The implications of complexity for managing transitions to the circular economy
The high degree of interconnectedness and interactions between all of the components involved in moving to the circular economy demands a shift from studying individual parts of the system (Kosen, 1991) to an approach which takes account of the interactions between them and looks at the behaviour of the system as a whole (Bastein et al., 2013; Patterson et al., 2017; de Jesus and Mendomja, 2018; Preiser et al., 2018). A number of contributions to the field of sustainability transition studies have embraced this notion by moving away from looking at single sectors in isolation (such as energy or transport) to analysing combinations of sectors and the interactions between them (Raven and Verbong, 2007; Konrad et al., 2008; Papachristos et al., 2013).
Another consequence of the interconnected, interdependent, and non-linear nature of the circular economy as a complex system is that a circular economy transition will not resemble a linear process or be brought about by small isolated changes. The transition to the circular economy is instead likely to be made up of multiple interdependent developments, and these themselves may interact with each other in unpredictable ways (Scoones et al., 2015: 21; Köhler et al., 2019). We should therefore not seek to manage the change to the circular economy with single policies but use combinations of policies that address these interdependencies and systemic behaviours instead (Kivimaa and Kern, 2016; Hughes and Ekins, 2018; Milios, 2018; Hartley et al., 2020).
A key consequence of the system we are seeking to transition to the circular economy being complex is that it is impossible to explain comprehensively and accurately, and both its behaviour and the effects of proposed solutions are therefore largely unpredictable. There is uncertainty in both our current understanding of the system as well as about its future possible states — for example, due to future changes in social demands (Ison, 2010) and the existence of multiple promising transition pathways (Geels and Schot, 2007; Rosenbloom, 2017). Those looking to manage transitions to the circular economy should anticipate uncertainty (Preiser et al., 2018) and embrace it by adopting an adaptive management approach (Patton, 2011) which recognises that our understanding, the system's behaviour, and appropriate interventions may change over the course of a transition (Köhler et al., 2019).
Within this adaptive management mindset, experiments may play a useful role in niche development and regime change (Hoogma et al., 2002; Jurgilevich et al., 2016; Matschoss and Repo, 2018). The governance of wicked problems in sustainable resource management may also benefit from the application of a set of guiding principles rather than “management by strict rules" (Endl, 2017). Indeed, complexity and uncertainty urge us to aim to steer change rather than seeking to control it; “the transition to a circular economy can be compared to trying to sail across the ocean to another continent" (European Environment Agency, 2017). The phrase
‘to govern' itself is thought to be derived from the Greek kybernan, meaning to pilot or steer (Levi-Faur, 2012).
Seeking to understand the system — and to update this understanding over time — is crucial. Transformations towards sustainability need to consider the dynamic behaviour of the system arising from its interacting parts and its propensity to change over time (Patterson et al., 2017). This calls for reflexivity in governance (Hendriks and Grin, 2007; Voß and Bornemann, 2011) and the continuous evaluation and adaptation of practice (Endl, 2017; Patterson et al., 2017). Evaluation can be described in lay terms as the science of finding out ‘what works.’ It may seek to establish of an intervention ‘did it work’ and ‘how well’ but also more formatively ‘what worked, how and why’ as a means to refine the intervention and inform future decision-making (Patton, 2008; Byrne, 2013). Evaluation is key to effective governance in general, but especially so to the governance of complex systems (Bicket et al., 2020), such as those involved in the transition to the circular economy. It plays a central role in learning and is critical to the success of interventions (Chelimsky, 2006): “understanding the key mechanisms shaping the design, production, use and end-of-life treatment of products in a linear economy is a prerequisite for identifying effective measures that can alter system dynamics and drive the shift to circular material use" (European Environment Agency, 2017). Despite being more important, evaluation is also made more challenging by the presence of complexity. For example, the complexity of the supply chain in the food processing sector has hindered the progress of understanding around important issues such as waste, reuse of resources, and greenhouse gas emissions (Genovese et al., 2017). How to conduct complexity-appropriate evaluation is a well-recognised challenge, and there is a growing base of literature and resources to support knowledge and capacity-building in this area (e.g., Patton, 2011; Bicket et al., 2020). Crucially, the monitoring and evaluation of complex systems and interventions towards the circular economy must take a systems perspective which is attuned to their context (European Environment Agency, 2017).
Another consequence of complexity is disagreement and controversy between actors involved in the transitions to the circular economy over the origin and understanding of problems and appropriate solutions (Ison, 2010; Köhler et al., 2019). Participatory approaches to governance and evaluation are key to help build a holistic and nuanced understanding of the complex system and its interacting elements (Hammond, 2005; Ison, 2018), which can help to reduce uncertainty about the system and identify promising ways forward (Patterson et al., 2017). The transition to the circular economy will require upskilling workers and communities, changes in cultures and traditions, and facilitating shifts in consumer preferences and behaviours; the engagement and participation of actors such as countries, communities, workers, and consumers is also key, therefore, to facilitate effective change and a just transition to the circular economy (de Jesus and Mendonca, 2018; Schroder, 2020).
In this section, we have explored what complexity means for how we manage change to a circular economy and how we seek to understand and influence the relevant social-technical and socioecological systems involved. The key points for those managing change towards the circular economy are to look at the system as a whole, anticipate uncertainty and use an adaptive approach to managing change, and aim to steer change rather than seeking to control it. Evaluation is a particularly important tool to help learn and gain an understanding of: the complex interactions between, and behaviour arising from, the many actors, components, and processes involved in the transition to the circular economy; how these may be changing over time; and whether and how policies and other governance strategies are helping to support the management of circular economy transitions. Last but not least, participatory approaches to both governance and evaluation are of key importance to help make sense of complexity.
decide between multiple ways forward, and ensure a just transition and facilitate change to a more circular economy.