Three years ago during a course on sustainable innovation, my classmates and I were analysing successful cases of companies bringing significant change to the market. We focused on the BMW group and our task was to understand the sustainability dimensions of their value proposition.
If asked the question of what is the business of BMW, an unaware reader would be quick to answer cars, right? Well, that is what they said their present was back in 2013, being the main provider of premium vehicles. However, by 2020 they wanted to become the "most successful and sustainable provider of individual mobility" and today they still use this as their vision. This shift from products, premium vehicles, to practices, individual mobility, happily exemplifies the transformation that is needed to move into the circular economy. Instead of focusing on developing circular products, we need to develop circular practices.
Practices and the circular economy
A practice has been defined by sociologist of consumption as a 'routinised way in which bodies are moved, objects are handled, subjects are treated, things are described and the world is understood' (Reckwitz, 2002). In simpler terms, practices are what people do in their everyday lives: showering, travelling, cooking, celebrating, etc.
Scholars working with practices suggest they are made of three basic elements that interact: stuff, knowledge and imagery (Shove, 2012). They are the result of many people doing the practice in a certain way. Practices depend on other practices and on how the elements that constitute them evolve. People are at the centre of the practice, they reproduce it or abandon it. Practices use resources in the form of materials, and how they use such resources depends on the other elements of the practice, knowledge and imagery, and other practices.
In a circular economy, practices would use resources in such a way that material loops are closed. Although many companies and consultancies are advocating for developing circular products, this will not be enough. Instead, practices need to become circular. But the question is how can this happen. As BMW did by shifting the focus from premium vehicles to individual mobility, we need to move from products and services to practices.
A method to address practicesAlthough practices have been used as a conceptual framework for developing policies on climate change and sustainable consumption, they are only now entering the field of design. In a seminal paper from 2012, Scott, Bakker and Quist gave the initial ingredients for developing a methodology for what is known today as practice-oriented design in order to design new practices.
In their paper, Scott, Bakker and Quist focused on the practice of bathing and used their methodology to co-create with practitioners interventions to make bathing more sustainable. This approach has been used to address other practices such as food provisioning and laundering. Their methodology borrows their main principles from participatory design techniques based on co-creation. Two main stages they propose, deconstruct and experiment. Very much in line with a design thinking process I would say.
Rip apart the chosen practices, identify and critique the stuff we use, the knowledge we need and the understandings we have and the conventions, social norms, expectations, values that are associated with the practice. Also, identify what other practices affect the selected one (this is not part of the authors' method but my small contribution).
Set the goals for the new practice and develop stories about how to deviate from the current practice to achieve such goal. Based on the findings, design 'practice prototypes', bundles of stuff, understandings and images for a specific doing. Test the prototypes in an everyday context and track progress. Evaluate the effectiveness of the prototypes and make a decision about iteration.
By using this approach designers and policymakers can address the shortcomings of more individualistic perspectives such as eco-design and design for sustainable behaviour. Resource intensive practices such as travelling, playing, and cooking would benefit from design processes that provide interventions co-created with practitioners. Such approaches do not only consider the material aspect of the practices, the products, but the imagery and the understandings as well as the interlinkages with other practices. By doing so, such interventions can challenge the concepts of 'normality' and trigger the radical change the circular economy requires.
For more information on practice-oriented design check these articles:
Kuijer, L., & De Jong, A. (2012). Identifying design opportunities for reduced household resource consumption: exploring practices of thermal comfort. Journal of Design Research 14, 10(1-2), 67-85.
Kuijer and Bakker (2015). Of chalk and cheese: behaviour change and practice theory in sustainable design. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/19397038.2015.1011729
Pettersen, I. N., Boks, C. and Tukker, A. (2013) ‘Framing the role of design in transformation of consumption practices: beyond the designer-product-user triad’, International Journal of Technology Management, 63(1/2), p. 70. doi: 10.1504/IJTM.2013.055580.
