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Our current economic model is not future-proof. The wasteful ‘take-make-dispose’ approach of linear economics degrades our habitat and drives the increasing inequalities in society.

As an increasing amount of private and public institutions start to acknowledge these tendencies, efforts to realize a Circular Economy (CE) have become a central focus for businesses and governments across the world (Rijksoverheid, 2016; EU Commission, 2019). The CE aims to design out waste and pollution, regenerate natural systems and keep products and materials in use, constituting a new, systemic approach to sustainability (Ellen MacArthur Foundation).

Over the last two years however, the world has not become more, but less circular (Circular Gap Report 2020). So despite broad agreement among stakeholders and policymakers, and a clear increase in ‘circular’ initiatives, the espoused transition is not really taking off. All whilst leaps in technology and the rise of Artificial Intelligence continue to pave the way for us. This begs us to investigate what is slowing us down beyond the technical and institutional, and more closely examine our own psychology.

The Circular Economy

Entering 2020, multiple Dutch regions (Regiodagen CE), the national government (NL Circulair 2050), and even the EU have developed plans to bring the Circular Economy into practice. Designers, recyclers, engineers, and entrepreneurs from across the world are sitting in meeting rooms, participating in workshops, brainstorm sessions, seminars and other events, shaping new ideas. Circular initiatives, startups, events, accelerators, and even entire co-working spaces such as Blue City in Rotterdam (which you can see in the main picture of this article) are becoming more widespread. In order to somehow be part of this exciting new paradigm in which ecologic and economic sense conceptually seem to agree at last, everyone wants to board the circularity train.

Becoming a true node in a circular network however does not come as easy as boarding a train.

Whilst the CE’s vision on technical and environmental issues is quite clear, the psychological implications for the humans involved are not well understood. Neglecting for a moment the technical and institutional complexity of systemic change, the humans at the heart of the transition need to adopt new skills and adapt to a new mindset. This must be a mindset of abundance instead of scarcity, and of collaboration over competition, guided by a set of social and interpersonal skills.

The Social & Psychological Side of Economic Change

Our rapidly changing and turbulent environment – the accelerating transition, digitalizing processes, changing business models – constantly requires us to be adaptive and resilient. In order to foster adaptive capacity and resilience in the workforce, Emotional Intelligence (EI) has been widely championed as the vital skill of the employee of the future (Forbes; Capgemini). High EI could be the antidote to the sweeping impact that automation and EI’s digital twin AI (i.e. Artificial Intelligence) will have on the labor market. Daniel Goleman has long been stressing the importance of EI in the workplace, starting in 1995 when he popularized the term in his insightful book. The term conceptualizes an individual’s ability to ‘deal with’ emotions, which encompasses emotion recognition, understanding, and management or regulation, in themselves and in others (Pekaar, 2019), related to a range of positive competencies (See illustration below).

Emotional & Social Intelligence competencies

As mentioned in the report ‘Jobs and skills in the Circular Economy’ by Circle Economy, social and creative skills as well as interdisciplinary and cross-sector collaboration are essential for a circular system. What this means in reality is that people from different educational backgrounds, professions, sectors and maybe even continents need to come together and work on challenging projects. During transition-shaping collaborations and social interactions, more is needed than the technical knowledge of material cycles and renewable energy sources. Successful collaborations always ultimately depend on the social skills of the participants and their resilience in times of change.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence

Managing conflict, motivating yourself and exercising compassion are some of these important social skills. Especially for the leaders of this transition, being able to display and use these skills is crucial, as they organize groups around common goals, establish personal connections and negotiate solutions, all within unfamiliar contexts and frameworks.

These skills reflect some of the foundations of Emotional Intelligence. New networks and collaborations need to be created, and complex challenges need to be overcome in the process. Ultimately, people who can display a high level of Emotional Intelligence are needed to shape and lead the transition to a Circular Economy.

And the best part is: it can be trained.



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