Facilitating the implementation of new circular economy practices in higher education institutes

Examensarbete för masterexamen
Wuyts, Wendy
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 5 identify the drivers and to address root causes of the current state, the researcher dived into the history of 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 factors. 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.
circular economy , change management , transition , Implementation , action research , Thailand , industrial ecology , education , bondary management
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