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New professor of Networks in a Circular Economy

  • Friday 10 February 2023
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The Netherlands wants a fully circular economy by the year 2050, where waste is a thing of the past and resources are reused again and again. ‘We all know we need to make changes, but how to do that and actually getting started appears to be difficult. We’d like to offer support with our practice-based research,’ says our new professor Liesbeth van Rijsdijk, of the research group Networks in a Circular Economy(opens in new tab).

Liesbeth is no stranger to Windesheim. She started out in 2003 as a lecturer of communication and was a senior researcher in the professorship of Social Innovation. In 2008 she transferred to Windesheim Honours College, where she co-managed the international degree programme Global Project and Change Management, together with Lineke Stobbe. The key idea there is that we can solve complex problems only if we work together. ‘Aspects covered in that programme are also relevant to my new position as professor of the research group Networks in a Circular Economy. For instance, an entrepreneurial attitude, systemic thinking and a drive to make a positive impact on the world.’

From capitalism to broad prosperity

‘The earth’s natural resources are by no means inexhaustible. Nevertheless, we often act as if they were,’ observes Liesbeth, ‘Last year, in 2022, humankind had used up by 28 July all resources the earth was able to give us that year. In the Netherlands this so-called Overshoot Day was on 12 April. What this means is that if everybody on earth were to live the way we do in the Netherlands, we’d be using 3.6 earths a year. So, clearly some changes are in order. But since it’s such a vast and systemic issue, a lot of people feel powerless to do something about it. And yet we are the ones who made this system together. So together we can change it!’

Liesbeth has also witnessed a major change over the past few years. ‘These days everybody knows what sustainability is about. I’ve never met anyone who’s against biodiversity or for exploitation. All over the world, more and more citizens, but businesspeople and politicians too, are taking their responsibility. Sustainable circular production, but also sustainable use of human resources is essential in this. So we’ve got the will and together we must now take great strides. Working together to reach our common goal.’

Liesbeth has observed various movements that are already widely committed to putting sustainability and circularity first in the economy. ‘In my view the Degrowth movement(opens in new tab) is a good example, as well as the Wellbeing Economy Alliance(opens in new tab), but also the Purpose Economy, the Doughnut Economics(opens in new tab) or Broad Prosperity(opens in new tab). Rather than an economic system aiming for profit maximization and unbridled growth, they want to move towards a system that creates not only financial value, but also ecological and social values. There are now five countries that have adopted the philosophy of a Wellbeing Economy as their starting point, rather than their gross national product.’

From aids epidemic to circular economy

Liesbeth’s interest in complex transition issues was triggered when she went to the Pacific and Central Asia on behalf of the UN. She worked in those regions on various projects, including HIV and AIDS prevention. ‘When you think about HIV and AIDS, it often seems as if it’s just a health issue. A bit in fact it’s an issue that involves poverty, social inequality, drugs problems, education and other socio-political factors. It’s a whole tangle of causes and connections that are impossible to view or solve separately. It’s what we call a wicked problem.’

She also witnessed the consequences of this wicked problem in actual practice. ‘In Kazakhstan the heroin was on display in a market stall between the tomatoes and the garlic. Whenever the police showed up, it was quickly tucked away, but more often than not they knew about it and just collected their share of the profit. One third of all young people were using heroin through hypodermic needles, and that’s counting only those who were registered. Young people used heroin at the kitchen table at home, using a single syringe. And that was just one of the ways in which HIV was spread rapidly.’

To tackle such a tangle of problems, Liesbeth worked for the UN with all kinds of organizations, including businesses and the people in question. ‘That’s where I found out that complex issues, like HIV and AIDS, can only be solved in conjunction with each other.’

The transition to a circular economic system is also a complex issue like that. ‘A great deal of research and discovery is yet to be done, but by tackling these challenges together, we are making great strides towards a circular economy that will benefit our planet, climate, biodiversity and the well-being of its inhabitants.’

The professorship makes a beeline for circularity

The professorship of Networks in a Circular Economy, which Liesbeth will be heading in the upcoming period, focuses on speeding up the transition to a circular economy that will benefit the earth and its human inhabitants. ‘We will do this by undertaking research into multiple value creation, other types of collaboration and organization in chains and networks, into the required behavioural change and into legislation and regulations that will help accelerate the transition.

‘An example of this is the project From Linear Design Chains to Circular Design Teams in the construction work for three building projects in Zwolle: the Hessenpoort Circular Pavilion, Nomad City in the Rail Zone and Biohub De Tippe of Uw Stadsboer Zwolle. We’re investigating which parties should be involved in a circular design team and what role they play in the design and construction process. For example, it’s always a good idea to involve the demolition company as early as in the design process. We’re also investigating the information needs of these various parties during their collaboration as well as the role that SMEs play.’

‘Another example is the project Circular Procurement and Tendering, in which we collaborated with the research group of Lifelong Development(opens in new tab) to investigate the success factors of circular tendering as well as of setting up a learning community based on this theme. And together with the professorship of Supply Chain Finance we are doing research on ways to reduce hospital waste by for instance redesigning a hypodermic syringe into a circular product as part of the project Weggooien? Ons een zorg!(opens in new tab) (We Care about Waste Disposal).


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