Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Case
 

Systemic design workshop for a circular economy.

In May 2019, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation invited Namahn to its yearly conference, the CE100 (Circular Economy 100) Acceleration Workshop, which promotes collaboration and knowledge sharing towards the flourishing of a circular economy. The audience consisted of representatives from large companies and start-ups and experts from a variety of backgrounds. They convened to build opportunities for collective and sustainable approaches and to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy.

Design challenge

The “Systemic design for circular economy” workshop involved thirty participants from industries such as food, construction, energy and chemical. The session used systemic design tools on the premise that change is most effective when it takes place at different levels in a system. Although businesses are major stakeholders in reinventing ways of providing products or services, this is unlikely to be enough to enact change. Other actors, such as governments and citizen initiatives need to work together to scale up circular models and ensure the adoption of sustainable ways of living.

Approach

Summary

We studied sustainable initiatives and assessed them as a potential source of inspiration and collaboration with the Actants tool of the Systemic Design Toolkit. In teams, we mapped the expectations and concerns related to potential partnerships. Then, we developed an action plan for this collaboration through connector props, facilitating a clear way to make the collaboration possible. These ideas got refined with the Paradox Cards. By the end of the session, the participants identified the necessary conditions to implement the strategy. They looked at the rules that needed to change, the behaviours and mindsets to tackle, the current infrastructures to rethink, and the information flow to improve, to name a few.

We began by looking at emerging initiatives coming from small companies, start-ups, local projects, or grassroots movements that are exemplary in terms of sustainable approaches. We assessed these initiatives as a potential source of inspiration or, even better, collaboration. 

The audience broke into groups, each focusing on one industry. They explored plausible collaborations between actors using the Actants tool from the Systemic Design Toolkit. 

Actants tool

Each group received a set of cards with case studies of initiatives and chose two to focus on. For example, the team dealing with the food packaging industry saw partnership opportunities with the businesses of reverse vending machines (machines for collecting aluminum cans, glass and plastic bottles for recycling) and domestic bio-manufacturing devices. Each team mapped the expectations and concerns related to the potential partnerships, along with the main value exchanges through the relationship. For instance, a large corporation could fund an existing local project resulting in a boost to its reputation and access to new markets. Meanwhile, the local project could benefit from the big corporation by gaining visibility and improving its offering.  

Next, the teams determined which key activities could be the basis for this collaboration. They formalised their ideas using the connector props, which are useful in understanding how different ideas can be connected and reinforce each other.   

While considering the partnership between a large food corporation and the producer of reverse vending machines, one group suggested launching an incentive program that involved an information campaign and the redesign of the packaging. Also, they considered different data collection methods. Quantitative data collection was defined by a tracking system to detect the type of waste inserted in the machine. The qualitative data collection was instead foreseen by measuring consumer acceptance via focus groups to improve uptake.  

Connector props

By overlapping and positioning the connector props, the teams shaped their strategy of connected activities, facilitating a clear way to make the collaboration possible.  

They also explored ways to improve and refine the ideas with the Paradox Cards, an ideation tool used to generate solutions that fit multiple perspectives. For example, the “tradition/change” paradox card applied to a disruptive idea allows it to be reassessed to increase its acceptance. 

Paradox Cards

At the end of the session, the participants identified the necessary conditions to implement the strategy. They determined the changes in the bigger picture for the activities in the model to get it up and running. 

The teams had a final brainstorm on the ‘leverage areas’ as defined by Donella Meadows, a prominent systems thinkers. They looked at the rules that needed to change, the behaviours and mindsets to tackle, the current infrastructures to rethink, and the information flow to improve, to name a few.  

Intervention strategy

Result

Although the session was intense and short, it highlighted that change at the organisational level only does not necessarily bring a systemic change. We must design innovative relationships between actors in the system and adopt a collaborative approach. This prepares the ground for a systemic transition towards sustainable approaches.