Systems Thinking for a Circular Economy

by Seigo Robinson (presenting author)

University College London (UCL), United Kingdom


‘Systems Thinking’ is an approach to help understand complexity and identify system leverage points and is often recognised as being critical to delivering a Circular Economy (CE) – yet little research has been presented that integrates CE concepts, causes and effects within this holistic approach.

While the need for coordination is acknowledged for a full transition to a CE (WRF 2019), there is as yet a lack of framing to ensure consensus among stakeholders on the complex cause and effect relationships inherent in a CE transition.

In this study Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) are used to meet this gap. CLDs are a foundational tool used in system dynamics that have the distinct ability to identify and visually represent the key processes and root causes underlying a system, be they macro-level (e.g. nations, cities) or micro-level (e.g. companies), and importantly help to identify the leverage points.

This study uses literature review and expert interviews to build out the cause and effect ‘loops’ that combine to form a CE systems map. The emerging findings highlight some previously well recognised leverage points such as consumption and economic growth. However, other high leverage areas less often discussed arose, for example net additions to stock; roughly half the resources entering material use annually stays in the economy rather than flowing out (Haas et al., 2015), thus even a 100% recycling rate would see us far off the vision of a CE. Another is the innovation rate which can have benefits (e.g. material efficiency) and drawbacks (e.g. product lifespan).

In summary, CLDs are a concise tool to portray the complexity of systems visually, meaning that they are well-suited to co-ordinating consensus and action around CE, and may help to move the overriding rationale for decision-making from economic/business cases to CE systems cases.