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Preparing Future Professionals to Successfully Reshape Our Economy and Implement Circularity

Overhead photograph of pencil pot on a desk


Written by Noah Schaul, Business Development Manager at Inchainge & Circular Economy Catalyst.

The Circular economy is recently gaining attention, largely due to societal issues that different stakeholders are trying to address with circularity – called the society pull.

On top of that come many enablers who catalyze the implementation of a circular economy – called the enabler push (Weenk and Henzen, 2021). Necessary conditions for a circular transition are knowledge development, knowledge dissemination and innovation. A lack of those elements can considerably slow down the transition.

I would like to focus this article on how we can strengthen the enabler push, by changing the mindset of (future) professionals through education. I invite everyone who disagrees with stated opinions to voice that disagreement, so we can discuss, learn from each other and constructively move forward.

When I speak about education, I also mean on-the-job training. Training (i.e. skilling and reskilling) of the workforce is a key element when a company wants to implement a new sustainable (e.g. circular) business model (Bocken and Geradts, 2020). This requires investments in:

  • Inspiration sessions
  • Engagement workshops with value chain partners
  • Collaborations with different knowledge institutions (e.g. universities, NGOs, etc.)
  • Development training
  • Bringing people with a sustainable mindset and background into the company.

Balancing standardization and multidimensional economics

This also means that we need to assure a large enough supply of young professionals with the right mindset, knowledge and skills.

Our current educational system has benefitted greatly from standardization and collaboration between universities and networks. Going through an economics and business bachelor's and being on the lookout for masters during my past years as a young professional, I experienced first-hand how ‘over-standardized’ and one-dimensional most of those programs are. I think that we need to be careful not to become locked in from a thematic and maybe even more so from a mindset point of view.

The reasoning behind this thought is twofold, namely that overly-standardized programmes...

  1. Limit topical width - (future) young professionals aren't introduced to different topics, but predominantly to the classical school of thought.
  2. Limit innovative thinking - making it very hard to really be critical and reflective outside your field of view.

To create true advances, thought leadership and theoretical and practical breakthroughs we need a balance between standardized content and alternative as well as new schools of thought (i.e. new theories, modern content, and to some degree also future studies).

Why we must integrate circular economy into economics and business programmes

I was fortunate enough to end up in a job where I could dive into the circular economy, which made me a strong believer that the circular economy can restructure our economic system for the better and by doing so, solve many of the issues our world is facing today and in the future.

A circular economy looks “beyond the current take-make-dispose extractive industrial model” with the “aim to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2020).

It fundamentally questions our current economic approach and will thereby create much-needed heterodox curricula. The principles a circular economy is based on bear tremendous potential for sustainable development goals and getting on a sustainable track beyond those.

The three principles of a circular economy as defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2020) are: “design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use; regenerate natural systems”.

Besides the fact that circular companies become more sustainable, many other opportunities are created, such as increased resilience. A 2020 study by Flanders Circular and VITO had 34% of participating circular companies experiencing shortages during the COVID-19 crisis, opposed to 98% of ‘business-as-usual’ companies.

Given the potential a circular economy holds and the urgency with which changes need to be implemented, I believe that every economics and business curriculum should widen its scope by integrating circular economy.

In the following part I would like to dive into the way this integration can take place, especially focusing on how we can change mindsets. The inspiration comes from various sources, but mainly from my own experiences and reflections, as well as the Integrated Learning Approach by Ed Weenk (2021), also known as ‘Ed’s principles’.

As a baseline, the three competencies that Janssens and Kuppens (2018) identified as elementary in a transition to a circular economy – technical, valorization and transversal competencies – will be used.

Technical competencies - what is the circular economy all about?

At this point in time, linear approaches still heavily dominate educational programs. A critical view on the mainstream schools of thought needs to be a Leitmotiv of every economics course and technical competencies covering the circular economy must be integrated too. Otherwise, changes will stay incremental and will never reach the scope needed to bring global change.

Standardization of circular economy theories, definitions, origins, metrics, and key concepts is needed, because an academic consensus is currently still lacking. As part of the technical competencies, different perspectives and future trends should also be explored (Ed Weenk, 2021).

Integrating this content in curricula will provide young professionals with the needed background on what circularity is and how the different strategies work in theory.

At the core is the 10-R framework, which defines a hierarchical set of circular strategies, from R0 to R9, applicable to the concept and design cycle as well as the Produce and Use cycle.

An impactful learning experience that goes, however, beyond content. The world is more than just asking what, so why should we limit educational programs to this one dimension?

Valorization competencies - how can we make circularity happen in practice?

