The OSCEdays stewards are looking into creating a new definition for “circular economy” for the the OSCEdays’ future. Artist and economist Lars Zimmermann was put in charge of promoting the project. Here, he shares some insights from his experience.
(The headlines are a summary or very short version. A suggestion for a new circular economy definition is in the second part of the text.)
The existing definitions do not reflect what we want
Why do we want a new definition? Because we were not happy with the existing ones—provided by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for example. They lack statements about sustainability and don’t include social factors. They don’t represent what we want to work/fight for.
But what is this?
I think we should be clear that the world and humanity can survive without a circular economy or sustainability. Sure, likely the planet will be much darker. But humans are good at getting used to things. And happy moments are possible even in weird circumstances. So it is not about “survival”.
But what are we aiming for?
I think it’s “beauty”. We want beauty! We want to live on a planet we find beautiful. But beauty is of course something subjective. Here is what I grasp is the common ground in our little open group on beauty.
(1) We like nature and a biosphere that is rich in structure. What is alive in species and biotopes today, we want to also see alive in the future. Free and abundant!
(2) We’re not afraid of complexity. And we think that being respectful, humble, open, caring, and adaptive to the things around us is key to this no. 1.
(3) We want a tolerant plural society in which humans can feel safe and express themselves freely in a growing, complex, sustainable world.
The second point—being humble and caring—is a logical consequence of the first one—preserve diversity. The third one just restates number one and two for society.
So everything in one sentence: I think we want—and this is maybe our “circular economy”—a world:
“… where systems are designed in order to let the possibilities for as many other systems grow—short and long term (biological and technical systems).”
The sentence might not be too well constructed. But its meaning is clear: It’s about caring, thinking ahead (about consequences), and trying not to undermine the ability to exist for all things on earth. And existing means to be able to develop.
I think this is what we want to see expressed in our definition of “circular economy”. (And we think “circular economy” is the right approach because a lot of the techniques that are usually connected to it look promising for this goal.)
But what we want isn’t necessarily best called “circular” economy
Let’s step back for a moment and admit that with this we are creating maybe more a mission or vision statement than a definition. (Update: This is also true for the great CE definition of Metabolic) And: If you agree so far—at least mostly—you have to admit: It does not make too much sense to call this “circular”.
This is also “circular” (graph 1):
Create, use, use again one time, and trash it—just one loop. But only one loop is already a circle!
And this circle indeed implies that the product arrives at the same point twice—the same facility or company. And this would really be about the consolidation of ownership, control, and power of existing companies. And it is not difficult to argue that this is not necessarily about sustainability and enabling diversity.
Is “circular economy” really the right term to express a vision of an enriched world?
We should continue to say “circular economy”
Stay with me for a moment in the argument. I will not end with suggesting to discard “circular economy” and replace it with a new term. But this wouldn’t be smart! Because:
(1) Establishing a new term is hard, unlikely and time, energy, and resource intense.
(2) We’d exclude ourselves from the existing and emerging political and economic debates around “circular economy” where real change might become possible. We should rather continue to “hack into” those debates by adding new concepts to it “open source…”
(3) Also, it’d be wasteful itself to throw away all the work that has gone into establishing “circular economy” and not try to work with it.
But just for the sake of insight follow me through the next paragraph:
But take a moment to understand that “spiral” or something like it is/could be better
One idea for a better term to grasp what we want could be “spiral economy”. Grit posted that idea on the OSCEdays forum quoting Tomas Diez and also people from Fablab Berlin used it when they told me about the Fab City project. A quick Google search brought this article by 100%Open up.
A spiral (or funnel) could better express that ideally each activity in the system increases the number of possibilities for everything after. There is constant change and iteration—to the better.
Something like this could be very inspiring! If you think about something “circular” it doesn’t sound like too much fun. It sounds like you have the same amount of things you had before. But “spiral” means you have more afterwards! This is probably more appealing to larger audiences! Mainstreamy!
