Tech and the Circular Economy – enabler or blocker?

I passionately believe that sustainability and technology are intimately linked. If we are to progress to a society in which the earth’s resources are used sustainably then the creative use of technologies that enable us to measure and manage our impact on the environment becomes one of the great challenges of our time. However, what should the biggest enabler for the Circular Economy may soon prove to be its biggest stumbling block.

what should the biggest enabler for the Circular Economy may soon prove to be its biggest stumbling block

In a 2015 post, I worried that the transformative power of developments in the fields of “Big Data” and the Internet of Things have still yet to be recognised for their potential to enable real progress toward a sustainable world and so I was thrilled to see that the 2015 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report “Intelligent Assets: Unlocking the Circular Economy Potential” showed so clearly how the drivers for a Circular Economy and the drivers for Intelligent Assets are so intimately linked.

Clearly, making the Circular Economy a reality will depend upon new technologies capable of monitoring and managing material flows but the great leap forward in asset utilisation rates as well as material flows optimisation will require radical changes in the way that data is accessed and shared.

The IoT – so much more than Smart Fridges

The compelling vison of the internet of things is a world inhabited by smart devices that interact with the world around them. It’s a world in which our machines and built environment will constantly monitor their environment and their own efficiency, alerting us when they detect something that needs attention. This is not the stuff of science fiction the IIoT – Industrial Internet of Things – is growing very rapidly. Connected Agriculture and Smart Grid technologies are already having an impact and the use of “smart assets” in the built environment is enabling us to extend the life of assets in the field through real time asset intelligence.

However, the further growth of both the IoT and of the Circular Economy are dependent upon resolving one of the biggest issues facing the tech world – Data Siloes.

Data, data everywhere…

Talk to people in most organisations and it soon becomes clear that the data that they need in order to make decisions is often already gathered by the business but is simply inaccessible.

In asset management for example, you will often find that the maintenance team will be using a system to schedule and record their work on an asset. Meanwhile, the finance department maintains separate records on the same asset’s value and operations may well also gather data about the asset’s utilisation. For any organisation to manage their asset efficiently, decisions need to be made that draw on all of these data sets but it is very rare that anyone has access to all of this data or even to be aware that it exists. This data is locked away from decision makers in functional applications, ERP systems or – more often – on an Excel spreadsheet on a manager’s desktop. This is what the IT world refers to as Data Siloes and breaking open these silos to unleash the potential of this data is one of the key challenges facing any CIO.

So, if individual organisations struggle to breakdown data siloes within their own four walls then the scale of the challenge that faces managing assets in a Circular Economy is clearly vast.

The Trinity – Location, Condition, Availability

As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s paper brilliantly points out, Intelligent Assets will be able to tell the world about their location, condition and availability and these are the three key pieces of information that would be needed to manage them throughout their life cycle.

This data would enable owners and users to extend the asset’s working life through predictive maintenance or they could maximise its utilisation by sharing the resource with other users. Secondary use cycles could be managed efficiently if those responsible for refurbishing the assets or reusing its components had visibility of their condition and when they might be able to access them. Certainly, this information generated by the assets themselves would be vital for the growth of a reverse logistics sector.

Disruptive business models upon which the Circular Economy will be built such as Hardware-as-a-Service would only work if the distributor can access data on location, condition and availability so that they can make commercial decisions on individual assets and manufacturers would find the data invaluable when designing for circularity.

However, all this would require stakeholders at every stage in the asset’s lifecycle to be able to access this data and this is where the progress of the Circular Economy comes head-to-head with some of the biggest issues in society and technology.

For me, the issues that immediately spring to mind are

  • How can location, condition and availability data be captured?
  • How can that data be broken out of the siloes in which it is contained?
  • Who owns the data?
  • How can sensitive data be kept secure yet be shared with trusted parties?
  • How do we incentivise stakeholders to share this data?

Over the next few weeks, I will publish blogs specifically addressing some of the issues in more detail but what is absolutely essential is that we begin the process of bringing as many parties as possible to begin a dialogue on this that involves tech providers, asset owners, manufacturers, re-cyclers and all stakeholders. Let’s start here.

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