Thanks to digitalisation, we have a huge set of tools at our disposal to optimise and streamline the use of resources and processes. The European Policy Centre’s Digital Roadmap for a Circular Economy initiative is paving the way to boost the synergies between circular economy and digitalisation.
Circular economy is where the world wants to go – but we just don’t know how to get there just yet.
“The transition from a linear to a circular economy, where resources and materials are restored and reused, would lead to enormous economic, social and environmental benefits,” notes Annika Hedberg, Senior Policy Analyst at European Policy Centre (EPC), a Brussels-based think tank.
“However, this requires more sustainable and effective usage of existing resources and improving production, consumption as well as waste management processes.”
Hedberg believes that digitalisation and new technologies could have a lot to offer for the benefit of circular economy. The EPC is set to tap into these opportunities: in late 2017, it launched an initiative known as the Digital Roadmap for a Circular Economy, aiming to explore the ways in which digitalisation can support the transition.
The mission is supported by a multi-stakeholder Task Force, which comprises organisations from different industries to regions and NGOs to academia from all over the EU. The members of the Task Force meet in workshops in which they review the linkages between circular economy and digitalisation, assess the opportunities brought about by digital technologies, analyse the possible challenges, and evaluate the needed measures to advance the agenda.
May the Task Force be circular
The goal of the initiative is to create a digital roadmap for action and present it to the European Commission next year. However, Hedberg deems the journey just as important as the destination.
“We want to bring together actors that wouldn’t necessarily ever come to meet otherwise,” she explains.
“We can already see that the links between digitalisation and circular economy are plentiful, and digitalisation can really help us, for example, in using resources more efficiently and increasing the durability of products. Using big data can help to optimise production and maintenance.”
Luke is contributing to the work from the perspective of circular bioeconomy. Senior Scientist Jussi Nikander says that the Task Force is an excellent forum for advancing the agenda on a European and international level.
“Digitalisation is a big part of everything we’re doing, not just at Luke but in general,” he notes.
Nikander hopes to see digital tools make processes in forestry and agriculture more efficient throughout the ecosystem. This would lead to better use of by-products, less waste, and optimisation of all consumption, thus cutting costs and decreasing the impact on the environment.
Nikander, like Hedberg, emphasises the importance of a shared framework.
“We’re at a crossroads where a lot of things meet,” Nikander explains. “Circular economy and digitalisation are spoken about everywhere, but the issue is that many actors look at them strictly from their own silos, without really being aware of or understanding each other’s perspectives.”
The technology and tools are already there, but the most vital part, in Nikander’s view, is missing: co-innovation and collaboration. When different systems lack integration, data isn’t utilised on the level it could – and should – be.
“For example, at a farm there might be digital systems for milking or feeding, but the systems don’t interact. We need to find a way to bring this data together and enrich it to unleash its full potential.”
Hedberg aligns with the thought.
“If we can share information and resources, we can build new networks and partnerships that benefit everyone, including the environment.”
As value chains tend to extend across borders, international co-operation is of essence. Hedberg points out that starting with the EU is a good start, but really what’s needed is collaboration on a global scale. This is also in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“The EU now has an opportunity to become a frontrunner in circular economy, and at the same time boost its own competitive edge.”
Setting up at road signs
Nikander believes the digital roadmap will help break barriers and allow for deepening co-operation. However, he emphasises that it is not the Task Force’s only aim.
“The goal is to affect decision-making on an EU-level and to give the union guidance as to how to target resources and which directions to take. Hopefully, this will help improve the situation throughout the union as well as globally.”
Hedberg is confident that the decision-makers on national as well as international level are willing to look into the opportunities. Creating sustainable value chains makes both economic and ecological sense.
“The discussion on the transition to a circular economy has gained attraction in the past few years. The level of ambition has risen, and circular economy now has a prominent role, including on the European Commission’s agenda.”
Text: Anne Salomäki