Our society is awash with theories, models, technical solutions, demonstration projects and grant schemes, all aimed at generating innovation, growth and development. Amidst all these good intentions, we often forget that it is people who generate change. In the Central Denmark Region, we are working towards a transition to a circular economy. Moreover, before starting the “Rethink Business” development project, we chose to integrate human motivation in our way of working.

The Central Denmark Region ("Region Midtjylland") is working in a partnership with the common task to promote regional development. Our partners are business organizations, municipalities, research and educational institutions, and our common strategy is to turn societal challenges into new business opportunities and sustainable development. "Rethink Business" was developed in this partnership and funded by EU structural funds and public regional funding.

Today our dominant mode of production, the linear economy, poses serious challenges in all sections of society. Flooding, air pollution and scarcity of drinking water are some of the most obvious. The symptoms are many, and involve a whole set of interrelated challenges or as they are sometimes called --"wicked problems”.

“A wicked problem is more complex…there is no clear relationship between cause and effect…we often end up having to admit, that we cannot solve Wicked Problems…Wicked problems require transfer of authority from individual to collective because only collective engagement can hope to address the problem.” - Keith Grint: Wicked Problems and Clumsy Solutions. BAMM Publications 2008.

The idea behind Rethink Business is to support businesses and people in the transition to a circular economy. This support involves consultancy and close collaboration with businesses in order to develop and implement new circular business models. Our efforts also include collaboration with municipalities in order to promote public demand for circular products and develop circular strategies and procedures in the public sector.

Stepping Stones Instead of Models

Rethink Business is designed to strengthen the supply of and demand for circular products and solutions. In practice, it is of course impossible to make a sharp distinction between the two approaches, but we have chosen to work simultaneously with both supply and demand, in order to boost development. Along the way, we have seen that the boundaries between producer and consumer are blurring, while co-creation and interdependence are growing.

The novelty of the field dictates the explorative approach to our work, without one coherent model or set objectives. Instead, we have taken a set of “stepping stones” consisting of various theories and experiences as our starting point towards achieving circular economy. This has made it particularly important to follow the project closely, learning as we go, and to be ready to act on what we learn.

We can use this approach to activate the human capacity for change. It is all about initiating movement by involving and connecting people in a common vision. We have named our movement, ”The Circular Revolution”, with the common vision to create the region without waste. The Central Denmark Region has chosen to take a leadership role in circular economy, and we have funded a communication platform, RethinkBusiness.dk, where participants are visible to each other.

Through our preliminary work, we have learnt that many companies are tired of models and are looking for a more personal approach and thus we use the expression “We need a hand, not a handbook” - an underlying concept of the stepping stone approach. This means that we cannot use standard tools, such as handbooks and models, for business development. Instead, we need to work closely on every business project, and to customise processes together with individual business leaders and the other people involved in the project.

A team of consultants, funded by the project, provides workshops, counselling, contacts – and whatever else is needed. 35 companies have been involved in Rethink Business, and so far, 20 of them have developed new circular business models.

Cradle-to-cradle is the thinking behind the business models we set out to create. Together, companies and consultants look at the possibility of designing products for recycling, of reducing the use of chemicals and resources, and of making it easier to repair and disassemble products. Further, we are working with recycling systems and leasing, where the company maintains control over or ownership of its raw materials.

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Additionally we have boosted public sector demands for new solutions through a grant pool, funded by the region. The grant pool supports the municipalities’ circular economy work through procurement, operation, development strategies or exercise of authority. Five municipalities have received grants for projects involving workwear, building materials, pumps and physical and virtual marketplaces. The region has supported up to 50% of projects, and the municipalities have invested just as much, both in terms of funding and commitment.

However, circular economy is not just about supply or demand, public or private innovation, but rather a complex set of interactions between all the above. Our society is built up around the linear economical model, and our systems are implemented accordingly, e.g. the education system, the trade promotion system and the waste management system. Production is tied up in linear, global value chains, public procedures, laws and other processes that are adapted to this form of production. Therefore, in order to move from linear to circular economy, the last stepping stone is “whole system innovation”.

The Circular Way of Thinking Spreads

From the work with the Rethink Business project we have seen that a circular economy gets all kinds of people involved, managers and students, entrepreneurs and civil servants, teachers and consultants. We have also learned that working with the “movement” approach and customised solutions energises participants/stakeholders.

The Rethink Business project has triggered new forms of collaboration and relationships--customers and suppliers have developed together, students have worked with municipalities and companies, and the public and private sectors have collaborated on circular solutions. In addition, the principle of giving a hand instead of a handbook has renewed the relationship between consultants and businesses.

Working with the movement approach has not been without its problems. It is a good way of securing commitment and motivation, but it can prove challenging when it comes to management, the division of labour and common direction. We have learnt that personal meetings and conversations are invaluable tools when we work with relationships and human motivation. We have had many good discussions to clarify important issues, e.g. what is a circular economic business model? What is the role of private and public waste management companies? How can a municipality be circular?

We have also learnt that what impels people is diverse and unpredictable. Most people can subscribe to the project’s goal of generating business and solving environmental challenges. Yet, in the same project people follow other objectives such as developing society, supporting the education of young people, engaging other people, generating joy and much more besides. This prompts us to reflect on how we can motivate people to become involved in the transition to circular economy. We cannot simply assume that business leaders are motivated by the bottom line, that students are motivated by good grades, or that municipal employees are motivated by service goals and local development.

We have seen that circular thinking has spread during the course of the “Rethink Business” project. Neither municipalities nor companies have stopped at their original idea; they are going beyond and develop more comprehensive business models, strategies and objectives. More companies and municipalities are joining; suppliers, customers and students are becoming involved. And we are seeing a great deal of interest from government agencies and international organisations, to the press and local residents. We can say with conviction, that a movement has started.

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