I recently read the article about IKEA renting furtinture instead of selling it. It is sold as a step towards the circular economy and resource efficiency. Products-as-service business models are at the core of the idea of the circular economy, and at first glance, it make sense, specially for tools such as washing machines or cars. However, enthusiasm has gone from this to companies and start ups wanting to rent clothes and furniture. Does it make sense? A purist sustainability advocate may say yes because can be used by many others and their life does not end with one use cycle. Still under debate but feasible.
I am currently working on my PhD in Design focusing on the user perspectives of the circular economy. My research question is how to balance circularity criteria with customer requirements to increase acceptance and adoption. I am part of a network of 15 PhDs working on different issues about the circular economy. During our annual meetings we get to talk and discuss a lot. During one of these meetings, we had Ken Webster from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation visiting. I don't remember what we were talking about specifically, but I remember my colleague Viviann Tunn at TU-Delft asking a simple yet profound question: if everything is going to become a service and people are going to stop owning stuff, what happens when that person loses their income and is unable to make the periodical payments, will companies take away their washing machine, their couch, their cars?
No body had the answer. This question raises a very important topic that has been ignored systematically in the literature on circular economy and in the public discussion: to what extent does the circular economy worsen inequality. In the linear economy, companies owned the means of production and products were transferred to consumers, including their property rights. Workers were able to build their own capital and enjoy the benefits resulting from such capital. In a circular economy, where not only capital goods but consumer goods are owned by businesses, consumers, citizens become even more dependable on businesses which deepens inequality. What power will be left to consumers if they no longer have any property rights? The government? Insurance companies?
These are questions that seem to escape the public conversation about the circular economy and that need to be addressed by governments, civil society and consumer associations. A Netflix service for my furniture and domestic goods doesn't seem like a good idea anymore.
(Originally posted here)
Mitumba is a documentary that shows how second hand clothes markets work at a global scale. It unveils the multimillion dollar business of collecting used clothes in developed countries and selling them in empoverished countries in Africa.
By following the journey of a t-shirt coming from Europe, the filmmakers show the public all the places and people involved. It also present the harah relity of donations turned into businesses.
This film also highlights an interesting challenge to the circular economy, that of ethics. How do we design a system where re-use is done in such a way that doesn't undermine the dignity of it's consumers? But before we need to think why is it re-use or second-hand goods perceived as less quality, even insulting?
This is very complex issue tht goes beyond quality, it involves aesthetics, ethics and politics. Therefore we cannot think of the circular economy as just an environmental, technical callenge. It requires more than new technical solutions, it needs a redefinition of what is a good, what is desirable and what is not.
In a nutshell, the circular economy is not a problem of economists or environmentalists; it needs the input of social scientists, philosophers and politicians if it wants to deliver its transformative potential.
International trade negotiations are very strict about remanufactured and re-used goods. Countries fight hard to forbid them. What are the principles behind this position? What if we change them? But agai, to what?
These questions are not being addressed by circular economy advocates and they surely need to be adressed. They are uncomfortable ones because they challenge 50 years of politics and discourse creation.
How can we de-construct the linear economy discourse and replace it with one of circularity? Do we even understand all the places where linearity is embedded? This is quite a task. Is anyone thinking about it?
Recently, an article about the failure of the sharing economy has been circulating around social media. It is a precautionary tale about how this idea failed to scale up to a global level. In the article the authors also clarify that Uber or Airbnb are far away from the original idea of the sharing economy.
I found this article quite honest about the current situation of many startups that believed in the idea and wanted to bring it out to the world. I myself was one of them, back in 2007 when I started my own project for clothes swapping. It started as an awareness project related to consumerism and environmental impacts. After 5 years of running the events, we were approached by an expert in internet based business and he sold us the idea of going online. We never make it to launch mainly because the revenue model seemed too complicated to ever happen.
One thing that the article I am referring to misses, though, are the reasons for such failure. They only mentioned how people got very excited about the idea, how they signed up to the services massively and how they, at the end, all bailed out. What they didn't go into detail, were the reasons for this behaviour. They just said that it was because "nobody gave a s***".
This reason is very enlightening despite its simplicity. The sharing economy idea didn't failed because of economic inadequacy, or environmental reasons or social awkwardness. It didn't work because it didn't make cultural sense.
