Squaring the circle: five game changers for a model circular economy


Salt columnist Stephanie Johnston concludes her Talking in Circles series with reflection on what it will take to create a truly circular economy.

In the weeks gone by we have met entrepreneurs, and system disruptors, and seen circular economy best practices in practice, but the reality is there’s still a lot more to achieve when it comes to realising a truly circular economy.

In his recent book, entitled ‘The Circular Economy: A Wealth of Flows’, Ken Webster, head of innovation at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, discusses the necessity of a circular economy, and with compelling evidence arrives at the conclusion that the linear system we have created is simply past its best. Wage stagnation, credit crises, surplus supply and volatile commodity prices all point to the fact that we need new rules for the game, if not a new game altogether. In Webster’s own words, “what was a very effective economic machine in a context of cheap and accessible energy and materials has to make way for another operating system, fit for the 21st century globalised reality”.

This Salt series has served to shine a light on some of the activity happening around the world to further the circular economy agenda, but it has also highlighted five game changers that will ultimately enable this theory to become a reality.

Create more and more (and more) awareness

It’s not for no reason that at the outset of his book Ken Webster quotes André Gide: “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” In the simplest terms, the work has barely begun on raising awareness of the idea that a linear economy is simply unsustainable, and that there is a viable alternative. There is a need to bring people on board, whether through raising the stakes at a national level, like the Netherlands is attempting to do, or through local events and opportunistic engagement.

But beyond that, there’s also a task in simply creating conscious links between activities that are already happening, that perhaps aren’t as well recognised. Adam Lusby, founder of CE Optimal, points out that, “there are lots of things out there that are very circular in theory, education and business, but have just maybe not been identified as circular”. Lusby, who delivers the circular economy cities module for Bradford and the circular economy content for the One Planet MBA at Exeter University, believes there is a need to create awareness of the fact that many existing activities are circular so that they can begin to have some relevance in the circular framework.

Build better understanding

But awareness alone is not enough. Better understanding of the concept is needed to prevent it being monopolised and diluted. As Lusby points out, the circular economy is at risk of the same fate as sustainability, which some would argue has been weakened to the point of irrelevance. “It’s a potential danger and a blockage,” he argues, “that a lot of people will try to redefine what circular economy is so that it suits them. We need to focus on building a better understanding of what it really is so that people know where they can genuinely contribute.

Joe Iles, digital architect at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation puts in neatly when he says of the circular economy, “it’s not just a tweak to the way we do things; it’s a real shift in the way we live, the way we make things and the way we work.” An example of how to create this understanding in practice is the now annual Disruptive Innovation Festival (www.thinkdif.co) – an online, open-access festival which follows the broad theme of ‘the economy is changing: what do I need to know, experience and do?’ This is just one effort in creating access to a broader and better understanding of what’s involved in making real progress, but there’s a long way still to go.

Drive a change of mindset

With awareness and understanding we would make good progress, but in reality, there is a more fundamental change of mindset required to bring about this truly dramatic alteration of our socio-economic systems. And thinking in terms of systems is itself key to this. As Adam Lusby explains, we are traditionally educated in a rather mechanistic and reductionist way, which typically limits our ability to step back and see parts within the system, and causality.

Beyond systems thinking, we also need to be open to trying new things. Varied learning formats, like massive open online courses (MOOCs) co-opted for events like the Disruptive Innovation Festival are a good example. As Joe Iles explains: “MOOCs are great but can be quite formulaic, so true to form we want to turn what might have been a MOOC into a virtual festival where there’s almost too much to see and learn so that it remains as engaging as possible.”

We equally need to ditch our recourse to constant competition, and instead look for opportunities for collaboration to achieve what ought to be a common goal. More and more businesses are partnering to make progress together, but many retain an overt self-interest, perhaps for fear of a first-mover disadvantage. So we also need bold leaders to demonstrate this new mindset in action.

Develop skills for the future

And those leaders and contributors alike, need new skills, for a new future. Ken Webster goes as far as arguing that we need to rebalance teaching and learning. He posits that we need to, among other things: encourage systems thinking over specialisms; foster children’s natural inquisitiveness so they become independent enquirers; focus on developing self-managed learning; and turn problem solving into problem appreciation and reframing. All of these examples speak to the need to re-learn how we look at our world and ask of everything: ‘What if we redesigned this so that it can last forever?’

Adam Lusby’s Exeter MBA programme and Bradford University course are a great start but this small and captive audience simply won’t reach far enough. Education of this nature needs to become much more mainstream. One significant focus for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is education. This includes everything from producing resources at secondary school level, to engaging with pioneering universities, and running a dedicated fellowship with a built-in academic mentorship programme to create a lasting legacy in host universities.

But there’s always more to do: our learning needs to be lifelong.

Generate inspiring examples

For all the groundwork that needs to be done, there is something to be said for not losing sight of the power of inspiring people with creativity and ideas. One of the faults of the status quo in much ‘sustainability’ activity, as Joe Iles points out, is that ‘using a bit less, and recycling a bit more in the hope that we’ll be ok’ is not just insufficient to solve the problems we face, but is also simply not a framework that inspires innovation or progress.

What we need is to build something that young people, our future generations, truly believe can create lasting change. Whether it’s small-scale activities at a local level, compelling circular startups, or big companies with pioneering programmes, the tangible practices of circular ‘doers’ will therefore ultimately be what makes or breaks the idea of a circular economy.

So, there’s plenty still to do. However, the speed of innovation in the last century has shown us that we are capable of achieving truly remarkable things. In fact some would argue that, based on what we have achieved in just the course of an average human lifetime, maybe anything is possible. But doing anything or indeed everything without a goal in mind could mean nothing, and so perhaps at the very least, the circular economy gives us an aim and a framework. Speaking about the circular economy in her March 2015 TED Talk, Ellen MacArthur sums it up perfectly: “Now we can do anything, but more importantly, now we have a plan.”

There have been many contributors to this series, too many to thank individually, but I’m truly grateful for your time, your ideas and your inspiration. You can contact me on Twitter @stephiejohnno.



Photo credit: Thomas Leth-Olsen from Flickr