A Critical Look at RSA and TSB’s ‘New Designs for A Circular Economy’

In the UK social institutions maintain their legitimacy with claims that they are responding the environmental crisis with initiatives capable of transforming our economy into something that could exist in perpetuity. The single most important factor in the continued failure of the vast majority of initiatives is the dismal lack of ecological awareness demonstrated by those who put these projects into practice. A technologically advanced civilization that is not ecologically informed simply has no long-term prospects; it will not even understand the ways in which it is destroying itself. Businesses are keen to project the image that they are working towards a circular economy and dramatically lowering both pollution and quantitaties of natural resources needed in the industrial cycle. Are these flashy claims an honest representation of progress, or simply a new front for business as usual?

Re-thinking Progress: The Circular Economy by made2bemadeagain – The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

There are many examples how this lack of ecological literacy gets played out and how all these initiatives go wrong. I only have time to describe one so I will focus on the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and their latest effort called ‘The Great Recovery’ run in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board’s ‘New Designs for Circular Economy’. The RSA launched “The Great Recovery” in 2012 with the aim of ‘redesigning the future’. The project ambitiously aimed to move from a linear model of production with excessive waste (where a 98% of the resources that flow into the economy end up as waste within only six months) to an economy that reuses materials. If this worked, it would effectively reduce the demand for natural resources and reduce pollution. The project features some good on-line resources and is running some useful workshops for designers to learn about waste and supply chains. Unfortunately, the RSA is counting on a competition run by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) which is investing £1.25million in ‘New Designs for a Circular Economy’ for design projects re-thinking products, components and systems to ‘close the loop’.

I investigated this competition in some depth when I partnered with a colleague to consider submitting a proposal. What we discovered over a series of conversations and emails with the TSB was that they were interested only in the design of new products that would work in the current market place. Anything such as systems design, economic frameworks, regulation or communication strategies were not permitted by the scope of the competition guidelines. Project leader John Whittall was dismissive and even contemptuous of any attempt at a wider analysis of role of development frameworks. Whittal enthused about the supposedly ‘radical’ redesign of an existing product but it soon became apparent that the Technology Strategy Board is interested only in new products that will make a profit for investors.

Making one new supposedly sustainable product as an token example of design for a circular economy is meaningless – and ineffectual in terms of gross ecological damage. While one product might make an example of what could be possible if we were serious, it will remain an token exercise rather than a programme at building capacity to properly address the environmental crisis. Due to the limited scope the competition, the £1.25 million will not be used to design systems for a ‘circular economy’ so we can break out of habits that lock-in linear economics. Instead, the competition is simply another million pound investment in business as usual and the ecological destruction that accompanies this model of development.

Considering that the RSA is making the TSB’s ‘Circular Economy’ competition a central part of their strategy to making ‘The Great Recovery’ possible, it is unfortunate that such the TSB is so uninterested in investigating prospects for a circular economy that could address ecological problems. Meanwhile, the ‘The Great Recovery’ looks goods and the RSA will therefore continue legitimize a system that is responsible for almost unfathomable ecological destruction. The RSA is just one of many social institutions in this country entirely failing to address the environmental crisis on a realistic scale.

How is it that social institutions are failing so badly? Watching organizations waste perfectly good opportunities to make progress, I have noticed certain patterns that repeat themselves. I will try and simplify by describing three main ways organizations typically destroy the capacity of sustainability initiatives: 1) they put an ecologically ill-informed person in charge who will not prioritise environmental values if these are difficult; 2) they will make create short-term initiatives that end after a year or two; and 3) they put an ecologically informed but uncritically-minded, naïve, or inexperienced person in charge. Making significant sustainable change is always disruptive. There is no easy answer to any of environment problems especially as powerful vested interests are keen to continue business as usual.

The first and easiest way to make sure that sustainability initiatives do not rock the boat too much is to create an aspirational project – but put someone in charge of controlling the project who has only a vague notion of the challenges of sustainability. This person will inevitably find a means of running the project to reproduce the status quo. The problem stems from the fact that many of those making the decisions about hiring want to appear to be doing the right thing by the environment, but will not hire anyone who will challenge institutional norms. In practice, they would rather destroy the future prospects of their own children (never mind those in distance spaces who are already feeling impact ecological collapse) than hire someone who will actually push hard for significant transformative change.

The second way to destroy a sustainability initiative is to create a project that will last only a short time. This is what happens when we treat sustainability as a project rather than an on-going set of new transformative practices and accompanying social institutions. Environmental problems are here to stay. None of them will be solved in a few months or even in a year or two. We need to build the social institutions that will enable cultural transformation to sustainable ways of living.

The RSA with it’s bitty little projects ‘Carbon Unlimited’ (link no longer functional; I suppose we solved this problem!?!); ‘Arts and Ecology’ (also finished) and now ‘The Great Recovery’ – are here today, gone tomorrow – wasting the work of developing these programmes in the first place. Failure to allocate a budget to sustain activities over time is part of the problem. The RSA treats sustainability as a kind of intellectual idea to play with just long enough to help create the impression that elites in this country are not actually complicit with the ecological meltdown of the planet.

The third way social institutions fail to address sustainability initiatives is by hiring someone who is a committed environmentalist, but with no practical or theoretical experience in the relevant field. This is yet another way to make sure no one will rock the boat. Typically, someone new to a field will be impressionable until they learn the complexities of change-making in a particular field.

Ultimately, most social institutions simply do not seem to be either flexible enough or interested in responding to the environmental crisis in a serious way and the real push for radical change is coming from social movements using an astonishingly wide variety of tactics and strategies.

4 thoughts on “A Critical Look at RSA and TSB’s ‘New Designs for A Circular Economy’

  1. Spot on with the critique of institutional (and not even conscious, a lot of the time) ‘greenwash’. Everyone wants a shiny new thing to crow about. Long-term upkeep and funding? Not so much. Something that goes against the grain of growth? Not so much… Are you aware of steadystatemanchester.net ? Would be interested in your thoughts…

  2. Am I alone in thinking that the notion of the ‘circular economy’ is vacuous? It fails to address the fundamental question of emissions reduction from energy use. Making some wastes into feedstock and increasing the recyclability of products will at best lead to only relative GCG reductions – and while the economy continues to expand (well if the main parties get their way), the overall level continues to climb.
    But a search for “critique of the circular economy” yields little – this was one result and we’ve already connected. So my concern is that the fashion and hype continues with almost no sensible critique from the perspective of ecological economics.

  3. hi Mark, Thanks for the comment. I think the concept of circular economy could have value but yes at the moment it is certainly working as a distraction and even as a means to greenwash continuing unsustainable development. Climate change is only one of many ecological problems and issues of resource scarcity will increasingly be problematic. Thus it does seem to me that a circular economy is still a good idea (within a different economic model where carbon emissions are dramatically reduced).

    I think this circular economy hype is doing some good in introducing some basic ecological concepts to designers and business people. The next step must be to consider the development models that have kept the circular economy from working over the past nearly 50 years. I suppose I am saying that I think we should try to reclaim the concept rather than reject it entirely. Check out James Greysons’ recent blog: ‘We are just three steps away from a circular economy’ http://www.edie.net/library/view_article.asp?id=6324&src=tw

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