Blog|September 10, 2021
Circular economy is the talk of the day in the European R&D scene. With most sectors of industry, we recognise its importance. And rightly so – we are globally discarding and wasting 91% of all material resources after use and downgrading our environment as we go. Also, in doing that, we are often wasting energy and money in continuously extracting virgin raw material from nature, instead of re-using and recycling.
So, circular economy makes sense. Luckily, a lot is already ongoing: the Finnish ministry-led national circular economy programme preparation, the European Green Deal, Bio and Circular Finland programme, and many other funding schemes, networks, regional clusters, projects and company initiatives.
Is everything then set for a sustainable circular economy future from the R&D and innovation perspective? Despite all the good work already going on, we don’t think so.
We need solutions that solve systemic challenges
We worry because our current development curve does not look steep enough with the current activities. In R&D, we typically focus on product-level eco-design, process efficiency, or better utilisation of a side stream in one part of the material cycle. Yet, with this respectable but conventional agenda, do we know that we are contributing to the big picture in a meaningful way? Are we fixing the right thing, with the desired impact? With our R&D focus mostly on today’s market needs and products, is our company going to be prepared and resilient enough also to be successful in 20 years’ time? And maybe the most important question: are we going to make it in time to halt the loss of biodiversity and the climate change, if we only work on individual improvements?
A systemic change requires systemic understanding. We need to understand how big and where the relevant material and value streams are and how they interconnect. What are the circularity, sustainability and business gaps? What do we need to fix: is there a new business opportunity there?
We need holistic circular-by-design concepts
Circular economy is carried out in concrete actions within business life, at homes and in communities, by solution providers and us consumers and customers. In R&D, we also need to work towards practical solutions for the market. However, from the impact point of view, the new concepts we develop should contribute also sustainable material cycles and operations at the system level. To add on to the complexity, the new circular concepts and operations will need to be feasible from the environmental, social, techno-economic and business point of view, and within the regulative boundaries. The user must drive the design.
Up to 80% of a product’s environmental impacts are determined at the design phase. Yet, very few products today have been designed ground up for circularity. Circular-by-design solutions ideally take into account the principles of designing out waste and planning for longer lifecycles, while maintaining the maximum user value. How do we apply these principles in different arenas and applications? We need data, methods, practices and tools for circular design. We need creative, collaborative thinking for the innovative, holistic and potentially disruptive solutions.
We need open collaboration and goodwill
Holistic design requires both wide and deep understanding. We need a community and platform for cross-sectoral, cross-disciplinary collaboration and data sharing. We also need the best partners for each step: in compiling system and market understanding, innovating, designing, developing, validating, demonstrating, testing, piloting and upscaling solutions.
VTT, Aalto University, Geological Survey of Finland GTK, Natural Resources Institute Luke and Finnish Environment Institute SYKE have taken the first steps in collaboration towards holistic circular design. All hands are needed: companies, RTOs, regulators, NGOs, municipalities, residents and consumers. Join us in creating a forward-looking circular design community! Provide your input to the preliminary circular-by-design road maps for the food system, packaging, textiles, electronics, batteries, metals and minerals, and construction – and bring in your topics and ideas!