Watching the power and grace of a 35-tonne humpback whale effortlessly cruise through the blue waters off the coast of Australia got me thinking…
These mammals journey nearly 10,000km annually, likely using Earth’s magnetic field for orientation. Their flippers are edged with small bumps to allow manoeuvrability and agility in the water. Pleats on their throats allow them to gulp tonnes of water and food in each mouthful. And baleen plates trap tiny prey of which they need half a tonne of everyday. More akin to humans than fish, it was humbling to watch even a snippet of their multi-month migration.
Getting up-close-and-personal with our cetacean cousins got me thinking about what our strengths are as a species, and how might we use them to accelerate a transition to a circular economy. I landed on five strengths:
- Inventiveness – We excel at problem-solving. We harnessed energy to create light in the darkness. We invented the wheel to enable long-distance transportation. We created the compass to aid navigation. At times, humanity can be destructive, cruel and thoughtless. But we also have an unrivalled genius for invention.
- Learning from experience – Our successful moon landing over five decades ago was not the result of luck, but a process marked by failures, learning, and iteration. The Apollo 1 tragedy, for instance, paved the way for safer future missions.
- Forward thinking – We have the unique ability to envisage the future and influence its outcomes, something we do on a continual basis in order to achieve our dreams, goals, and aspirations.
- Cooperation – Despite societal fractures, our collective achievements show what we create when we come together. From architectural marvels such as the Great Pyramids and Machu Picchu, to rapid medical breakthroughs like the COVID-19 vaccines.
- Creating movements – Change starts small, often instigated by a pioneer who dares to stand apart. Once a mass of supporters gather, transformative change is triggered. Watch how this lone dancer initiates an unexpected mass gathering.
Faced with an urgent need for change, our strengths may be our best bet. By focusing on the best of humanity, we can accelerate our transition to a circular economy. Here’s how:
- Inventiveness – As Einstein observed, new problems require new thinking. To identify circular opportunities, we must first understand the elements of a system and how these interact. Material flow mapping1. in the city Rotterdam allowed the municipal government to identify circular opportunities such as obtaining phosphorus from sewage for use in urban farms, and using green infrastructure to store water, ultimately delivering a 20% reduction in wastewater spill events2.
- Learning from experience – shifting away from an economic paradigm that has delivered increased living standards and ongoing GDP growth is a major challenge. It will require us to test and try new things, learn from failure, and share our knowledge. Italy’s largest bank – Intesa Sanpolo – has launched a Circular Economy Lab to facilitate open innovation for new models of value creation in the collective interest.
- Forward thinking – modelling illustrates what the planet’s future might look like if we do not take urgent and drastic action. We know we need to change but finding approaches that are mutually beneficial for all stakeholders is often the sticking point. There are however examples of the circular economy in action from companies such as Philips, offering light-as-a-service and Caterpillar producing remanufactured machinery. Both business models are delivering cost savings through reduced material use, lower operating costs, and increased reliability.
- Cooperation – the circular economy requires collaboration across organisational boundaries; waste to one organisation is a resource to another. Sustainable Synergies, an industrial symbiosis cluster of 25 Danish companies who exchange residual and surplus resources, exemplifies the benefits; reduced waste management and procurement costs, additional revenue generated through product innovation, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
- Creating movements – Tipping points are often associated with negative consequences as they represent critical thresholds that, when crossed, trigger self-reinforcing and potentially catastrophic changes. But tipping points can be positive too, leading to transformational change. To facilitate a tipping point for the circular economy, we must take steps to empower, remove obstacles, and most importantly rally behind our circular pioneers, innovators, and change-makers.
Inventiveness, experiential learning, forward-thinking, cooperation, and creating movements – these are the tools we must use to hasten the transition to a circular economy. As we embark on this journey, the lessons from the remarkable migrations of our cetacean cousins remind us of our resilience and the power of adaptation.
1 Tilly, N., Klijn, O., Borsboom, J. and Looije, M. (2014) Urban Metabolism: Sustainable Development of Rotterdam. International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam. https://www.iabr.nl/media/document/original/urban_metabolism_rotterdam.pdf Accessed 1 April 2022
2 Bassolino, E. (2019) The impact of climate change on local water management strategies. Learning from Rotterdam and Copenhagen. Journal of Urban Planning, Landscape & environmental Design 4(1), 21–40.