Navigating the circular economy
Navigating the circular economy
I was introduced to the term ‘circular economy’ in my first few months in the master’s program of Management in the Built Environment (MBE) at TU Delft. The rendezvous had me thinking, “why isn’t this an industry standard already?”. The principles of circularity as identified by Ellen MacArthur Foundation are:
(1) Designing out waste and pollution
(2) Keep products and materials in use
(3) Regenerate natural systems
At a first glance, the circular economy seems like our strongest chance to redeem the harm business-as-usual has caused society and the environment. Construction activities account for 40% of material consumption from the global economy1. After water, concrete is the most used substance on the earth2. The construction industry right now follows the rules of a zero-sum game, where our ecosystem is almost always on the losing team. We need buildings that are designed for disassembly can be un-done and returned back to their original materials and components; Materials that can be mined from existing buildings and given a new life that saves them from ending in landfills; Materials and products that can be leased as a service so that the supplier can take their products back after functional use and refurbish them; Bio-based building materials which are manufactured to decompose safely. It’s amazing to think that applying principles of the circular economy in building processes can present us with a metaphysical ‘undo’ button. Regrettably, we have mastered the take-make-waste model by dedicating decades to the pursuit of achieving efficiency and profitability. And now, circularity brings forth a solution that rewards qualities like ingenuity, collaboration and empathy – qualities that also hold strong importance in my personal endeavours. Although circularity presents itself as a promising concept, its implementation has not been utilized to its full potential. Still in the introduction stage, circularity is characterised by high risks (due to a lack of know-how), high costs (because our supply chains are built to support the take-make-waste model), an unclear financial case (amplified by the current financial policies and valuation methods) (figure 1).
My initial question of “why isn’t this an industry standard already?” thus transformed into “how can I help make this a standard?”. As a first attempt, I sought the answer from my personal influences who were able to make a dent in the system, individuals who were not afraid to take on a challenge. Entrepreneurs have historically steered new and disruptive innovations across all industries owing to their strong inclination towards the new and uncharted. It is found critical for performance in an uncertain or unstable business environment as it can be explained as taking action to change the system environment. In his book, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries defines entrepreneurship as the creation of new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty. I sensed a strong correlation between organisations adopting ingenuity, collaboration and empathy and their becoming entrepreneurial. Thus, I nosedived into the scientific inquiry of understanding the impact of entrepreneurial behaviour in stimulating the circular economy and overcoming the challenges that impede its growth. Theorising about something so hands-on and qualitative like entrepreneurial behaviour was not only challenging but also prone to assumptions and generalisations that often stem from the desk. Immersing myself in the daily activities of an entrepreneurial organisation like COUP leapfrogged the theoretical research into an experiential journey.
An organisation fuelled by the ambition to promote sustainable practices and circularity, COUP identifies the urgency for a systemic change in current building practices. Projects like BlueCity and Genieloods display high levels of consciousness as they are buildings that were destined to end-up in a landfill and now have a new purpose. I selected BlueCity as a case study for my thesis because it embodies the spirit of the circular economy in its design and purpose. On one hand, I interviewed representatives from the organisations (including COUP) that realised BlueCity from a research perspective. On the other, I represented COUP as an intern and integrated into its activities as a part of the COUP Circulair team. My role in the team involved developing a circular solution to provide a new life to the declining churches of the Netherlands. The proposal suggests that the churches can re-introduce their cultural importance by opening doors to additional programs enabled by a temporary construction solution. This project gave me a firsthand experience in facing the exciting challenges of building a win-win-win scenario for all stakeholders (the environment as an important one). Developing an innovative business model in a market that is ruled by traditional ideas often poses questions like ‘what is the value of the building materials after their end of life?’ or ‘what are the legal implications of material ownership?’. With COUP, I learned that adopting the learning by doing attitude is central to navigating the circular economy. The circular development process requires an inherently different mindset. We need a new breed of actors in the built environment who are; driven by a strong social and environmental ambition; adopting trial-and-error based learning in their practice; willing to take risks; innovating in their internal processes and business models; and leading the change within and between organisations.
There is an intrinsic motivation that explains why I chose to participate in the circular efforts in the built environment. As an architect from Mumbai, I have keenly studied and analysed the complex urban fabric of the city that binds the social and natural environment to the built environment. Inequitable supply and distribution of resources are commonsight in a city like Mumbai, land being the scarcest. Buildings in areas like Kalbadevi have stood the test of time. Space is reused multiple times within a day to house changing functions like production, eating and sleeping. Thus, ‘Circular’ actions such as material reuse and redistribution, material recycling, space optimisation and resource sharing are born out of necessity. The informal economies of Mumbai are built on local systems that reward sustainability and circularity. I observed that a strong sense of community builds the basis for a circular economy since circularity cannot be achieved by the actions of an individual. Thinking and acting within ecosystems is necessary to the transition from linear to circular. Managing the network of the supply chain by aligning and including the independent ambitions and beliefs is paramount.
The individual behaviour of ants defines the collective robustness of the colony. Similarly, if all stakeholders (from the government to the carpenters) adopt an entrepreneurial approach in their own capacity, circular building projects can snowball into circular areas, cities and finally pave the way for a better and sustainable new normal. In my time at COUP, I have realised that the problem with current construction practices is my problem too. More importantly, what we develop and how we develop needs a coup (in its true meaning).
Interested? Do you have any questions, or would you like an introductory meeting? Please contact Yvette Govaart (Internship supervisor of Akshit Parmer).