Our societies have been bombarded for the past 40 years with ideas that favor individualism, competition and wealth. Our decisions are deeply permeated by these concepts, and the sharing economy naively thought people would forget about them and start sharing everything.
How have these ideas become part of our DNA? That is the question promoters of the sharing economy should be asking, and the answer should be used for creating strategies that would turn the tide towards different values. If such change happens, sharing businesses would have a better chance.
Having in mind that the sharing economy is frequently associated with the circular economy, these concerns might also apply to the other circular strategies. Are business, consumers and governments ready to give up their values regarding the economy? What strategies can the promoters of the circular economy create to facilitate such change? How to transform corporate culture, consumer behaviour and public ethos towards a circular economy?
These are questions that can't be answered by management consultancy firms, they do not work at that level; it is a task for organisations and institutions that deal with discourse, culture and practices. They have to be onboard for the transition to happen at a relevant scale.
I have followed the process of promoting the circular economy in Europe for the past 2.5 years and I have only read one person talk about this, Nick Liddell from Dragon Rouge. In that interview, he highlights the implications of marketing for a circular economy which is key in our economic system. Alongside with this, we also need to re-write most of our modern world narratives so they promote the new values behind the circular economy and avoid its failure, like the sharing economy.
Master thesis don't have to be thick reports full of figures, lists and endless paragraphs reporting findings, methods and processes. They can also be fun, colorful and simple and still make important contributions to whatever field their authors work in. This is the case of Katherine Wahlen academic work and industrial design engineer, the creator of the board game IN THE LOOP, a board game that aims at conveying to a wider public, the need for a change.
Employing game-based learning techniques, IN THE LOOP illustrates the interconnectedness of today's economical, environmental, political, and social challenges by combing these different approaches to resources into one broader, 'macroscopic' perspective. In less than 90 minutes, IN THE LOOP provides a fun and engaging look at these complex topics by making them tangible for people and groups of all ages.
Katherine has been invited to many universities around Europe to present her work and as a result, professors and students are already using the game to understand why we need a circular economy. After two years of development and field-testing IN THE LOOP is now ready for large scale distribution so a Kickstarter campaing was launched at the beginning of july and will run until August 8th.
IN THE LOOP GAMES is aiming to crowdfund 10,000 USD which will make it possible for everyone to play IN THE LOOP. It’s now up to the backers to help bring IN THE LOOP to your office, classroom, or kitchen table. The first backers who contribute just 60 USD will be rewarded with their very own copy of IN THE LOOP.
We already made our pledge, hope many more will do the same!
How to's might be one of the most searched-for terms in Google. So why not create one regarding circular economy? Well, here I suggest 7 steps to know if your company is on the road to circularity based on the suggestions of the specilized literature and the proposal of the top four organizations working on the topic of circularity assessment.
If you follow these you would be able to know if you are on the right track or not (hopefully you are):
1. Products and offerings: Identify the products/offerings of your company.
2. Value: Define your value proposition, delivered through such products/offerings.
3. Processes: Identify all the processes that result in your product/offering.
4. Organization: Establish all the other processes that allow you to deliver your value proposition.
Once you have a clear picture of your organization it is time to ask the tough questions!
5. Circular products/offerings: Regarding your products/offerings, there are 7 things that you should be able to assess: use intensity, hazardousness, circulated inputs, criticality of inputs, locality, restorativeness and ethics.
6. Circular value: In terms of value proposition, it is necessary to calculate the value retention potential you have if you implemented different circular strategies as well as the material intensity of your value proposition.
7. Circular processes: Processes are also important for assessing circularity. To know if they are circular or not, you need to see if they include circular design, use renewable energy, how much waste they generate and what kind of circular inputs do they use.
8. Circular organization: Finally, your organizational aspects need to be evaluated as well. You need to know if circularity is part of your strategy, if you communicate circular principles and values to your stakeholders. In addition to this you have to assess what is your level of collaboration with other actors, your transparency and integrity. Finally, you have to ask yourself if your company contributes to surpassing the planetary boundaries.
