Emma Fromberg experiments with new metaphors to illustrate the changes needed to cultivate a circular economy.

It is undeniable that much of the sustainability buzz is generated by businesses putting “old wine in new bottles”. Radical, non-linear change is rare and requires a profound shift from business. 

This year in February, I met my cohort again for a course on system thinking. Part of the course was to explore this topic through a forest metaphor. Metaphors are an important part of our abstract thinking and determine how we make sense of complex challenges such as creating a sustainable or circular economy. 

In my previous research, I found out that the machine metaphor was most dominant in the academic literature on circular economy. Unsurprisingly, this same metaphor also dominates mainstream economic discourse. It finds its origins in humanity’s faith in physics and the exact sciences.

In circular economy discourse, this leads to a strong preference for efficiency. Tangible inputs and outputs will catch your attention when you understand the circular economy as a machine. One may be tempted to measure and track all the flows and movements of materials and emissions – as if they were trying to understand how the machine could run more efficiently. 

Well-functioning machines may be efficient, but an efficient economy is also one that lacks the ability to absorb shock due to a lack of resilience.

Well-functioning machines may be efficient, but an efficient economy is also one that lacks the ability to absorb shock due to a lack of resilience. There is also an assumption about control and emergence hidden in this metaphor. Humans are usually in control of the machine, which is a reassuring idea for many. But it undervalues crucial ideas that are more emergent, informal, creative, or community-organised. And a machine operates in isolation from society so the analogy may show a lack of under-appreciation of relationships between different entities other than causal, managed, and deterministic. 

Nevertheless while the machine metaphor may be reassuring to some, if we want radical change in our economy, we might want to explore radically different metaphors to think about the economy.

So I asked my students to make sense of a circular economy through the metaphor of a forest in which businesses are conceptualised as trees. I expected that the forest metaphor would offer an interesting interplay between competition and cooperation/interdependencies. Before and after this learning experience, the students took part in a survey which allowed me to conduct a study

The main conclusion from that study was that the forest metaphor offered a new line of enquiry consisting of insights that differed from those emerging from machine metaphor predominant in current economic thinking.

The main conclusion from that study was that the forest metaphor offered a new line of enquiry  consisting of insights that differed from those emerging from machine metaphor predominant in current economic thinking. Dimensions that felt more intuitive were related to interdependency, connectivity, resilience, and symbiosis.

This is the part where institutional limitations came to life in the discussion (see box, Metaphorically speaking).The reality for many sustainability professionals is that they work in a space where shareholder responsibility is the highest priority, and this also implies many limitations for ecosystemic-type collaborations with entities outside the company.

Metaphorically speaking

A few examples of student insights arising from their exploration of the forest metaphor for a circular economy.

“Birth and initial growth cycles together with fall and cycles of decay are probably the ones that most resonate with my work. Development in the biosphere is based on the availability of nutrients – coming from old materials.”

The forest metaphor also prompted new areas of inspiration: 

“One idea could be to expound the idea that life runs on information and sunlight with the forest metaphor to shift away from “but where does the money come from,” towards “what does money try to embody?”

However, most of them also identified tensions between the insights from the forest metaphor and the reality of businesses and organisations:

“Some aspects – such as open material flows – are not realistic without the greater cooperation with other organisations which itself is not possible with our current business strategy,” and

“The insights [from the forest metaphor] relate a lot to my business, but at the same time, they raise new questions around how to be organically integrated into the wider system and certain boundaries in the system.”

There were also concerns voiced around intellectual property rights that came to the same conclusion: there is a linear lock-in. And research shows that this is especially applicable to incumbents rather than start-ups. 

The areas where these tensions were identified, were rather large topics. Therefore, the next step in my research was to detail the forest metaphor and explore subdomains where this could be applicable. After learning more about how people make sense of ecological systems and forests, I started to map out where these familiar patterns of thought could be used in circular economy discourse. I piloted these insights with a new group. 

I found out that they experienced an even stronger tension between the reality of business and the insights from the forest metaphor. This demonstrates the importance of wider, systemic conditions or “the rules of the game” to support new types of ideas that allow especially incumbents to drive radical change. This is what Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu meant, in their book Gardens of Democracy, by governments acting like gardeners and setting the right conditions for the economy to thrive.

We learned that businesses can only act like trees in a forest when governments act like the gardeners of the economy.

My interpretation of the role as a sustainability educator is to provide a creative and critical environment where my students can navigate these complex challenges and explore new ideas. It creates moments of learning for them and myself. During this course, we learned that businesses can only act like trees in a forest when governments act like the gardeners of the economy. 

It was reassuring that the students indicated that the enquiry through the forest metaphor was meaningful and insightful. The metaphor demonstrated to them how much our patterns of thought influence what we think of what we don’t think of and how we value certain ideas. Critical reflections and conversations on this level have the possibility to shape how we make sense of the world and form the foundations for the solutions that we come up with – hopefully, more sustainable ones like this studen: “We need to understand that many elements of organisations are the roots of trees connected through fungal networks, and therefore, look at the system as a whole.”

Emma Fromberg

Emma is a Course Director for the Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Business (PCSB). She has a background in design engineering, with expertise in learning design and circular economy. As a …

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