Circular Economy Meets Technology

The topic of my previous blog was how circular economy can be promoted in a variety of ways. Here at Huld, our most effective way of promoting circular economy is to harness new technologies. This blog will discuss a few of them, showing how they can be applied, and pointing out their key challenges.

We’ll begin with a short reminder. Circular economy business models consist of:

  • product-as-a-service (for example: performance or device as a service),
  • renewability,
  • sharing platforms,
  • product-life extension,
  • resource efficiency, and
  • recycling.

Which Technologies are Essential for the Business Models in Question?

Digital services and collection of data have been an important part of any industry for several years now. Today, it is possible to use different kinds of sensors providing a multitude of data. How to analyze and make use of the collected data has proved to be the biggest challenge. Ensuring an effective use of available resources by following up with material flows is essential for symbiotic partnerships between several companies. Mere collection and maintenance of data is not enough to provide maximum benefits for business. In the future, companies with the ability to develop sharing platforms suitable for data sharing are surely going to thrive. Sharing platforms will also increase the value of the data, as it can be utilized more productively also when in joint use.

With the help of artificial intelligence, even vast amounts of data can be handled and optimized in a fast pace. Nevertheless, just one data analyst with a huge amount of data is not enough to develop the service into a global business. Algorithms, for example, must function as reliably as possible. It is also essential to have a solid business idea.

Computer vision, on the other hand, can be used in sorting the materials as long as this is taken into consideration in the product design. It is important that the product can be disassembled. Furthermore, a comprehensive list of all used materials has to be drawn up for each product. For example, the shortage of minerals and precious metals we are experiencing right now could be significantly less acute if the materials used in old electronic devices were sorted and recycled more effectively.

Essential Factors for Circular Economy Include:

  • Knowing where the materials and devices are located (traceability of materials),
  • Predicting when products are in need of service,
  • Predicting when products have reached the end of their life cycle,
  • Organizing the logistics of material flows in an optimized and cost-effective way,
  • Sorting of materials,
  • Distribution of information on available devices, services and materials.

Implementation and use of new technologies always carry some element of risk. Precise calculations are necessary in order to make the changes worthwhile. Even in our current, serious world situation, one has to remember that the goal of any company is to make profit. Making profit is the driving force behind most companies. At the same time, we also have to consider that available resources are becoming increasingly scarce, which is inevitably going to lead to changes in the future. Another risk factor, especially when data use is concerned, is information security. IoT/IoE devices are becoming more and more common. Companies are also cooperating more extensively in the field of data sharing, which makes it extremely important to make sure that information security issues are up-to-date. Symbiotic partnerships between companies are not possible without data sharing. However, the risks become imminent if cooperation also leaves a back door open for potential criminals.

New Technologies – Only for the Big Players?

I dare to claim that many companies are still more or less at square one when it comes to circular economy. Sure, they may have plans about sustainable development and carbon neutrality. Yet, investments made on circular economy and its practices are still quite meager. As I mentioned in my previous blog, the environmental impact of any product or service is basically determined already when the product is being designed. Thus, thinking about circular economy should be the basis of all product development.

It is not always necessary to invest millions, either. Product development with a view on circular economy is also possible for smaller-scale start-ups and SMEs. Most importantly, one has to identify how circular economy can benefit the company’s business, and to take a bold, front-line move towards changing the future.