‘Squaring up for a Circular Economy’ – at the 2019 Global Festival of Action (6th SITE4Society event)

Have you ever heard about the Butterfly Effect?

This term was first coined by Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory. He used a metaphorical example of a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan and causing a typhoon in the USA to explain the scientific theory that a single occurrence, no matter how small, can change the course of the universe forever.

The SDG Global Festival of Action took place for one more year in Bonn, to convert Lorenz’s theory into reality. Over a thousand participants affirmed with their presence this goal. From projects fighting child marriage in Bangladesh and campaigns against sexual abuse of women in Lebanon, to the SDG-aligned Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo and the “City of the Future” project in Dresden, all interactions had a common link; to scale-up the impact and join forces to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The… ‘Circular Butterfly’

The Circular Economy (CE) is all about restoration and regeneration by design, whereby products are optimised and cared for as long as possible, while the extraction of natural resources and generation of waste are minimised as far as possible. But how can we possibly achieve this at the global scale? Three speakers walked us through the main avenues to the CE.

First, Ms. Maria Tomai introduced the state-of-the-art on how to transition from our linear economic model to a more circular approach, as well as the many interconnections between the CE and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Then, Prof. Hiroshan Hettiarachchi, a researcher at UNU-FLORES, stressed the institutional barriers to sustainable practices, while highlighting the need for individuals to take responsibility. To this effect, Dr. Sanae Okamoto, a researcher at UNU-MERIT, guided participants through a solution-design approach: i.e. how to ‘nudge’ human behaviour according to context.

We then handed over to members of the audience, pitching their way a number of questions and tasks. For example, what nudge strategies can a restaurant use to minimise food waste from customers? How can a teacher raise awareness about waste segregation in school, among both students and colleagues? And how can a municipality nudge households to increase the separation of waste?

Working in groups, participants had to identify the barriers to change for various actors and then co-design ‘nudge’ ideas to overcome them. Throughout this role-play, the goal was to identify how people make decisions when faced with complex choices and processes and, where possible, spell out alternative solutions and even new ways of thinking. Ultimately, these included different visualisation techniques (e.g. projection of non-biodegradable materials after some years, to be placed on waste bins), integration processes (e.g. engaging students by including them in the design of recycling projects), and changes in the context of decision-making (e.g. restaurants offer different sizes of plates).

A ‘typhoon’ of change

At present the world economy is less than 10% ‘circular’, according to the first Circularity Gap Report, released in January 2018. This leaves us with a huge gap to close, but also a strong base from which to cut a new path – indeed cross-cut through various SDGs. Whether we’re trying to reduce food waste (SDG 12.3), marine pollution (SDG 14.1), or sloppy urban waste management (SDG 11.6), the golden link, the silver thread, is the CE. And crucially, it’s not just about resource efficiency, but also about competitiveness and innovation. In the long run, it should pay for itself.

But how can these words be translated into a real change? The answers came from the 80+ participants who took part in our workshop. They truly ‘rode the butterfly’ and multiplied the chances for a positive, transformative change. Youth activists, civil society reps and public officials from across the globe shared their views, co-designed nudge solutions and inspired each other to explore and expand the CE. This was also true for us as researchers at the United Nations University, as the many two-way exchanges shaped new ideas – and forged new networks – en route to the 2030 Agenda.