|Abstract: ||Higher education institutes (HEIs) play an important role in the transition towards circular
economy. Apart from conducting research on circular economy, they can teach the next
generations of leaders by integrating the concept of circular economy in the curriculum for
every student as well as being a living example.
The motivation behind this research is to facilitate an organisational learning process in an HEI
on how to implement new circular economy practices, based on knowledge about the success
and failure of previous and current initiatives which could be identified as circular economy
practices. Rather than only collecting and analysing data, the main focus is to build
circular economy in a campus as well among students who can build circular economy in
their career. This is done by uncovering or producing knowledge which can be used by the
HEI community for building a circular economy in the HEI.
The case study is based on the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Thailand. AIT
aims to promote technological change and sustainable development in the AsianPacific region
through higher education, research and outreach. The researcher herself was born and
raised in a western context, but very interested in sustainable development in Asia. The aim
is to learn how to facilitate the transformation of AIT’s campus and curriculum from its
current state to a circular state, providing a healthy living and working environment
as well as relevant education, while also learning more about the intercultural aspect.
The four research questions are:
RQ1. What are circular practices in other HEIs?
RQ2. What is the current state of AIT’s campus and curriculum from a circular economy perspective?
RQ3. What can be learned from the history behind the current state of AIT to understand what
hinders or facilitates the implementation of new circular economy practices in HEIs?
RQ4. How can action research support facilitating the implementation of new circular economy
practices in HEIs?
For the first research question, the researcher investigated ten other HEIs through primary and
secondary sources. She interviewed key persons in four universities about factors
enabling and hindering the transition towards a circular economy. The topics of the
interviews were categorised in ten themes and examples of current circular economy initiatives were
categorized according the RESOLVE framework of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Regenerate,
Sharing, Optimization, keeping in the Loop, Virtualize and Exchange. This research question helped
also to get inspiration for a vision for the future state of AIT.
Answering research question two, the current state of AIT from a circular economy
perspective was described with an inventory of the stakeholders, a selection of descriptive
accounts of issues and needs, brought up bottomup (mostly by students), and activities
which were categorized according to the aforementioned RESOLVEframework.
The researcher conducted interviews with top managers, faculty and staff, arranged workshops with
focus groups of students, used participatory observations and read research done in the past,
project proposals and media. An important source of guidance was informal talks with students. When
they are offrecord, most students open up. This information was not directly used, but brought the
researcher new insights, perspectives and tracks to follow up.
To identify the factors enabling or hindering the transition towards a circular economy, the
framework of Nadler and Tushman (1997) was a guiding tool. The framework focus is on the
move from the current state to a desired future state, but it also highlights different
problems that can occur in the transition state. This research also adds the importance of
the state before the current state: the past. To be able to
identify the drivers and to address root causes of the current state, the researcher dived into the
the system of AIT and learned from the successes and failures in the past.
To answer the third research question, two focus areas were selected: waste and energy. The
research focuses upon the initiatives in the past. The researcher read about past
initiatives and interviewed different stakeholders about the past. The main factors were
internal: lack of (mutual) understanding of the principles and importance of circular economy, low
degree of internal collaboration, lack of continuous communication, motivation, leadership, lack
of long term vision, etc. Also external factors (political, economical, social,
technological) play a role especially affecting the speed and momentum of the
implementation, but the internal factors determine how the insiders work with these external
As this thesis was designed as action research, the researcher also reflects upon the
role that action researchers (from other cultures) can play in facilitation of change, and how
the researcher has an impact and also vice versa, how the interactions have an impact on the
research(er). The researcher shared her reflections written in the first person in research boxes
which are recorded and coupled with observations and results in this thesis report. In the
section for the fourth research question, these boxes were categorized according to
different learning experiences. An action researcher can learn the most by intervening
in the sociotechnological system. The insideroutsider balance had many benefits. Being an insider
helped to access data and identify the issues and structures easier. Being an outsider means to
be able to bring new views and to bypass some cultural norms. An external researcher
from another culture, as in this case, can also move across cultural norms as he/she is
assumed not to know these cultural norms, but also other factors played a role in why she took this
privilege. Intersectionality of social identities matters. The impact of this action research was
not only that the action researcher learned more about AIT, circular economy, transition and
change management, but that she also made other insiders (e.g. students) coresearchers along the
way and after her journey. She created space for others to bring change, which also could happen
because others created space for her.
Lastly, this thesis discusses the importance of integrating a social dimension to circular economy,
not only in Thailand, but also the host countries of other universities; the selection
of other stakeholders as coresearchers in the action research; the creation of spaces
(social and physical); and boundary management (after Cash et al, 2013) as part of change
management. The mutual understanding of the principles and importance of circular economy is also a
working point. Important supporting factors are a strong top down vision to transform the HEI
into a circular one; a system that manages the continuous inflow and outflow of people in a
HEI; and deep democratic, inclusive design thinking processes which
can put the top down vision in alignment with activities from bottom up.|