These are general indications for conducting a circularity assessment based on the specialized literature, expert opinions and assessment proposals. Specific tools have been developed by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and Circle Economy for companies to assess their circularity. Other organizations working on the topic are VBDO and Viktoria ICT Swedish. If you are interested, contact them to know more about their initiatives.
The great thing about circular economy, and we owe this to the hard work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, is the fact that it has reached out to the top management of companies and policy making bodies. This is a sign that a change in mindsets is happening; people that understood the world in a very narrow and simplistic way, the economists, are now getting the 'bigger picture' and they see good business in it. This is why any effort to define what circularity is and entails, has to capture such broader understanding and avoid simplifications; we can't just give up 3 long years of outreach because we are afraid of tackling complexity.This regarding recent efforts to develop tools to assess circularity.
One of the core elements of the circular economy, its bringing back compexity into an area that has been famous for over-simplifying reality and pretending to shape our daly lives based on this. Complexity means bringing all elements into the analysis, seeing the feedback loops that exist in the system, acknowledging multiple scales and the role of context. This calls for creative, risky and radically new tools for analysing complex phenomena such as circularity. Old tools used in the old model are irrelevant for a new approach such as the circular economy. Therefore, efforts to understand circularity can't fall into the simplicity trap of assuming it belonhs to one single scale or to one aspect of the economic activity.
His is specially relevant for assessment or measurement efforts. They are an important decision-making tool in transition processes such as achieveng a sustainable development path. This means that these actors rely on them to plan, do and communicate. In this sense, such process is only as good as the tool to measure it.
In order to evaluate how good a tool is for assessing something it is important to know how close it is to the the original idea that it is assessing. Several initiatives are being developed to assess circularity and it seemed as a relevant topic for my master thesis. What I did was to evaluate a group of tools already created in terms of how 'true' were them to the 'expert' idea of circularity to see if they would effectively contribute to the transformation of the economic system.
In the coming days I will share the final report and short versions of my main findings, hoping to contribute to the debate about what is circularity and how can we move towards it. So stay tuned!
I just finished a nice Skype call with a nice lady from UK who contacted me to talk about circular economy and cultural change. She was interested in knowing how to engage her organisation in a process to implement circularity. Her main concern was about how to get buy-in from different stakeholders in the company so I walked her through the process I have implementing for the last 6 months.
I first explained her the method to transition towards sustainability that has been used by many companies in Europe called back-casting (Holmberg and Robert, 2000) and used mainly by The Natural Step. For this method the organisation first needs to define a vision of themselves in the future and a set of criteria to be fulfilled in the future. Then the current situation has to be assessed against such criteria in order to identify key aspects that can be tweaked to move towards sustainability. Third, solutions to the problems identified and that comply with the criteria have to be designed. Finally, a development path has to be created to implement such solutions.
However, in order to start this process different people need to get on board and the basic way to do this is by motivating them which was the main question of my interviewer. How to do this, and based on the literature and my experience, there are three elements that are required for people to feel motivated: competence, autonomy and connectedness (Ryan and Deci, 2000). So is not only about informing about the process, is about creating the enabling conditions in the company so people feel compelled to join it.
But even before this, another step is required and is identifying the why should an organisation embark on this journey. Usually there are two answers, either it saves costs or regulations require the company to do it. However, my interviewer's company is a not for profit kind of business which makes it a little tricky. So we applied systems' thinking to understand why they would do it and the answer was reputation. But this is relevant for just one group, other stakeholders have other interests so the tool can be used for them too to discover their own driver.
Finally, the whole process has to be based on an open dialogue in order to build trust and create engagement. Active listening is a key skill that will allow her to understand how change is perceived, how the process is affecting everyone and how far it can go. It is not easy, it is not quick, but taking all these steps, using all this tools can guarantee its effectiveness in the long run.
Transitioning towards sustainability will require circularity therefore, developing knowledge, skills and tools for the process is key for companies and organisations aiming at embarking in such process.
