Radical rethinking: Circular economy as the ultimate paradigm shift

A commentary by Anna Volc, Brianna Kerr, Adrian Toth (YGCs, 2019)

When we talk about a paradigm shift, we are talking about a complete reimagining of the systems that exist: social, economic and environmental. We, Young Global Changers participating in the summit, were both surprised and somewhat disappointed at the lack of discourse concerning the circular economy, a system that emanates paradigm change.

The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a UK-based charity focused on the circular economy, defines circular economy as “looking beyond the current take-make-waste extractive industrial model.” A circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits, furthermore it entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system.

When posing questions to panelists and experts on their thoughts regarding the circular economy and the lack of its implementation, we rarely received satisfactory answers. It was at this point we reflected on the topic and why we were not receiving the responses as expected.

We turned to Kirsten Dunlop, the CEO of Climate-KIC and a panelist of the “Paradigm Change Session – Globalization and Vulnerability.” Dunlop brought to light some key challenges with the idea of a circular economy.

“The idea of circularity it too abstract,” Dunlop said. “It is getting stuck in abstraction because there is too little experimentation at scale, which limits what you can ask for in terms of design standards, policy design and economic design.”

Picture: Hans, Pixabay

While, Dunlop fundamentally believes that a transition to a more circular economy is necessary, she stressed the complexity of such a change. “Circularity is complicated,” she said. “People might think it is about neat loops, but it actually needs to be three or four dimensions in how these flows happen.”

This need for multi-dimensionality, matched with the necessity to reform the current linear system adds to the complexity. The long-standing, linear way of doing things in both business and social environments inhibits peoples’ ability to perceive the circular economy as a viable option. “[We need] to change ourselves, but the market is not allowing us to do so,” Dunlop told the audience during her panel.

One of the real worries regarding climate change is that action occurs too slowly. We don’t have time to continue hypothesizing, but rather need to act and engage many different levers. One of those levers is entrepreneurship and innovation, Dunlop explained.

“There are very few who can actually get their heads around either designing businesses, or social or economic systems, around a circular economy,” Dunlop added. “So, it is all about experimentation.”

Her message: We need to learn by doing.

To connect implementers, policy makers and academics, the circular economy must be on the G20 agenda. As Young Global Changers, we don’t want to solely provide critique but we want to provide solutions. Therefore, we have two recommendations:

The circular economy needs to be an explicit agenda item, attracting leaders in the field from around the world to come and discuss the system and bridge this so-called “abstraction gap.” This in turn would influence the recommendations posed to the G20 in 2020.

The panel format of the Global Solutions Summit should not only be used as a space for discussion of existing concepts but as a platform for new ones. Introducing new ideas will help in instigating true paradigm shifts and movement away from unsustainable models. Let’s start to reimagine systems, not just reshape existing ones.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Solutions Initiative.

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