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Enabling Circular Innovation

If we are to successfully tackle major issues such as climate change, waste crises and biodiversity loss,  the linear economy has to change. We must transform all elements of the take-make-waste system: how we manage resources, how we make and use products, and what we do with the materials afterwards. 

The Circular Economy is a vital part of achieving this while creating a thriving economy that can benefit everyone within the limits of our planet. It also presents exciting business opportunities. 

It’s not enough to approach all this with the intention of doing ‘less bad’. If we want to avoid greenwashing and ensure our businesses are part of that future thriving economy, we have to aim higher.

At the same time, we have to balance high ambitions with realistic approaches. Most businesses can’t set aside all their processes and step out into the unknown – and don’t have to. Exciting change with manageable risk happens when we pair ambitious innovation with our existing business strengths.

Linear software is not circular 

Our businesses rely on software to manage, move and measure physical resources and products. Adopting circular approaches can affect procurement, stock & inventory management, supply chains, e-commerce, delivery and much more.

Our relationship with that software goes both ways. We control which software we use, how it is configured and deployed and often how it is developed and changed. However, the software also affects us. The tools we use affect the way we work and what our businesses are capable of at any point in time. This means that the wrong software or software wrongly applied is like a smoke machine in the fog. It makes things worse. Under these conditions, exploring circular opportunities becomes harder or even obscured completely. 

Across the linear economy our software is optimised to maximise the one-way flow of materials. When we want to make that flow more circular, we may find that the software is completely blocking the necessary innovation and learning.

Transforming the packaging used in a supermarket product, for example, requires a complete change to existing processes – and existing software is a barrier to that change. Scottish startup Reath is taking a different approach. Their platform puts reuse at the centre, which means that the software is the vehicle for transformation. Reath's approach also includes an Open Data Standard to help address the gap in business understanding and provide a foundation on which these new processes can be optimised – eventually reaching the same level of efficiency as the linear process, but with all the upsides of circularity.

The complex supply chains in manufacturing provide another example of linear software preventing the move to circularity. In this case, the process optimises the flow of physical materials above all else, and  many of the processes and software tools operate in a way that blocks circularity. Circularise is one of a new breed of businesses working to change this and completely transform supply chains using circular software. 

Circular software innovation is not just for startups, of course. Established in 1983, Unusual Rigging is the UK's most experienced provider of rigging and stage engineering solutions. Applying a circular mindset to the asset management of their large inventory of rigging equipment has improved their process and led to more efficient use of that equipment – and even created whole new revenue streams.

What does this mean for our businesses?

Making existing systems and processes circular is complex. Plus, from the point of view of streamlined businesses, it is a huge leap into the unknown. Many solutions do not yet exist, and there is a complete lack of data and experience to inform decisions.

While disconcerting, this uncertain environment also holds massive potential, both in terms of business opportunities and the chance to become truly sustainable. Finding those opportunities and taking action means stepping out of the day-to-day context, and not being limited by existing processes and tools. 

At the same time, creating the space and resources for innovative experiments that allow your business to learn may clear the fog faster than you think possible.

Fully formed circular solutions do not yet exist, but the pieces to build them do. One of the most powerful pieces of the puzzle is software that accelerates and multiplies your circular ambitions, rather than making things worse.

Picture of Barry O'Kane

About the author

Barry O'Kane

Barry is the founder of HappyPorch. With 20 years in the web development industry as a programmer and agency owner, he has a preternatural ability to decipher the systems and processes code that holds many teams back from achieving their goals. Partners say Barry gets to the root of issues quickly and makes it downright easy to deliver good work.    

While he's unbelievably grounded, it's not uncommon to find him sailing through the trees as he paraglides his way round the world.