Speed Dating with the Circular Economy - RSA

Speed Dating with the Circular Economy


  • Circular economy
  • Social brain

Setting: in a little known boutique hidden inside Café de Paris in Piccadilly Circus, singles shuffle furtively as they prop up the bar. Long since unleashed from ideological matrimony, but increasingly weary of social media and existentially adrift, they have come for a subterranean adventure, hoping to meet ideas they can truly believe in, seeking friendship, and perhaps something more.

These ideas, in turn, are out on the prowl, miraculously assuming human form for the duration of the evening; they are secretly hoping they will be understood and accepted for 'who they really are', though none of them are quite sure what that means. 

(Image via www.michellehenry.fr/speed_dating.htm)

The format of all such evenings is a series of eight minute table conversations, where people and ideas meet, check each other out, before deciding if they want to take things to the next level.

On this particular evening, the theme is 'economies looking for love' and after a series of exciting but ultimately unsatisfactory encounters, your protagonist finds himself sitting across from 'the circular economy', beautifully clad in tastefully sparkly upcycled materials from all over the world, but with intelligent eyes and a serious expression.

J: Hi, how's it going?

C: Good. But I'm a bit tired of this dating lark.

J: I know how you feel. I’ve just endured the new economy(a bit vague), the post-growth economy (a bit dreamy), the steady state economy(a bit stuck in her ways), the digital economy(a bit into itself), the green growth economy(bit of a split personality) and worst of all, the business-as-usual economy; he was clearly falling apart, and seemed particularly deluded, so I'm glad to finally meet you.

C: Gosh, well it sounds like you might be asking too much, and to be frank, after all those brief encounters I'm beginning to wonder if I know what it means to be a circular economy. I think of myself as a complex socio-technical-ecological-economic construction with many layers and dimensions, but all the others wanted to talk about were my curves - it's like they couldn't see past my circumference.

J: Well I'm not like that all. I’ve heard you have some impressive friends in business and government – my own Scottish Government no less, and Unilever, who seem serious about looking after the planet, so I've always assumed you were worth getting to know better. In fact, I have some Designer colleagues where I work who have built a major project called 'The Great Recovery' partly inspired by you.

It's a bit forward of me, I know, but can I put my cards on the table? I'm hoping you might even be the one.

C: (looks slightly embarassed, and more than a little uncomfortable, but not altogether terrified.)

J: I've heard, I mean... is it true that you somehow manage, miraculously, to excite leaders of the business community like McKinsey with the prospect of indefinite economic growth, while eliminating the very idea of waste, accelerating the transition to renewable energy, making better use of local resources and optimising well being throughout the world?

C: (Sips Lychee Martini) Well I wouldn't quite put it like that. There is only so much you can ask from an economic model, but it's true that some prominent people do speak of me as if I can save the world.

J: And can you?

C: Well I hope I can at least make it last a bit longer. If we had time I would show you a video that gives a good version of my story, but for now...(dips into designer bag, branded 'refabricate!' to search for something; fumbles through impressively old phone and keys made from disused pans, while continuing...).

It's definitely true that we can't go on like the business-as-usual 'linear' economy you just met. He (and I'm pretty sure it's a he...) is notorious for myopia, extracting finite resources from the earth as if that natural resource will always be there, turning them into stuff people don't particularly need without pricing the materials or the energy used to make them properly, and then chucking them away as if there was such a thing as 'away', and without capturing the full economic value of the materials.

J: (Makes pensive eye contact, struck by the passion and conviction).

C: (Pulls out two A3 sheets with diagram). In case you want to see what I'm all about, this is my birth chart according to my adoptive parents, The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, We start from the need for me, with an image of where we are without me in the picture:


(Image via Ellen Macarthur Website)

You see, our linear economy is basically 'take-make-dispose' unguided by any notion of purpose beyond a limited conception of economic 'growth', and makes economic decisions only really based on things that already have explicit market value, while carelessly if not criminally wasting resources people can use and make good lives and livings from.

It's not just that we waste a huge amount of social, cultural, ecological and economic value in the process, but people are becoming estranged from the physical worlds around them and being subtly deskilled as a result. It's not just that we are running out of stuff, it's that we are increasingly alienated from it. And we don't adequately distinguish between technical inputs and biological inputs which means that...

J: Hang on, that's already a lot. It's been a long night, but with my philosophical hat on it sounds like implicit in your critique of the current model is a deep rethinking of the idea of 'value' as something inherent in resources and materials, rather than merely revealed through current market price. Your very existence challenges our current conception of what an economy is, and overturns some of the 'laws' (does pretentious quote mark gesture and immediately regrets it) of economics in the process?

C: (Blushes) Well I had never really thought of myself as that radical, but yes, I suppose it's true that's I'm not like all the other economies you met tonight...(shows second image) Not least because unlike most of them I am not really that into 'buying and selling' - implicit in the current view is that things have single use and composite value rather than value that is manifest in multiple parts and multiple uses in multiple cycles; my economy features a lot more tearing down, upcycling, remanufacturing, and leasing.

Y'know (sighs) I would be a much saner and more efficient economy than the others, but maybe the world is not ready for me.


(Image via Ellen Macarthur Website)

J: (looks at clock) I have so many questions, but we're running out of time. Part of me thinks you are the real thing- an idea I can truly commit to, but I've been hurt before. I can't figure out whether you are still changing all the time, or if we could be settled and stable together...

C: Well...

J: And although the post-growth and steady state economies had their faults, I knew exactly where I was with them. They were much clearer about their ultimate ends (wellbeing, flourishing) while you seem to be mostly about means.

For instance they had their theory of absolute decoupling (less ecological impact for economic output over the global economy) sorted out and I believed them when they said their core aim was human wellbeing within planetary limits. You are really engaging, but I wonder if you have reconciled yourself to merely relative decoupling (less ecological impact per unit economic output, but more ecological impact when growth & population is factored in) and I can't figure out whose side you are ultimately on.

(looks at the clock, then straight in her eye) Is your heart with bottom-line realism, fashioning a circular economy to serve the interests of capital and big corporate power in a world of dwindling resources? Or are you really transformative - a model of economic value that is grounded in human values that are deeper and more meaningful than profit?

C: I'm a circle, Jonathan, you should know I don't take sides. And whoever gave away all their secrets at a speed dating event?

J: Can I see you again?

C: (Thinks, then smiles, and hands over circular business card from double-recycled material). Sure.

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