But “spiral” doesn’t work too well either. It’s not really catchy. Or logical. What’s the “line” in the spiral? It’s even less self explanatory than “circular economy”. It’s not the poster child for a successful marketing campaign.
How about a “plus”… or “future”… “plurality”… “surplus”… “total options”… “emerging possibilities” economy… Ah naargh! No! None of this is doing the job… (small update: see reprise for another idea)
How does one express the idea of growing options that don’t harm existing options visually? Or even in words? I don’t know. This one is not doing the job either—But it would be great to have something that expresses the core idea: Only do something when you have at least more than two or X good ideas in regards to what happens next with it. Always!
The term “circular” economy isn’t perfect. But we would need a term that’s magnitudes better in expressing our “idea of beauty” to make it worthwhile and a probable success to push for a change. And it would be stupid to make the whole field more complicated with another term. So let’s stick with “circular” and try to load our ideas as meaning into it.
And this is somehow natural. Let’s jump to the next angle to look at this:
So let’s define our “circular” economy like a “spiral” economy
If you look at this picture one more time (the circle with just one loop).
This is not a circular “economy”! It is a circular process! Or rather a circular step in an otherwise linear process.
An “economy” is something other than a single process. It’s an immeasurable high number of processes—dynamically (!) intertwined to an unbelievable degree of complexity! There is constant change.
In a dynamic environment, how does one make sure that one process will be able to close a loop? You have to make it fit—to connect—to as many other processes as possible, so it gets at least likely an actual loop is realized! The more connection options a process has the more likely it is that a connection can be found. If your output is “oxygen” you’ll be fine.
Yes! Your processes and systems need to be designed in a way that their outputs are useful for many other and different processes and systems, or in other words:
“… in order to let the possibilities for as many other systems grow—short and long term (biological and technical systems).”
Because our economy is dynamic and complex, this is the only viable strategy if you really want to make circles happen. And this is basically the same as our vision/idea of beauty. ヽ(^。^)ノ
And one strategy to make it likely that your process finds another one to connect to is not to destroy other processes or systems—because this would undermine unexpected use(r)s. Add. Don’t take away.
And another strategy is of course open source—as it provides the information necessary to find a process and the legal opportunity to use it.
Ok. Well. Then let’s put all of this into our definition. And add open source right there. And make sure we’re talking about a global circular economy. If we spin the definition like this it could turn out like this:
A circular economy is an economy where systems are designed in order to let the possibilities for as many other systems grow as possible—short and long term (biological and technical systems).
To reach this goal, it favors and explores—where it makes sense to reach it—concepts, techniques, and strategies like:
・circular flows of resources, products and processes;
・fair and free environments for people to live and work;
・local and short feedback loops;
・use of standards;
・use of (non-toxic, clean, nourishing and healthy) materials that are either technically recyclable or biodegrade;
・products and processes designed for
・maintenance and repair and
・dis- and reassembly,
・(also high value);
・(low carbon and low entropy approaches;)
・open source collaboration (or transparency).
The list is something to debate and the structure and language need to be polished up, yes.
But how about the general spin? Could it work? Let people have this understanding when they think about “circular economy”.
( -_- ) ~~~
Update: a reprise
Sorry, just a little bit more.
A part of my brain of course still thinks about an alternative word for “circular”. I have another idea. I don’t advocate for it (it did not feel like a eureka moment). But I still want to share it—because it’s interesting!
The best replacement word I found so far is “pre-use”—the pre-use economy. This is probably why I am so enthusiastic about the term ever since I heard it. It expresses the whole idea that you should have at least one other idea about an alternative future “use” of something before you start using it—that is—to not throw it into the garbage. Pre-use invites complexity and to think ahead and to think about others (because why should you be the one doing the next use?) It’s a basic operation that can be spread to everything: You pre-use the planet and nature!
And what makes it so interesting: If everyone would include this BASIC OPERATION on a daily basis—for example in a shape like:
Don’t do anything before you don’t have at least three positive ideas about what happens afterwards with it.
– a circular economy would emerge very quickly. *