A few words about the Circular Economy Print
Written by David Brunnen   
Monday, 31 March 2014 09:53

Words, our choice of them, the way they are heard and the baggage of perceptions they carry, have massive impact on the effectiveness of communication.  In discussion this week with academics exploring the challenges of explaining the Circular Economy to young people, careful word selection illustrated the barriers to understanding that confront communicators.

We are talking here about global responses to higher commodity costs, diminished scarce resources and expanded demand for energy.  Noticeable by their absence were ‘sustainability’, ‘low carbon’ and ‘green’ – three determined avoidances that give some idea of potential hazards in the debate around a fairly radical set of propositions.

The notions behind a Circular Economy are variously, exciting, scary, unavoidable, and disruptive. To secure a revolutionary rethinking of design and consumer attitudes the world needs major manufacturers onboard, but how do you get corporate buy-in to concepts that might be imagined, at first glance, to threaten their existence?

The classic answer is to reframe the debate.  Out goes the gloom and negativity of climate change doomsayers.  In comes a celebration of our newfound analytical capabilities that, for the first time, allow an understanding of ‘Ordered Complexity’.  This is the previously unfathomable holistic ground between mechanistic ‘linear’ economics and the chaotic hopelessness of feeling that nothing can be done. 

The reality is that ‘Whole Systems’ have always been difficult to define and analyse; where do you draw the boundaries?  In a flip from past practice, the underlying message is that in increasingly digitalised economies the shortcomings of linear thinking are laid bare but, because of those new digital capabilities, we can now understand so much more and do something about it.  

Having the data and being able to analyse it is a relatively new phenomenon.  It was only in the early 1970’s that we had enough computational power and could get our heads around the mathematics of multiple regression but Whole Systems design thinking goes way beyond tweaking business models to reflect a few ‘externalities’.  It’s not just a challenge for product designers; the marketing propositions have now to reflect changes in the way consumers identify value not so much in the ‘exchange price’ but in their perception of ‘value in use’, in contexts that may well be diverse.

And having written that last paragraph I step back and wonder if there are any readers out there who fully grasp this, even on a second attempt.  Let’s try a little deconstruction.

Explaining ‘Whole Systems’ would be easy if all corporate strategists or product designers were gardeners.  But they aren’t gardeners. They are generally, by schooling, locked into relatively simplistic ‘linear’ mechanisms that can cope with nothing more complex than taking some raw materials, making something, using it and, when its life is over, that something is destined for the scrap heap.  But the real real world isn’t like that.

Contrast that ‘linear’ view with the multiple variables and complexities of gardening – the rain, sunshine, soils, genetics, harvesting seeds, composting, replenishing the soil and interactions with wildlife. Understanding a ‘Whole System’ in nature and natural food production is not so very difficult – and it’s no surprise to find that some Circular Economy examples are tagged ‘bio-mimicry’.   

Envisioning ‘Whole Systems’ for manufactured products, however, raises questions about boundaries.  Do you ignore the energy used to make the materials?  Do you design the product in a way that it (or its components) can be reused over and over again?  Do you accept that recycling trash is not an excuse for creating the trash?

This is the essence of a Circular Economy.  It does not demand abandoning the notion of ‘growth’ in demand.  It does demand that the flow of products is maintained through re-use and in many cases it requires a shift for consumers from ownership of the product to ownership of a right to use the product.  This is hardly a new concept.  There are all manner of leasing and rental deals – mostly pitched to shift the burden of capital finance or deal with ephemeral needs - but this time these deals need to be coupled with a determined plan that the things that are made are made to be made again and again. 

But, and here’s the rub, when words have been devalued, when ‘green’ is taken to mean more expensive, when ‘low carbon’ initiatives are equated to taxes, when ‘sustainability’ is mistaken as settling for lower performance (instead of future-proofing) the revolution will not be written that way.

Computational power and analytical tools are now enabling us to understand and cope with ‘Ordered Complexity’.  The design challenges of ‘Whole Systems’ should not be ignored simply because preconceived notions of what is implied by ‘green’, ‘low carbon’ and ‘sustainability’ get in the way of opening minds to new possibilities.



For more information visit the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website or watch 'From Consumer to User'

Readers may also see 'Booms and Boomerangs' - our review of 'A New Dynamic - effective business in a Circular Economy'.  The graphic used above is Fig 4 on page 16 and was adapted from 'After the Clockwork Universe' by Sally Goerner (1999)



Last Updated on Saturday, 02 August 2014 07:36