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The Circular Economy and a new education paradigm

September 22, 2020

There was a time when resources must have seemed infinite. We took what we needed from the earth, made the things we wanted to, and then consigned them to waste when they were no longer useful. There was always more, and so our way of doing things evolved to fit this linear model.

This has created a mindset that has infiltrated the way we do things at every level. Products are designed to become obsolete while they are still functional, and any progress that is made in efficiency is generally made by companies acting alone to gain competitive advantage. Sharing that knowledge means losing ground.

Money is still the dominant denominator of what "value" means, and the value of a product itself is determined by what people will pay for it. Sound familiar?


This is the linear economic model. The trouble is, that resources, as we now know, are certainly not infinite, and the cost of doing business this way is bringing our planet to the brink of catastrophe. With phrases like "zero waste" now universally familiar, there is a growing impulse towards minimizing the consequences of the linear economic model. But zero waste is simply circular thinking in a linear model. Zero waste is essential, but it is only an innovation in the existing model. This does not go far enough. This will not turn things around. For true change to happen, the whole model has to shift. A true circular economy is a fundamental transformation in our attitudes towards resources, value creation, and the definition of "progress". The circular economy; what is it, and why is it important?

The circular economy is disruption on a grand scale. It is a rethink of the way we do everything on a global level. Instead of taking more than nature can sustainably provide, we do more with what the planet can naturally give us. We design products to stay in use and to be shared by consumers. Products will not have planned obsolescence but will have extendable life cycles designed into their production. Know-how, risks and benefits will be shared along the supply chain, and the value created will be societal and environmental as much as it is financial.

Can we even imagine this world? If we are to survive on this planet, this is the world we must create, yet so much of it goes against the grain of how we are taught. Bold and disruptive businesses are already going circular in increasing numbers, and there are some excellent example cases here from the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

But on a grander scale, why do shareholder value and competitive advantage; remain at the heart of the current system? Does education actually prepare us for the Circular Economy to become the dominant model? From business to manufacturing, technology to design; can we really change how things are done?

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The push for Sustainable Education Development

UNESCO has been pushing at this for years and we can see the UN's Sustainable Development Goals filtering through so many of the developed world's national school curricula.

Finland, for example, has "building a sustainable future" as one of its seven core objectives in a completely redesigned approach to education that has a circular, participative mindset right from the first day of class.

Other nations are well on their way to this in varying degrees, using external partnerships to fill gaps in their approach until a fundamental rethink can be phased in. For example Organisations like Highland One World in Scotland, work alongside schools to embed global citizenship into their existing curricula. What we are really looking at here is a whole new pedagogy, where learners develop skills and competencies to work together, collaborate, act responsibly and ethically, think critically and make value judgments with sustainable outcomes. This can be done in an embedded way, such as in the Finnish model, or in partnership with external organisations, such as Scotland is currently doing. The path to sustainable development and a circular economy is complex, and education at primary and secondary levels is unarguably gearing up to prepare the next generation to be equal to the challenge.

But what about Higher Education? Does it continue the work from primary and secondary levels, to hone these new skills and competences as future generations finally enter this new world?

The circular economy and a new Higher Education paradigm There is a lot of "sustainababble" and greenwashing among universities, but beyond the noise there is some actual progress. At an institutional level, universities are generally carrying on some of the good work of secondary schools, in the way they embed teamwork, collaboration and critical thinking into curricula.

However, saying and doing are not the same thing, so how much of this actually makes its way into the classroom?

A study published by Science Direct found that (a) there still isn't much focus on helping teachers and lecturers understand the circular economy and (b) The Circular Economy is rarely discussed explicitly in Higher Education, aside from programmes that are actually dealing directly with sustainability, such as the world's first MBA in Innovation, Enterprise and Circular Economy at the University of Bradford, and Arden University. Much in the same way that organisations like Highland One World are working with school teachers, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation is helping Higher Education institutions to bring CE into the classroom, but it's far from easy. If we want to shift mindsets, we need to talk sustainability in informal learning as well.

The hidden curriculum

The Hidden curriculum is the unwritten experiences, values and perspectives that a student is exposed to during their studies. This is the core of organisational culture, and is the beating heart of where change actually happens.

You can discuss the circular economy in class for four straight years, but you are also being exposed at the same time to a culture which helps you to shape attitudes and behaviours, and a sense of what is acceptable, unacceptable; right and wrong.

If the formal curriculum and the hidden curriculum are misaligned, this will send conflicting messages. If our Universities are teaching and praising sustainable initiatives whilst engaging in activity that contradicts it, we can't expect students to truly internalize the formal lesson. Institutions must practice what they preach.

An MDPI report looks at ways to help students and teachers behave in a more environmentally responsible way through a hidden curriculum approach, but there is more to the Circular Economy than minimising our carbon footprint. This is Eco-efficiency, or perhaps even eco-effectiveness, which is still a huge step away from actually tackling the mindset that prevents us from designing our products and services, sectors and economies to be circular.

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Higher Education has work to do

There is no escaping the fact that Education for Sustainable Development has reached maturity in primary and secondary schools, with comprehensive studies available in how best to truly embed the principles into a curriculum.

In Higher Education, there is no model, no set approach. We have already seen that there is not much focus on helping teachers understand the Circular Economy, and that while the soft skills a Circular Economy will need are being supportively developed at universities, there is little embedding of the concepts themselves in core curricula.

The hidden curriculum is largely left unexplored as a tool for change, and a scattergun approach to sustainability often focuses on the ecological aspects of waste reduction, and misses the wider systemic disruptions.

In short, it is left to individual institutions to innovate and push forward. In Part II of this article, we will take a look at some of these cases, and ask what more universities can do to support a new generation of circular thinkers and sustainable innovators.

At NEO Academy, we are passionate about education, and supporting institutions to meet the challenges of a changing environment.

We specialize in supporting our partners to optimize and streamline their engagement with prospective and current students, through our range of bespoke services and packages. To find out more about how we can help, just get in touch here.

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