Systemic design and a circular economy

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation invited Namahn to their yearly conference, the CE100 (Circular Economy 100) Acceleration Workshop, which is designed to foster collaboration and knowledge sharing in the framework of circular economy.

The audience was made up of representatives from companies, start-ups and experts from different backgrounds who convened to build opportunities for more collective and sustainable approaches, with the goal of accelerating the transition towards a circular economy.

Namahn was selected to lead a toolbox session during the conference on Thursday, May 9th. The “Systemic design for circular economy” session involved around thirty participants from different organisations and industry sectors such as food, construction, energy and chemical.

The session consisted of an overview of the systemic design tools aimed at companies designing a transition towards circular models, with the premise that change should happen on different levels in the system. Although businesses play a relevant role in reinventing the way that current products or services are provided, this might not be enough to enact change. Other actors, such as governments or citizen initiatives, need to work together to “scale up” circular models and ensure the adoption of sustainable ways of living.

For this reason, the first activity in the workshop consisted of looking at emerging initiatives coming from small companies, start-ups, local projects or grassroots movements which are exemplary in terms of sustainable approaches. These initiatives were then assessed as a potential source of inspiration or, even better, collaboration.

To this aim, participants split into different groups and agreed to focus on a sample industry, such as the construction or packaging industry. They then explored potential initiatives to be selected for collaboration through the Actants tool, a tool used to investigate potential relationships between actors in the ecosystem.

Actants tool

Each sector group was given a set of cards with case studies of existing initiatives and had to choose two case studies to focus on. For instance, a team representing a big food packaging industry, saw partnership opportunities with the businesses of reverse vending machines and domestic bio-manufacturing devices. Each team mapped the expectations and concerns related to the possible partnership, along with the main exchanges in the relationship. For example,the big corporation could fund an existing local project resulting in a boost to their reputation and access to different markets, while the local project could benefit from the big corporation by gaining more visibility and improving the current offering.

 After this step, the teams determined which key activities could be the basis for this collaboration. They formalised their ideas using the connector props, which are useful in understanding how different ideas can be connected and reinforce each other.

In the example of the partnership between a big food corporation and the business of reverse vending machines, a group thought about launching an incentive program which involved an information campaign and redesign of the entire packaging. Additionally, they considered different data collection methods. Quantitative data collection was defined by a tracking system to detect the type of waste inserted in the machine. The qualitative data collection was instead foreseen by measuring consumer acceptance via focus groups in order to improve collaboration.

Connector props

By overlapping and positioning the connector props, the teams shaped their strategy of connected activities, facilitating a clear way to implement the strategy in order to make the collaboration possible.

They also explored possible ways to improve and refine the ideas using the paradox cards, another effective ideation tool which is used to generate solutions that fit multiple perspectives. For example, the“tradition/change” paradox card applied to a disruptive idea allows it to be reassessed in order to increase its acceptance in current society.

Paradox cards

The final portion of the workshop required the participants to identify the conditions necessary in order to be able to implement the strategy. They were challenged to determine what needs to change in the bigger picture in order to allow the activities in the model to get up and running. To identify such requirements, the teams had a final brainstorming on the leverage areas as they are defined by Donella Meadows (author and scientist in systems thinking). The teams looked at which rules would need to be changed, what behaviours and mindsets would need to be tackled, what current infrastructures would need to be rethought and what information flows would need to be improved, to name a few.

Intervention strategy

Although the session was rather intense and short in duration, it highlighted how change on the mere organizational level does not necessarily bring about systemic change. One must look at what is out there by designing innovative relationships between different actors in the system and adopting a collaborative approach. This will make it easier to prepare the ground for a systemic transition towards more creative, sustainable approaches.

Photos by Peter Vermaercke 2019.

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