It’s time to get our heads around the circular economy

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Written by Liz Hill-Smith on 12 November 2014

Last week I attended the annual alumni conference at Cranfield University where I did my MBA many years ago. The theme this year was the circular economy, which sounded interesting, although I had little idea what it was. I was also intrigued to explore what in particular it might mean for learning and development. As the theme and its implications revealed itself to me, I was struck by how different the thinking was at Cranfield, one of the world’s leading business schools, from how I had experienced it two years previously. In 2012, I had gone to the Cranfield learning event straight after attending a one week course on Eco-Constellations at Schumaker College in Devon, an excellent, although alternative educational establishment housing many eminent scientists, but taking what many of us experienced as a fairly hippy-ish, non-mainstream approach to learning and Mother Earth. So how has this shift happened?

It seems that a courageous sportswoman, who has inspired me greatly over the years, has had a hand in this!

Dame Ellen MacArthur – the single handed sailor who won the Vendee Globe Round the World sailing race some years ago – has used her influence and energy to create the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. She has been busy curating the Disruptive Innovation Festival. which has been running for the past few weeks. This is an extensive programme of inspiring speakers, conferences and events, most streamed on line, talking about the Circular Economy and its impact and import for us all. Elements of the Cranfield conference were part of this. So what is this Circular Economy?

It is basically a way of thinking about resources and the things we make from resources, in a circular way rather than a linear way. That all the components of anything should be able to be reconfigured and reused to create the next thing. That we see all our resources being in cycle, rather than in linear.  Linear being for example, mine, use, landfill. Circular being use, re-use, re-use etc. Combining with the advances in technology and communication, this is an idea whose time has most certainly come, and if we look around, it is already creating and transforming business models. Take eBay, and freecycle as the most obvious. See that waste companies are having to develop consultancy teams to work with large retailers and manufacturers on whole life thinking of products and packaging. Take air bnb and uber as examples of the sharing economy. Think tyre leasing, where the tyre company provides tyres as a service to you and your car, and you just let them deal with the recycling of the materials involved through several tyre lives. Less resources, less energy, more information and communication being handled by the amazing IT we now have at our disposal.  It means manufacturers deliberately making things that can be repaired rather than discarded. It is all good stuff, and MacArthur’s strategy, of leading thinking through education, debate, and through opening up the conversation is a good one. Among others, she has engaged many leading business schools in this dialogue. As I outlined earlier, I was impressed to see the shift in approach being taken at Cranfield.

So what does this mean for learning and development? Well, a good place to hear more about this is the very wonderful educationalist, Ken Robinson, who speaks directly to Ellen as part of the festival.  The conversation is here: The circular economy is potentially highly disruptive to many industries. New businesses will emerge, others will shrink dramatically. Enabling legislation by Governments will happen more and more and businesses will need to respond to this in a way which respects the new paradigm. Clinging to the approaches and ways of working of the linear economy, will increasingly be seen as a desperate dinosaur approach.  We are seeing our clients having to address these issues in industries as diverse as water, music, fashion and insurance. How do you see and work with water as an integrated whole cycle and engage consumers and industrial users in that thinking? How do you create new approaches to creating, sharing and distributing music? How do you create leaders who can think well about how these new business models and approaches will emerge and play out? 

As Ken Robinson asks: “Can the current “schooling machine” inherited from the industrial revolution really foster the level of innovation required to transition to a circular, regenerative economy?” There are approaches to education that we live in legacy from – and these will need to evolve. In particular, our approaches to creativity, to the leadership of creativity and innovation, and to the transformation of these into successful business models, are evolving constantly as we apply them to our clients, their teams, and ourselves. We are all learners together as we go on that journey.

Liz Hill-Smith is a senior consultant at DPA 


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