A Circularity Revolution: Working to Close the Loop on Global Issues

Circularity is not a new concept, yet we have not made as much progress as some might have hoped. “People have been researching, writing about, and advocating for a more circular view of society since the 1980s at least,” says Paige Novak, instructor for the new course. “Yet, after so many years, these concepts, although they are still around, have not led to real, large-scale changes.”

“It seems people are not talking to one another. Technical people think we just need this new product or new process; policy people think we just need this new law. But it won’t be just one answer. What we need,” believes Novak, “is broader perspectives.”

Novak and a team of engineering and policy professors from the University of Minnesota wanted to step up to solve that challenge. An NSF grant of $3 million established a graduate training program that gives Novak and her colleagues a chance to test out their idea. Their hope is to move concepts and practices of circularity into our social consciousness. 

As part of the larger program to train graduate students, Paige Novak, Bill Arnold, and artist Gudrun Lock developed a class, A Circularity Revolution: Working to Close the Loop on Global Issues. Arnold and Lock taught the course last spring, and Novak and Lock are teaching the course this fall. The course is open to graduate and undergraduate students across the university.

The course teaches students fundamental scientific information about systems thinking, mass balances, and resource recovery. The course also helps students look at cultural viewpoints and their own perspectives and identity to determine how these affect their understanding and approach to challenges and possible solutions.

One unique feature of this course is the co-instructor, artist-in-residence Gudrun Lock. As an artist she is trained in ways of looking at the world and seeing something new. Lock’s role is to help students identify how they look at the world, how they approach problems, and how they look for solutions. Once aware of their own approach, she also pushes them to be open to other approaches.

Novak had her own perspective shift as she sat in on some course sessions last spring and read about the topic in preparation for teaching this fall. “Before I started preparing for this course, I had not given much thought to the idea that I have a particular perspective because I am an engineer. As an engineer, I usually come in thinking that I know what the problem is and assuming that the solution will be technological.

“Technology cannot solve all (or maybe even a majority) the problems our society has created. We have to be open-minded. Solutions might need to be policy-oriented or social, or maybe we need to address different problems all together. Now I am aware of the value of co-created solutions. Thinking about my disciplinary identity helped me change my perspective, change how I think and solve problems. 

“I am super excited about this class because it lets students really sink into the idea that not all solutions need to be technical or policy-focused. That experience can open students to see value in new perspectives, and, we hope, will help embed new concepts related to circularity into their engineering solutions.

The unique training program for graduate students is called the Circularity Impact Program: An NSF Research Traineeship at the University of Minnesota. It is led by Paige Novak (CEGE), Program Director and Principal Investigator, along with co-principal investigators William Arnold (CEGE), Bonnie Keeler (Humphrey School of Public Affairs), Timothy Smith (BBE), and Natasha Wright (MechE); senior personnel Paul Dauenhauer (CEMS) and Elise Harrington (Humphrey School of Public Affairs); and Gudrun Lock, Artist in Residence. 

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Circularity Impact Program (CIP) trains graduate students in the circular use of water, energy, and materials and integrates the study of policy and engineering/science. This interdisciplinary program seeks to educate a new generation of diverse circularity professionals through a combination of internships, cutting-edge research, and community and classroom interactions led by an artist-in-residence to enhance the trainees’ positive societal impact through critical reflection, creative collaboration, and social engagement. These training efforts will benefit society by leading to new technologies, policy and economic instruments, methods, and implementation strategies for the circular use of resources.