Approach

To integrate the different dimensions of transformation towards a circular economy, the project takes on a constructivist systems perspective (Checkland 1981). This perspective is inspired by systems thinking and its theoretical concepts. Yet, it does not understand socio-ecological systems as "real" phenomena (independent of cognitive and collective processes of knowing the world). Instead, it uses concepts of systems thinking (e.g. emergence, adaptation and self-organization) to aid interpretation of the collective perceptions of socio-ecological systems and their (perceived) dynamics and transformation. Hence, a "system" is an analytical concept to describe a phenomenon composed of different elements and the relationships between them (Becker 1998, p. 43).

 

In order to investigate the perceptions of the current system and its transformation, the project will specifically apply the Discursive Agency Approach (Leipold & Winkel 2016). This approach tackles the question of how a discourse (and related policies) is constituted through the agency ascribed to its proponents in dynamic discursive processes, and how actors acquire relevance through discursive means (see Figure 1). This analytical approach allows to represent and interpret the collective visions of the current economic system and its transformation towards a novel system defined by different features and actors.  

According to the constructivist systems perspective, Circulus works towards understanding a circular economy as an emerging system that can be reached through different transformation processes of the existing system, the linear economy. What the system looks like, what elements it is composed of and what processes of emergence, self-organization etc. take place will be defined by the perceptions of involved stakeholders and the scholarly analyses.

 

To provide specific "entry points" for the analysis, expressed in the distinct work packages, the project drew upon concepts used in "hard" systems thinking. It specifically took inspiration from the concept of leverage points to systems transformation (Meadows 2001). This theoretical concept suggests specific dimensions of systems that serve as potential leverage points for system-wide transformations. Guided by the theoretical elements of the Discursive Agency approach and a review of existing academic literature related to the circular economy, five of these leverage points have been selected as focus areas in Circulus (see Figure 2). These will be the focus of the two project parts and their distinct work packages.

 

Circulus will investigate how these different dimensions are perceived to influence the system and how they interact with each other. The empirical findings related to the specific role of these focus areas as elements of the emerging system and the interactions among them will serve as the basis to work towards a new conceptual framework of systems transformation that combines discursive and material change processes in society.