Often the focus is too much on the technical side, whereas the valorization competencies are key to properly ingraining a topic.

Valorization competencies include the application of theory to a practical example, doing critical reflection exercises and discovering interrelations. Establishing cooperation between companies as a mainstream approach, rather than the exception in a world with only space for competition also plays an important part here.

Ed Weenk (2021) identifies three key tools for developing competencies:

  1. Teaching cases
  2. Business games
  3. Exercises and reflections

The returning element here is that learners are put into an active rather than a passive role, creating a longer-lasting learning effect. Storytelling, team-based experiences, context and learning by doing all facilitate the right environment for people to learn.

This is especially the case within a well-structured and facilitated business game. Being a master trainer with the circular business game The Blue Connection, I can speak from experience when I say that participants become immersed in the learning, remember the experience vividly long after the fact and leave empowered despite hours of non-stop activities.

Marloes Bergevoet, Sr Marketeer at ING Wholesale Banking and also experienced trainer with The Blue Connection, summarized this nicely in an interview I conducted with her in May 2021:

I think having this type of simulations […] is a great way to think through what those theoretical models mean on a day-to-day basis in a job, in an ecosystem, where you have to deal with customers and suppliers. Pushing buttons in a safe environment is a great way to make stuff more vivid. It is a nice bridge [for students to become professionals] because also people from a corporate environment feel like they have to start from scratch again. So, I think it is also a nice way to bring young minds and more senior people […] together to the drawing board to start all over again.”

Transversal competencies - how to identify and leverage circular opportunities, how to collaborate, how to engage with stakeholders?

I had the pleasure to be part of the honours program during my studies, an enriching experience that made me raise the question: why do we need separate programs (i.e. extracurricular activities/courses) focusing on those competencies rather than integrating them into the regular curriculum?

Transversal competencies are crucial to thought leadership and problem-solving. Creativity, innovative thinking and building an open mind, instead of getting locked into ideas, is at the center of those skills (Neessen, 2020). Those skills build bridges for students to become valuable young professionals who enter companies with a certain mind- and skillset in their backpack that they can use to catalyze change management processes.

A good example is the creation of a circular ecosystem. A company cannot go circular on its own, but it needs to build synergies with the right partner companies, to share know-how, information and infrastructures. Most projects and systems, such as the circular transition and especially circular eco-systems, aren’t static but dynamic (growing in scope and scale as well as changing ecosystem partners, etc).

How will we be able to build synergies to enable circular value chains if 90% of economics and business education is about fostering competition, while 10% or less are about interfirm cooperation?

Such complex projects require a large number of people to have a cooperative, creative mindset, the skills to identify the right partners and set up effective collaborations and the flexibility to react to (unforeseen) changes.

Group projects are a great way forward from my experience. I don’t only mean writing academic papers or a presentation together, assignments that are all too often prone to a classical “divide and conquer” approach. The experience you make as a team when you go through a hands-on project (e.g. product development, boot camp, setting up a company business plan or business simulation game) can be extremely valuable. Team-based ‘learning by doing’ exercises can hence be powerful tools when integrated at several levels of learning programs, making learners realize how a circular concept that looks simple on paper can be very hard to implement.

The magical power of a storyline

To top it all off, I would like to refer to storylines, which immerse you in a learning experience and make you connect the dots in a powerful way.

An example can be taken from the textbook Mastering the Circular Economy by Rozanne Henzen and Ed Weenk (2021), where they start with Exploring the Circular Economy (what), move on with Mastering the Circular Economy (how) and end with Imagining the Circular Economy (where do we go from here?).

The beginning builds a foundation of technical competencies first, but after a certain threshold, the different competencies can be blended in an innovative way. This is all about thoughtful course design, using the different learning tools stated above, clear learning objectives connected to the storyline and several evaluation points.

Still having a fresh view on studies and the initial years as a professional allowed me to critically reflect on my experiences and the competencies I learned vs the competencies I now need. I sincerely hope that my shared views and ideas can be of value and inspiration to learners and educators alike.

Let's #GoCircular!


References

Bocken, N and Geradts, T (2020) Barriers and drivers to sustainable business model innovation: organization design and dynamic capabilities, Long Range Planning, 53

Janssens, L and Kuppens, T (2018) De professional van de toekomst in de circulaire economie, https://www.uhasselt.be/Documents/ORA/ORA_cleantech_rapport.pdf (in Dutch)

Neessen, P (2020) Closing the Loop: Intrapreneurship and Circular Purchasing, PhD thesis, October 2020

Weenk, E (2021) White paper on The Integrated Learning Approach

Weenk, E and Henzen, R (2021) Mastering the Circular Economy