To Drive a Circular Economy, Governments Need to Think about the Futur

Josh Entsming
Dec 20, 2023

Originally published in MIT tech review arabic 

There is no such thing as a non-climate relevant policy and technology anymore. Climate change is already impacting 85% of the world population. Managers can no longer plan for a world in which climate change-based risks are a low probability question. In order to cope with and mitigate these risks, governments and managers are rethinking the kind of economy which can survive climate change. Covid-19 showed that, despite global slowdown, the carbon emission reduction was insufficient, demonstrating the scope of investment needed to transition existing economic systems. What is needed is not merely a slowdown but a fundamental change to the kind of economic model which shapes how countries pursue technological and digital transitions.


In response, the circular economy has been championed as a paradigm of production and consumption that drives value by reducing, reusing, and regenerating the material stock of an economy. Current circular models work by keeping resources and products in a tighter cycle of use, repair, remanufacturing and reuse, which helps to delay or in some cases nearly eliminate the need for recycling, which comes at the very last stage of a healthy resource model. When it comes to aligning growth and economic development, circular economy models are becoming impossible to ignore.


The ability to transition towards a circular economy within a green and low-carbon transition depends not only on investment into new research and innovation, but into the broad skill base for organizations to effectively experiment and transition their models. A circular revolution needs a further revolution of circular education, training, and upskilling, one currently expected to have a shortfall of needed talent to match the potential job-growth from circular transitions. Without this educational agenda, bold policy aims can be locked in by talent and research short-falls, already experienced globally in manufacturing sectors.


As was true with the Industrial Revolutions, the eventual benefits of shifting towards a circular economy tremendously outweigh the hurdles along the way, as we move towards a more mature and evolved system. The International Labor Organization’s World Employment and Social Outlook 2018 Report estimates that a shift towards a green economy would lead to the creation of 24 million jobs by 2030, 6 million of those as a direct result of transitioning towards circularity. Additionally out of 163 economic sectors analysed in the report, it is estimated that only 14 will suffer employment losses of more than 10,000 jobs worldwide.


In its World Development Report 2019, the World Bank laid out a clear message: to allow for the greatest societal benefits out of the changing nature of work, a new social contract should centre on larger investments in human capital and social protection. Granted, the report focuses on the changing nature of work due to advancements in technology within the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but with an economic shift as large as that to be brought along by circularity, this focus becomes significantly more critical for governments looking to reshift their national economic strategies. A comprehensive approach to investing in human capital considers three interlinked yet distinctive areas: education, job creation, and skill development. In turn, a comprehensive circular economy agenda which accounts for the labor disruption needs to navigate the realities of the future of work, aligning job transforming elements with the resource transition.


A natural starting point for a government to consider is the simple education of its citizens to prepare them for the change it would hope to promote. The priority remains a broad cross-level educational agenda, focusing on how early educational initiatives can bring in fundamental ideas of waste and resources, while higher education focuses on the specific skills required for transitions. Implanting circularity into classrooms as early as primary levels would ensure that citizens are able to understand and promote the circular economy as they grow. Resources such as the Circular Classroom can help both educators and students integrate circular thinking into curricula. Novel VR tools can allow for lower material requirements for experimentation and labs, with students building and designing in digital environments.


However, the question ends with more progressive curricula on what kinds of consumption and production practices the existing status quo relies on; to break open existing ideas and concepts on what waste is, where it really comes from, and what happens to it across its life. This expands from early concepts into the need for more basic and open education on circular practices, to avoid deferring to recycling, which should come as the last stage for any product in an effective circular economy. This means more than creating new masters or PhDs in circularity; it means understanding how education drives consumption patterns, where new ideas are needed, and how the technological revolutions can be leveraged to align work, education, and sustainability.


Aligning education with future labour markets means proactive public attention to which sectors and firms are driving circular job creation. A government can and should take multiple approaches to lead, guide, and complement industrial efforts in the creation of sustainable jobs. It can take a research-driven approach by sponsoring work towards understanding the nature of jobs required to further the circular economy. It can incentivize and invest in infrastructure and innovation to lead the creation of circular jobs. It could also lead by example through elevating its circular prowess within its own structure, by committing to sustainable goals and implementing sustainability by design within its processes.


States can look to Singapore’s comprehensive Green Plan and Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 Plan for best practices and inspiration towards this aim. The plans respectively showcase the city state’s efforts towards the circular economy through the development, support, and strengthening of sustainable enterprise, and the promotion of homegrown sustainable innovation through investing in and attracting sustainable R&D activities. Circular transitions rely on an ecosystem of committed innovation actors across a longer innovation chain; new social innovations to reshape consumption practices, new materials and manufacturing innovation across production, new logistics across distribution, and the horizontal need for better information and digitalization to ensure coordination can happen. Circularity is not about one company reducing its material footprint; it's about reducing the cost of whole ecosystems of SMEs to transition to alternative resource bases for their products and services.


The third part of an aligned future of work agenda for circular economy means attending to the existing workforce with progressive upskilling and intermediary program requirements for micro-foundations of circular understanding and specific technical skills. Failing to understand this intermediary set of skills beyond core circular program management, materials, and logistics can be seen in difficulties to drive AI transitions. Where governments overfocused on data science, missing out on the systems engineers and product managers that allow for AI systems to work and diffuse. Circular skill development indeed needs new material engineers and resource analytics, but the connection between shifting production, distribution, and logistics means a broad skill base for transition and organizational management.


Covering one or two of these areas in isolation may be considered a starting point for economies transitioning towards circular economies, but the greatest benefits lay at the intersection of all three. A comprehensive plan of attack encompassing all three areas would instill curiosity and knowledge of circularity through education, generate opportunities and foster innovation through job creation, and arm the labor force with the necessary tools to thrive in the circular economy through skill development. It would allow a state’s workforce to not only be ready for the wider advent of circularity, but position them as promoters, innovators, and champions of the circular economy. A three-pronged approach would make all the difference in driving policy beyond simple future readiness, to future trailblazing.


Considering both its significant ecological and economic benefits, circularity should not be a fleeting trend to contribute to with a small number of largely publicized initiatives that may not comprehensively integrate all of the required considerations needed for it to reach full potential. Circular strategies should consider the biggest resistance to significant production shifts in history - fear of the unknown - to prepare citizens and industry alike for a changing nature of work.


Hi there. My name is Hiba, and I am the Content specialist of this blog. I recently stepped into this role, and I hope you get a lot of pieces of information from my articles.