Product and service development is a discipline I recently discovered. First at my former job where I was in charge of developing an "innovative financial mechanism" for biodiversity conservation at a non profit organization. The whole process was absolutely new to everyone and we did the learning-by-doing routine and so we did, we learnt but at the end it didn't work. After that I took two courses in my master on product and service development, sustainability innovation and sustainability entrepreneurship.
From a more practical perspective, in 2007 I started a clothes swapping project that I wanted to turn into a business. I gave it a lot of thought, time and effort. As I mentioned in my bio, we did over 60 events, swapped more than 1000 garments and got over 1000 people on board. I applied to many funding calls including Echoing Green in 2009, Ashoka and Wayra but never got the yes. And I am trying it again today as a natural outcome of two years studying and researching about circular economy.
Today I have more theoretical tools at least, I took strategy courses, my innovation courses and I am quite knowledgable about circular economy. And there is a way higher awareness level regarding the need for change in our economic system, both consumption and production. Of course I am in Europe. But now that I am trying to put together another funding proposal to start up a circular business I still feel there is not enough knowledge about how to develop such type of businesses. Some of the questions that I am asking myself and that I am trying to answer now are:
This is a great opportunity for researchers, innovation gurus and consultants to help the transition towards a circular economy, by creating guidelines for entrepreneurs to develop circular business models that replace the business-as-usual ones if this is possible. I think it is.
Last January 20th the Forum of Young Global Leaders announced the winners of their first version of The Circulars, an initiative to recognise individuals and enterprises that have made a 'notable' contribution to driving the circular economy principles in five different categories: Leadership, Entrepreneurship, Pioneers, Digital Disruptor and Cities/Regions.
This last category is our focus today, the cities or regions that are at the fore front of transitioning towards a circular economy. Although circularity mainly happens at a product or organisation level, a systems level is key to facilitate the transformation and there is where cities and regions are key players. Here we present a list of the most attractive cities to start a circular business based on their commitment to promote an enabling environment for circularity.
But first, let's try to define what a circular city or region might be: it would be a urban/rural system organised in such a way that encourages cyclical urban metabolism. What does this mean? Well, it can mean many things but basically a circular city or region would be a place where activities are organised in such a way that circularity can happen in an efficient way. Let's review some examples.
Since 2003 the Chinese government has been working on creating a circular economy for China as a response for the increasing environmental burden their economic growth has created. In 2008 they approved the Circular Economy Promotion Law with the purpose of "promoting the development of the circular economy, improving the resource utilization efficiency, protecting and improving the environment and realizing sustainable development."
2. the netherlands
The Netherlands have been working on circular economy from very early on. There are initiatives in Rotterdam and the Delta region to implement circularity principles with different sectors but also guidelines at the national level. Several private and public initiatives are being implemented to make the Netherlands a "circular hotspot".
Denmark was the 2015 winner of The Circulars in the City/Regions category for its commitment to zero-waste, recycling and renewable energy. They have banned the construction of incinerators, one of the main drivers of waste generation. The country has set its transitioning path in the document "Denmark without waste" released in 2013.
4. Scotland - uk
The Scottish government approved its Resource Efficient Program in April 2013 that provides advice and support to individuals and organisations to improve their resource use; sector-focused activities to increase efficiency in sectors such as construction, food and hospitality for example; finally a monitoring and evaluation program.
5. New south wales - australia
Australia has implemented a program, Sustainability Advantage, to support businesses in their transition to a circular economy as an incubator. As a result of this initiative, many examples of circularity in different business are now available from this region: from co-firing programs to use waste biomass to mattresses recycling.
Although all of these regions are in Europe and Australia, the potential for developing circular regions is all over the world especially where reuse, recycle and remanufacturing traditional practices are still alive and have not been displaced by the newness hype.
All these regions share high levels of awareness about the links between environmental sustainability and economy and its impact on well-being. It is also clear that political will is not an obstacle here since politicians are supportive of such initiatives. Lastly, innovation, curiosity and creativity are at the heart of these communities making the transition towards circularity a natural process for them.
Given the support not only from local governments, but the enthusiasm shown by organisations at the global level, circular regions seem to have a bright future.