You've probably noticed circular economy platforms springing up everywhere over the last few years. You are reading this article on the Australian Circular Economy Hub after all! But have you ever stopped to think about what all these different platforms do? In Australia, digital hubs like ours are leading the circular economy transition by providing a space for people to come together to learn, get inspired, collaborate and innovate.
Now, physical hubs are also beginning to emerge as part of a push to shift the circular economy from idea to action. Examples include the World’s Biggest Garage Sale circular economy precinct in Brisbane, NSW Circular's Citizen's Taskforce and the Victorian Circular Activator, a pilot project launching at this month’s Melbourne Knowledge Week.
We unpack the importance of getting together in real life to develop circular solutions and talk to the people making it happen Australia.
The role of hubs
In a nutshell, the role of hubs is to foster the collaboration needed to transform our economic model from a straight line to a circle. The circular economy is a universal framework that is used to develop incredibly specific local solutions. Hubs prevent people from getting stuck in silos, ensuring knowledge is shared so innovation can thrive and repetition can be avoided.
"Clusters help with changing mindsets, developing new competences, rethinking business models, supplying living labs and defining new customers and green investors. No other mechanism is more efficient in handling the complex challenges we are facing," a recent study on the impact of hubs states.
The study was carried out by Cluster Excellence Denmark and found that circular economy hubs, or what they call clusters, perform five key functions: build bridges, put policy into action, provide access to funding, drive Sustainable Development Goals and support circular public procurement.
A project as far-reaching and complex as transforming the global economy calls for more than one type of hub. An article by Oxford Urbanists, a think tank coming out of Oxford University, identifies the following hub formats:
Hubs that focus on industry and community outreach by showcasing technologies.
Hubs for business networking and knowledge sharing with a focus on sharing resources and facilitating collaboration.
Hubs for physical making or workspaces that provide equipment for testing concepts.
Hubs for pilot projects to be developed that have production capacities.
The first two hubs are more likely to be digital projects while the last two need to exist in a physical space. What ties all hubs together is a commitment to bringing circular economy concepts to life, whether by facilitating networking opportunities or providing technology to develop products. As the article notes:
"While the increasing interest in circular economy thinking is promising, there is always the risk of it just becoming another "buzz word". The implementation of circular economy hubs provides a potential approach to ensure that the circular economy narrative is matched by action."
Setting up physical hubs in Australia
Australia is already home to its own circular economy precinct. Located in the Brisbane suburb of Morningside and run by the World's Biggest Garage Sale, the precinct has repaired, repurposed and rehomed millions of used goods to date. In addition to diverting massive quantities of waste from landfill, this project gives individuals a chance to actively participate in the circular economy.
"We're not a hub of theory we're a precinct of practicality," explains WBGS CEO and co-founder Yasmin Grigaliunas. "98 per cent of the materials that flow through our precinct are diverted from landfill."
In the past year, the precinct has grown from six to nearly 30 staff members all employed in circular economy roles. "We're in the business of building people and people build our business," says Yasmin. "You can't do the business we do without humans."
"I would absolutely be encouraging and advocating for spaces if for nothing else than the statistics and data that we have been able to capture over the last 12 months, particularly in a very challenging year globally," she adds. "It's a testament to the need for community connection, collaboration and the absolute requirement for a destination, not just in existing cities, but in regions and locations across the entire country and world."
"We all have a piece of the puzzle to bring to the beautiful picture of circular economy."
NSW Circular is also encouraging grassroots participation in the circular economy through its Citizen's Taskforce. One of the taskforce's goals is setting up community hubs for circular economy action.
"Australians are looking for more ways to recycle and get more value out of preloved items, so their participation in the circular economy is critical," NSW CEO Lisa McLean explains.
"The NSW Circular Citizen's Taskforce is bringing the circular economy closer to the community by understanding what is needed to get people to recycle and repair more, but it is also ensuring we have space in the community through circular Community Hubs to drive trillion-dollar circular economy services and give people more value for things they are currently throwing away."
Another piece of the circular economy puzzle is a project the ACE Hub is currently working on in Melbourne. We are part of a cohort running a three-month pilot project on a physical circular economy hub. Called the Victorian Circular Activator (VCA), the pilot is launching as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week on April 28. On the day Planet Ark’s head of research, Dr Sean O’Malley, will join a panel of speakers to launch the project and discuss the importance of setting up physical spaces in Australia.
If it is successfully established, the VCA would provide social and technical infrastructure for projects to be developed, tested and commercialised.
"Innovation is a funny thing. You can have all of the components necessary in the right place at the right time and you are still not guaranteed a result. There are, however, ways to increase the probability of innovations to emerge. These are things like diversity, access to information, open collaboration opportunities, environments to test ideas through trial and error, etcetera. This is why we have seen the vast majority of innovations come out of places where these kinds of practices are celebrated," says Sean Trewick, CEO of Circular Economy Victoria (CEV), the group leading the pilot.
Alongside the VCA launch, CEV is also hosting a circular economy exhibition as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week. This event will showcase circular products, giving attendees a chance to experience circularity up close and get an idea of the impact circular products have on everyday life.
Those who are keen to get 'under the hood' of circular products can also attend an online discussion about the role of data and technology in the circular economy organised by Sustainability Victoria's Circular Economy Business Innovation Centre (CEBIC).
"At Melbourne Knowledge Week, there is something for everyone when it comes to exploring the circular economy. There are online events that offer the opportunity to learn more from home and in-person events that provide the space for networking and collaboration, bringing people together to coordinate and take action," says Sustainability Victoria's CEBIC team.
The physical circular economy hubs taking shape in Australia are exciting. They show us that circular economy is indeed much more than just a buzzword. As more and more hubs emerge, it is important that digital and physical projects work together to support one another and galvanise action.
"Innovation hubs can be as large as regions — Silicon Valley — or as small as a community group meeting at a local library. The higher the potential of chance encounters, the higher the potential of new innovations. It is therefore important that we ensure that these foundational elements of innovation ecosystems are in place,” Sean Trewick says. "This will require a combination of physical and digital spaces/capabilities. We have seen strong leadership on the digital side, but the physical elements are still largely missing, or if present very focused on niche innovations, instead of promoting systems change through a multi-level perspective."
In the 'innovation ecosystem', as in any ecosystem, all members of the community must work together so that life can thrive.