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)
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!
Sitting in a typical session of a strategy creation class, the first question a professor asks to their students when analysing a case study is what could the specific company under study do to "sustainably" make money. For people that are trained in sustainability matters the obvious answer is at least three-dimensional: economics, social and environment. However, if you are sitting with people that have no train in these matters, the answer is uni-dimensional: money. And so it is for the well trained professor.
Sustainability in a company oriented environment is completely the opposite to what it means to the concerned environmentalist or policy maker: it is solely to make money indefinitely and as much as you can. Therefore, when you try to communicate the message of sustainable development to this key stakeholders' group, businesses, the receptors might get confused and fall into what behavioural scientists have called the confirmation bias: they believe you are talking about how to keep making money because that is what a sustainable business means to them.
If we want to avoid this and start a conversation about what we call sustainability, a change in language might be required. A new concept that correctly highlights the principles behind the "environmentalist" definition of sustainability is needed to convey the message to this specific audience and circular seems to do the job. Using the term circular when speaking to businesses may be more effective when bringing the message of acting sustainably. Instead of asking "is your business sustainable?" asking "is your business circular?" could avoid the answer "yes, we are making loads of money" and hope for a "yes, we have a closed-loop business" or "no idea what you are talking about, tell me more". This could keep the conversation going.
Of course this means we need to make sure that being circular is not only about being environmentally friendly, but socially responsible and still make money our of it. For what it has been written in the last three years it seems it does, but a consensus is needed regarding the meaning of this new concept in order to start bringing the "non-educated" audiences on board of what we call sustainability.
It has been almost a month since we started sharing thoughts, ideas and opinions about circular economy through this channel and we have received very encouraging input. As you might know our aim is to help the circular economy become the business as usual scenario because we absolutely believe it is the right approach to sustainable development. We have started by spreading the word about it, sharing with people what it is, explaining why and how does it work and by learning from experts all the details about it.
Now we are starting a new stage in this path that we believe will contribute more to our aim. As of today you will find two new sections in our website: connection and opportunity. In the first section we want to identify companies and people that are becoming circular to help them connect in the near future and work together to bring the circular economy to scale. In the second section we want to know what opportunities for learning and sharing are out there regarding circularity and innovation so we can help individuals interested in becoming circular innovators find them.
We will continue curating and creating content that is useful for circular and non circular professionals in the hope of positively contributing to a sustainable world. We would like to have contributions from people working on the topic and hear from newbies what is needed to accelerate the transition towards a Circular Economy so we will be contacting interested people to join us.
Finally, thank you for the comments, retweets, follows, unfollows and messages. Keep it coming.
One of the main reasons why we are talking about the Circular Economy today is because of material insecurity. This term is connected to the fact that many materials that are used in consumer products and things making up our physical world are critical. Different people have raised this issue over the past years and since 2010, the European Union has specifically identified what are these materials.
For the European Union (2014) a material was defined to be critical taking into account two aspects: supply risk and economic relevance. The first one is defined as the concentration of a material supply in a country with poor governance which could lead to unstable supply. The second element depends on the uses of the specific material and how important these uses are to economic mega sectors.
What are the most critical materials from an European perspective and who are the bigger suppliers?
Many of us are not familiar with these names but almost everybody uses something that has some of these materials inside. For example, according to Namibia Rare Earths Inc company only Rare Earths Elements are used in camera lenses, hydrogen storage, electric motors for hybrid cars, color tv screens, shielding in nuclear reactors or steel production. As it can be seen, uses are very different but very relevant for our today's life style. Other critical materials for Europe, that are not that exotic for the common citizen are natural rubber, pulpwood and swan softwood.
According to the European Union there are three groups whose demand is going to grow very strongly in the coming years: niobium, gallium and Heavy REE. Niobium is used as an input in the aviation and aerospace industries (USGS, 2014). Gallium, on the other hand is used in the electronic industry, especially for smartphones and not so high tech uses such as mirrors (USGS, 2013). Heavy REE are used also in a range of applications that you can find here.
Why is material insecurity driving Circular Economy?
If these materials are not readily available in a raw state then where should businesses look for them, one might ask. The obvious answer would be to look at the products that are made of them. So, if we want to reduce the material insecurity of the European industries that use these materials, a transformation needs to be implemented: reduce supply from external sources and replace them within the economic activity.
The answer to these to tasks is given by the Circular Economy and by a circular approach to innovation. Elements such as reuse, remanufacturing and recycling have to be incorporated in the development path that is to be followed for a future where critical raw materials are not a restriction for value creation within society. These approaches reduce use of materials, replace other materials, creates value from non-material activities and allows an economy to work under sustainability principles.
Many of the new comers to the European Union are still discovering all the options and opportunities there are to bring the Circular Economy to a reality. Here, it seems to be a million ways to overcome some of the barriers for transitioning to a Circular Economy that have been already identified and presented in a previous post. One example of tools that help overcome them is the Horizon 2020 program:
“Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money will attract. It promises more breakthroughs, discoveries and world-firsts by taking great ideas from the lab to the market. Horizon 2020 is the financial instrument implementing the Innovation Union, a Europe 2020 flagship initiative aimed at securing Europe's global competitiveness.” (1)
In the own opinion of the European Commission this program is strongly related to Circular Innovation. Here we present what components of a Circular Economy could have more funding opportunities under the Horizon 2020 program and which specific subprograms are more relevant for initiatives towards a Circular Economy.
