Internet of Things could unlock circular economy transition, says Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Combining circular economy principles with the explosion of smart and connected devices could dramatically boost resource efficiency and lead to 'broad social benefits', a new report has found.

“Digital technologies are driving a profound transformation of our economy,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur

“Digital technologies are driving a profound transformation of our economy,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur

The research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum found that the interplay between the Internet of Things (IoT) and the circular economy presents "significant opportunities for almost every part of society".

Intelligent devices can provide an abundance of information about the location, condition and availability of assets, enabling maximised usage and creating a continuous loop to send materials back into the system.

“Digital technologies are driving a profound transformation of our economy,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur.

“Guiding this wave of change by applying circular economy principles could create value, and generate wider benefits for society, as this report shows. Intelligent assets are a key building block of a system capable of ushering in a new era of growth and development, increasingly decoupled from resource constraints.”

How smart devices can facilitate the circular economy

Smart maintenance – devices can transmit performance data to the manufacturer enabling predictive maintenance and software upgrades. For example engineering firm Arup installed 1,000 sensors on a bridge over the Firth of Forth in Scotland, enabling predictive maintenance which will extend the bridge’s use cycle.

Increased farming yields - Australian cotton grower Auscott employs sophisticated IoT-based irrigation and cottonbale tracking systems to assist them in achieving world-class yields (approximately twice the global average).

Optimised waste collection – The IoT has enabled the creation of intelligent waste containers which measure data such as temperature, humidity, weight and volume on demand. This information facilitates the optimisation of the waste collection system and enables waste management to operate on a more granular level, leading to more sophisticated sorting and recycling processes.

Connected offices – ICT firm Cisco has developed office optimisation software that allows employees to reserve and use office space and desks. The system can create a 50% reduction in workspace facilities cost per employee, and also allows optimisation of heating, cooling and lighting creating further savings.

Enabling conditions

ICT firm Ericsson estimates there will be 28 billion connected devices on the planet by 2021, more than half of which will be machine-to-machine (M2M) or Internet of Things connections. These smart systems, alongside more efficient devices, could help cut global emissions by 15%.

To help speed up the resource efficiency aspect of this transition, the report recommends actions for businesses and policy-makers.

“The most significant challenge for businesses is to successfully move towards more open innovation, gradually shifting from the traditionally protective approaches focused on centralising data to maintain control, while ensuring adequate trust and security,” the report said.

“The greatest policy challenge is to create an environment where businesses are able to innovate openly while at the same time ensuring organisations’ and individuals’ integrity with a strong legal framework.”

Sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future recently launched two new online tools designed to help businesses embrace the circular economy, following partnerships with consumer goods firm Unilever and the world's biggest aluminium can recycler Novelis.

A European transition to the circular economy could create three million extra jobs by 2030 and reduce unemployment by 520,000, a recent WRAP study claimed.

Brad Allen


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Circular economy | Data | ellen macarthur foundation

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