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A revised conceptualization of the circular economy

On the 16th of June 2021, CEIC lecturer Carla De Laurentis presented a paper on behalf of the CEIC team at the Circular Economy Transitions in Cities and Regions session organised as part of the Regions in Recovery E-FestivalThe presentation introduced work we conducted in the first few months of the Circular Economy Innovation Communities (CEIC) programme, which works with public and third sector organisations in the Cardiff and Swansea Bay city regions. In these early stages we have been concentrating on identifying the priority areas that CEIC should address to fulfil our aim of supporting public service delivery bodies to increase their engagement with the circular economy and innovation.  

Watch a recording of the session here.

Exploring a circular economy

As public sector organisations are confronted with both increasing demand and resource constraints, they become central to the resolution of many pressing and often ‘wicked’ social and environmental problems. In the presentation, we argue that public sector organisations have the potential to co-produce circular public service delivery in collaboration and participation with other public and third sector organisations, citizens and industry, enhancing innovation, supporting regional collaboration and introducing circular economy benefits that can also deliver societal wellbeing.  As significant purchasers of goods and services, public sector organisations can contribute to the circular economy transition by adopting circular procurement as standard and there are a number of good case studies in Wales, including the procurement processes developed by Public Health Wales to support their recent relocation and Natural Resources Wales and WRAP for the procurement of trees. Public sector organisations can also act as role models – being exemplars of good practice in their internal operations and day-to-day work processes and procedures.  For example, Natural Resources Wales’ Positive Carbon project demonstrates how they, and other public sector organisations, can reduce their carbon emissions through taking measures that include adoption of circular economy practices.   

The bigger picture

Less well explored, and our contribution to the conference, we argue that public sector engagement with the circular economy could also offer opportunities and potential to bring broader sustainability benefits, including social benefits to places and community.  We propose that public sector innovation could enhance our understanding of what a regional circular economy is and the opportunities it can bring. This is in addition to reduced resource use, increased productivity and economic development.  

carla presenting at rsa conference

Protecting Future Generations

Wales was one of the first countries to embrace social and economic wellbeing in its policy repertoire by establishing the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015); since 2015, the Act has placed a legal duty on the Welsh public sector and Welsh Government Ministers to deliver their work while considering the needs of future generations and planning for long-term well-being. The argument we make is that this legislative environment is also shaping the circular economy agenda and helping to re-focus the approach to collaborative working with people and communities to prevent persistent, wicked, problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change. Public service organisations often have priorities that are more closely aligned to one of the seven wellbeing goals (for example, Health Boards would most closely align with ‘A Healthy Wales’), but the importance of the integrated way of working is that this goal cannot be met at the expense of the others (including ‘A Prosperous Wales’ which has resource efficiency front and centre). This means that a circular lens needs to be applied to public service challenges in Wales that are not inherently resource problems, whilst other wellbeing lenses need to be applied to resource challenges.  

CEIC model

A revised definition

This is evident in the work we have conducted so far through the CEIC programme. One of the first tasks we embarked on as a delivery team was to conduct a review of the Public Service Board Wellbeing Plans and then engage with the organisations that would need to deliver them.  This allowed us to identify what the different challenges or themes related to the circular economy are that public sector organisations wish to resolve. The list of themes identified emerged from real challenges that public sector organisations are facing. As illustrated in our conceptual model, these are broadly grouped around: 

  1. Resource and energy efficiency measures
  2. Effective resource use
  3. Land and infrastructure as resources   
  4. Regional economic and social wellbeing  
  5. Health and wellbeing.  

Looking forward

In the conference presentation we suggested that an approach that seeks to adopt circularity in resource management – at city-regional level  can also improve the relationship between resources and the wellbeing of people. This can be achieved by taking a dual approach; not only looking at resource efficiency and resource use but also by building on local/economy wellbeing that supports the regeneration of places. This, in turn, supports the regeneration of places to enhance the community environment, which in turn improves local health and wellbeing.   

Keep up to date with our blog series as we continue to unpack these regional, circular themes. 

If you are interested in finding out more about these themes, and you are a public or third sector organisation that could benefit from participating in our programme, please complete an expression of interest here.