Knowledge architecture for a circular economy

How frameworks help us organise our widening knowledge toward action in the circular economy

Circle Economy
5 min readOct 12, 2020

Co-authored by Marijana Novak, Ana Sutherland, Laxmi Haigh and Melanie Wijnands at Circle Economy

Humankind faces its largest coordination problem yet: with the global population expected to rise to 10 billion by 2050, how can we fulfil societal needs and look after the health of our planet? It’s becoming increasingly clear that our current, well-trodden path will not take us toward our goal. In locating avenues for change and building the maps and routes to get us there, knowledge management and sharing is crucial. Within this, conceptual frameworks have proven to be essential tools.

The Sustainable Development Goals, for example, are a blueprint to guide us toward a sustainable future, and Doughnut Economics, based on the Planetary Boundaries framework, helps us envision a socially just space within healthy planetary boundaries. These frameworks can create a common understanding of our shared goals. They structure information and ideas, which in turn supports coordination efforts. This helps guide all the relevant actors, using a shared language. And with challenges becoming more complex, these frameworks are needed more than ever.

The Doughnut Economics, Sustainable Development Goals and Planetary Boundaries frameworks help align goals and create shared languages.

A shared language for the circular economy

We believe a circular economy, which keeps materials in use for longer, designs out waste and regenerates ecosystems, is a key piece to the sustainable development puzzle. The circular transition invites the involvement of everyone: from citizens and businesses to governments and research organisations. Yet to support the coordination of activities within the transition, frameworks are a necessary tool to establish a shared language and goals.

These frameworks need to be useful and usable for the range of actors mentioned above. Fortunately, we already see many frameworks cropping up to enhance understanding in different contexts. In this way, frameworks allow us to see the concept through varied lenses and there is value in such diverse perspectives that structure similar information for a variety of audiences. An alternative viewpoint can also spur valuable discourse, ultimately supporting a clearer shared understanding.

As the uptake of circularity increases, accessible yet meaningful “starter” frameworks serve to educate, spark conversation and to help structure workshops. For example, Ellen MacArthur’s Butterfly Diagram is commonly used to illustrate the separation of technical and organic flows in a circular economy, whilst Circle Economy’s Seven key elements framework outlines core and enabling strategies for circularity. The 10R Framework, a model extended from the Reduce Reuse Recycle mantra, orders the means of handling materials and products by “efficiency”, whilst Bocken’s more recent Flow Strategies framework provides four accessible and elegant options for handling material flows in a circular manner: Slow, Narrow, Regenerate, Cycle.

‘Starter’ frameworks help introduce new audiences to the circular economy. Left to right: the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Butterfly Diagram, Circle Economy’s 7 key elements of the circular economy, Bocken’s Flow Strategies framework

More specific frameworks are also important for circular changemakers as knowledge of circularity deepens. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Procurement Framework, for example, is specifically designed to aid decision-making regarding procurement, whilst Open Ideo’s Design Kit offers a broad range of design thinkers’ tools for putting together a circular project or product. Sector specific research — such as these Circular Strategies for Manufacturing — are emerging as well, which can serve industry in selecting and operationalising circular opportunities.

The growing digitalisation of circular knowledge

As global appetite for circularity grows, efforts to translate circular knowledge, frameworks and data into digital tools can increase access for a wider audience. This can aid analysis, decision making and progress monitoring. We see the volume of such tools and databases for circularity growing — yay! — but hang on…

Although digital tools are heralded for their ease of knowledge dissemination and wide accessibility, we have yet to ensure that the frameworks that underpin the tool are truly applicable across different contexts. If we build a tool supplying interventions at the national level, for example, those interventions are similar, but not necessarily the same, to interventions at the local level — and definitely not necessarily at the local level in another country. It may sound obvious, but if the digital tools are going to realise their full potential, then we need a common understanding of what those frameworks represent, even in different languages!

Frameworks are also useful tools to organise case studies of the circular economy in digital catalogues. Such on-the-ground examples of the circular economy in practice can be extremely useful to provide inspiration to innovators. However, finding the right categorisations for frameworks that support every user’s way of thinking is tricky and should be an ongoing exercise that utilises discussion with users. This is especially true considering the various circular economy taxonomies where newcomers have to learn the “jargon” of circularity to successfully navigate such catalogues.

Annotating a case to multiple frameworks through “background harmonisation” of manually matched frameworks and automated classifications can mitigate this issue, as well as the use of open tagging by readers — which should be encouraged! Using context specific language is preferable, so long as we can work in the background to harmonise frameworks, thereby enabling comparability and representative information sharing.

Circle Economy’s knowledge contribution

Within the vast landscape and application of frameworks for circularity, Circle Economy has also been busy. Now, we want to share with you some of the frameworks that we use to guide our own research and project work. Perhaps you may find them useful in your own work as circular changemakers, or could contribute to the discourse of evolving such frameworks. We also invite you to share the framework that you’ve used or developed in the past with us.

From now until December, we will release information about the frameworks that we use every few weeks. We’ll detail what problem each framework helps solve, how it was developed and where it is used in practice.

Expect to gain an insight into frameworks that detail circular opportunities and policy interventions for cities, but also material flow frameworks, as well as a deep dive into our key elements framework and its many interventions for businesses. In our final publication, we’ll share how it all fits together.

We hope to inspire educators, technological innovators, policymakers and everyone in between to read, use and add to our catalogue-in-progress!

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