The top elements of a Circular Economy with more opportunities:
The bottom elements of a Circular Economy with less opportunities
On a more detailed level, if we look at the specific subelements of the different levels of innovations, here are the champions under the Horizon 2020 program in terms of funding opportunities:
While the possible losers would be given the fact that they are not cover by as many programs as the above mentioned :
Under this scenario product/service and process innovations are more relevant than systems innovation which in our opinion is at the heart of the Circular Economy. The first two might yield results faster but if they are not set in a broader changing context, uptake will be slower and transition will take more time to happen. If not under the Horizon 2020, the European Commission needs to find sources for this landscape level changes in order to facilitate the transition to the new model.
Design actions do not have many funding opportunities under the program, neither do logistics activities. Under the Circular Economy, design is considered a key element since at this stage of the value chain is when the enabling principles of sustainability and of circularity are incorporated into the product/service. Logistics is also a key activity since on it depends the ability of the economy to close the loop. Research and innovation are key for this two activities so the question is where does the European Commission think the resources will come from, to develop these new models and ideas.
These arrangement of opportunities for specific components of the Circular Economy could be explained by the subprograms of the Horizon 2020 and their relation to the Circular Economy components. The pillars that group the most opportunities for Circular Economy activities and innovations are:
The pillars less connected with the Circular Economy transition are:
Each of the pillars has subprograms that provide the funds for the projects. The main subprograms to support the innovations and activities needed towards a Circular Economy are:
Transitioning to a Circular Economy might be a dream come true for a lot of sustainability students, professionals, activist and for many people as well. News regarding the negative consequences of the linear economy are everywhere: climate change, deforestation, displacement, conflicts over resources, limited access to water, and so on. The drivers of these problems have been highlighted for a long time and action has not been taken yet. Many people are asking themselves why, for example James Greyson in this post, and answers are the same: is too costly, is too difficult, is too soon. Nonetheless, change is in the air and it looks round.
The Circular Economy is not an invention in itself, it is a clever name given by some savvy people to a specific way of thinking our world and our behavior which basically acknowledges the material limits of our world, the material-lessness of our well being and the complexity of how our world works. This way of thinking started a long time ago, but only until now people seem to be listening.
And a big sign of this, in our opinion is the fact that the European Commission has issued a communication package laying the ground for a transition towards a Circular Economy, to this new way of thinking. It is important to understand that this is only one step and many elements are still not fully developed (as Maxine Perella highlights here), but it is important to point out that one of the big players in the world economy, the European Union, is recognizing the relevance of a transition towards the Circular Economy. In this post we want to address two elements, the European Commission understanding of the Circular Economy and how they are thinking about innovation for the circular economy.
Just to summarize, for the European Commission, the Circular Economy:
Based on these arguments, and having in mind that there are different type of barriers that need to be addressed including technology, financial, information and cultural obstacles, the European Commission calls for Circular Innovation. Despite not using this term, the communication stresses the importance of a circular approach to innovation and provides examples of what it entails:
The Circular Economy is not new, their principles, ideas and proposals have been addressed long before 2014 when the European Commission launched its communication, however the actions that need to be taken are the novelty of this approach. How are we going to overcome the long standing barriers and obstacles that these approaches have faced in the past 40 years, is the key challenge towards a Circular Economy. The key question here is how are we going to manage the multilayered (product/services, processes, business models, systems) innovation process that is described in the communication and that is going to bring us all to a sustainable system; in other words, how are we going to implement Circular Innovation?
Some hints are provided in the section 2 of the communication which aims at setting up an enabling policy framework that will foster research, encourage investments and provide instruments to businesses and consumers for action. Here the actions proposed towards Circular Innovation are:
In the following sections, the communications emphasizes the role of waste and recycling in paving the way towards a Circular Economy but having in mind that this road will lead Europe to a zero-waste state, it is important to keep in mind the measures and incentives should aim to reduce waste to its minimum level. Avoiding perverse incentives should be at the top of the agenda.
If you are interested in the circular economy and are a social media champion this initiative will win your heart. The Resource Event team, one of the biggest events that promotes the circular economy in Europe curated the Twitter campaign #circular50 to find the most influential people on the social network regarding this topic.
If you want to know about circularity in our economy find the results here http://www.resource-event.com/circular50 .
Get your search engine ready and follow everyone!
Tomorrow July 16th 2014 at 12 pm a great opportunity to understand the circular economy and its feasibility is brought by www.wastewise.be with their webinar "Igniting the circular economy into action" in the context of the 214 Global Dialogue on Waste.
Panelists James Greyson from BlindPoint think tank and doctoral researcher Geraldine Brennan from the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Industrial Sustainability will discuss a series of questions based on an hypothetical scenario where the linear production system has to be shut down. Moderator Maxine Perella will ask about leadership for the transition, innovation and business models, new skills neededand the rol of different stakeholders.
A good strting point to understand the solutions offered by the circular economy to sustinability chllenges as well as the obstacles that need to overcome for scaling it up.
Follow the webinar at http://wastewise.be