How do we prepare (future) professionals to successfully reshape our economy and implement circularity?
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, it comes to the 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 (Rli, 2015).
I would like to focus in 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, then 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:
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 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 programs:
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).
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, multi-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 of a circular economy 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 study by Flanders Circular and VITO from 2020 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.
At this point in time, linear approaches still heavily dominate educational programs. Two things need to become a ‘Leitmotiv’ of every economics course I believe: A critical view on the mainstream schools of thought and the fostering of technical competencies covering the circular economy. 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 (Circle Economy, 2020). 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 (Reike et al, 2018).
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?
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:
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. Marketer 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.”
I had the pleasure to be part of the honors program during my studies, an enriching experience that made me raise the question: why do we need separate programs (i.e. extracurricular activities/courses) focussing 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, are 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.
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.
Noah Schaul is one of Inchainge’s master trainers for the circular business game, The Blue Connection. He also led the City Tour – the launch of the business game across Europe in 2019. To catalyze the Circular Transition, Noah is developing circular learning programs and inspiring companies to go circular in The Netherlands and beyond.
Noah Schaul is a contributor to the recently launched book called ‘Mastering the Circular Economy’ by Ed Weenk and Rozanne Henzen. Mastering the Circular Economy is an introduction to circularity from a business and value chain management perspective. Want to know more? Check out our book page here.
Noah, Ed Weenk and Rozanne Henzen hosted an exclusive event on ‘Design a course on Mastering the Circular Economy’. They presented a concrete example of how you can implement a circular economy course with the textbook Mastering the Circular Economy. You can watch the webinar recording here.
The Blue Connection is a cross-functional strategic business game focused on Circular Economy. The simulation game challenges the participants to transition a linear supply chain into a circular value chain while increasing the Return on Investment of a (virtual) manufacturing company of e-bikes.
The Blue Connection is versatile and can be used for courses of varying complexity and at all levels of higher education so students can develop their hard- and soft skills. Additionally, it can be used for in-company training to help foster cross-functional alignment and highlight the importance of adopting a circular strategy.
Bocken, N and Geradts, T (2020) Barriers and drivers to sustainable business model innovation: organization design and dynamic capabilities, Long Range Planning, 53
Circle Economy (2020a) Jobs & Skills in the Circular Economy: State of Play and Future Pathways, https://www.circle-economy.com/resources/jobs-skills-in-the-circular-economy-state-of-play-and-future-pathways
Flanders Circular & VITO. (2020). Dossier Veerkracht. Retrieved from https://www.vlaanderen-circulair.be/nl/veerkracht
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
Reike, D, Vermeulen, W and Witjes, S. (2018). The circular economy: New or Refurbished as CE 3.0? – Exploring controversies in the Conceptualization of the Circular Economy through a focus on History and Resource Value Retention Options. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 135, 246-264, Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344917302756
Rli (2015) Circulaire economie: van wens naar uitvoering, https://www.rli.nl/sites/default/files/rli028-1_wtk_advies_circ_eco_interactief_2.pdf (in Dutch)
Weenk, E (2021) White paper on The Integrated Learning Approach
Weenk, E and Henzen, R (2021) Mastering the Circular Economy