

It’s a book about reframing economic theory to enable a human centered and sustainable future. It uses this core model of a doughnut.

The doughnut represents the constraints of living on a planet together. The economies we can build are held within multiple ecosystems.

Social sustainability of human communities is within ecological constraints of natural resources and ecosystems.

This model is helpful when talking about design as well as economics. Design is often talked about in term of constraints but less so in terms of sustainable or communal values. The circular economy is the main example of a move to that considers this area.

This post is to discuss two points from the talks I gave lately and how they relate to Kate Raworth’s book.

People and models

Economics, and somehow by default both psychology and design, uses assumptions and models to describe human actions and behaviour.

Now that’s OK if you’re trying to explain things that have happened or trying to think about ways of framing the work you are now doing.

However, things get messy when projecting into the future.

Doughnut Economics talks of the problems of Rational Man with perfect knowledge as the ideal person in economic theory.

UX and design have a similar problem with Norm’. The average guy built from data. This is the problem I talked about in Rome: how humans are compacted into a normative idea by design and test processes. Alternative ways of being and perceiving as error states.

Norm’ is bad.

Yet that’s not the big problem.

In Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth discusses the Black-Scholes Bond Pricing Model. A model which won a Nobel Prize.

The odd thing is the model didn’t work. In the first few years, the divergences were huge (around 40%). Yet the divergence reduced over time to a few percentage points.

The model did not change.

People changed.

People complied to the model.

This is the problem. Models have power and people comply to that power. The idea of Schema turns up in usability testing: how people take on a character during the test session that they think is what is expected by the company.

Power and privilege in action. People become Norm’ as that’s what is expected or demanded by the situation.

The world we design for is full of Norm’s because that’s the world we present to people.

Sustainable codesign

I was invited to run a workshop on codesign at the UK government’s design meetup in Edinburgh this week.

Drawing from Doughnut Economics, more as model of future behaviour, the workshop was about how do we use citizens’ encounters with design projects to build skills into communities.

I made up the model above to frame discussions of how codesign is not about the workshop but about recognising skills and experiences in communities and sharing skills back into those communities to enable greater resilience and stronger voices.

This is a form of circular economy (per Doughnut Economics) but one that grows through human sociability and imagination.

Summing Up

That’s all I have at the moment.

  • Read Kate Raworth’s book and think about how the ideas matter to design and UX.
  • Recognise the breadth of human experience and capacities not the delimited models of humans.
  • Plan to share skills and build resilience in every encounter with users.

Design has power. Recognise it. Share it.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX