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Which values are crucial to a circular economy?

15 Jan 2019 11:00 | Communication

By 2050, Dutch society must have transformed into a circular economy. In this sustainable recycling economy, there is no waste and raw materials are used again and again. The Dutch government aims to achieve this and the technologies required to do so already exist. Therefore, it is now time for the next step: how can the government get citizens and businesses on board?

According to researcher Wouter Meys of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS), residents and businesses should seek to cooperate more with each other. “For example, they can share resources and generate renewable energy together.” Led by Meys and Personal Professor Martijn de Waal, a group of researchers in the Play & Civic Media research group is studying the social implementation of the technologies needed to achieve a circular economy.

From bartering to community creation

“Take solar panels, for example,” Meys explains. “Suppose I have them on my roof to generate energy. You want that green energy too, but you do not have solar panels. You could tap energy from my house and offer me something else, such as homemade compost, in exchange.” A recent study analysing the circular economy (Circulaire economie in kaartby the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) shows that many of the current circular activities are still focused on recycling; the reuse of plastic or other waste streams as raw materials for new products. The AUAS researchers emphasise the PBL’s conclusion that more is needed to become a fully circular economy. Systems and rules are needed to make society fundamentally more sustainable.

Two recent developments may offer a solution. Platformisation ensures that more and more social and economic activities take place through digital platforms. Examples are social networks like Facebook, information provision through community websites, and platforms like Airbnb, Peerby and Snappcar. Supply and demand with regard to the circular economy can also be organised at the local level through such digital marketplaces. An example is the emergence of local collectives for the generation and exchange of sustainable energy. The emergence of blockchain is a development that offers new opportunities for the administration of such platforms. Blockchain is a decentralised accounting system that can be used to settle social and economic transactions at the community level.

Local platforms still in their infancy

Local platforms for the circular economy, where citizens work together and exchange services, already exist in the Netherlands. For example, SMEs Spectral and Metabolic have developed a digital currency (the Jouliette) for De Ceuvel, a creative breeding ground in the Amsterdam-Noord district. Local parties use that currency for transactions on a marketplace they have established for sustainable energy.

Nevertheless, the development of these platforms is still in its infancy. SMEs struggle with issues such as: who should have priority in a local energy system when the sun is not shining, and one person wants to use his washing machine while the other wants to charge his car? What criteria does the system use in that case? The AUAS researchers are therefore studying values. “Which values dominate?” asks Meys. “Is it about economic or ethical interests, for example, or does the time factor play a role?”

Experimenting at De Ceuvel 

The AUAS is conducting further research and has received a RAAK SME grant from the Taskforce for Applied Research (Regieorgaan SIA) for this. “One of the things we are going to investigate is how an accounting system for such a digital currency can support the values of the community,” explains principal investigator Inte Gloerich.

Research into values is hardly being applied yet. However, the researchers consider this crucial to making systems in a community operational. Gloerich: “A research-through-design approach is a tool for this: you learn from what you are actually making. The study is also resulting in tools, scenarios and design principles that SMEs can apply in the further development of local platforms for the circular economy.”

In two years’ time, the study on the values of a sustainable recycling economy will be completed and the researchers will share their knowledge. The Design Thinking for the Circular Economy project by Personal Lecturer Martijn de Waal, principal investigators Inte Gloerich, Gabriele Ferri and Nazli Cila, and project manager Wouter Meys is a large-scale AUAS study carried out in collaboration with a number of partners from the field. Students are also actively involved in the collection of data.

This study receives funding from the Taskforce for Applied Research, part of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).