Moving towards circularity

Moving towards circularity

Jürgen Thiesen

Moving towards circularity – an explorative study on the fuzzy front end of circular product innovation

The current value chain of ‘take-make-dispose’ will eventually lead to resource scarcity, volatility and excessive prices for raw materials (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2012, p. 2). Circular Economy (CE) is an alternative approach, which solves these issues by creating an economic system on the principles of regeneration and restoration (Suárez-Eiroa et al. 2019, p. 958). In this concept, resources, depending on their composition and physical attributes circle within value cycles (Braungart et al. 2007, p. 1337). CE has the potential to change various industries towards a more sustainable approach. The industry chosen for this work is the battery/electric storage industry.

The World Economic Forum (2019) has stated the importance of a sustainable battery value chain (see figure below), as its expected to rise exponentially with the growth of the electric vehicle market. The current picture of sustainability indicates lots of potential for improvement, mostly due to toxicity of resources, raw material extraction and depleting sources for raw material (World Economic Forum 2019, pp. 16–23). Yet, the solution is already indicated by the WEF (World Economic Forum), as a circular value chain (see figure below) building upon the principles of multiple life cycles, extending life cycles, in general the design according to circular principles. (World Economic Forum 2019, pp. 8–9).


Source: (World Economic Forum 2019, p. 31)

CE shall be defined according to Kirchherr et al. (2017, p. 227) as “as an economic system that replaces the ‘end-of-life’ concept with reducing, alternatively reusing, recycling and recovering materials in production/distribution and consumption processes. It operates at the micro level (products, companies, consumers), meso level (eco-industrial parks) and macro level (city, region, nation and beyond), with the aim to accomplish sustainable development, thus simultaneously creating environmental quality, economic prosperity and social equity, to the benefit of current and future generations. It is enabled by novel business models and responsible consumers.” Pivotal characteristics of CE are highlighted, such as the end-of-life stage concept of products, the multiple life cycles by looping back products or resources and the systems view from a global to an individual entity level. Also, the enablers are mentioned, highlighting that a circular product has to be embedded into appropriate business models and novel consumer relationships.

The research is caried out as a master thesis, conducted by Jürgen Thiesen student in the course of International Management and Engineering. The supervisor is Luise Degen, doctoral student of the institute of Technology and Innovation Management at the Technical University Hamburg (TUHH). The work will investigate CE in the innovation process, precisely in the early stages of the innovation process. Innovation processes are guiding an innovation from its idea generation towards market entry (Cooper et al. 1996, pp. 33–34). On the one hand the early stages of an innovation process are defined by room for creativity and freedom of design. On the other hand the influence of the early stages on the process outcome is high and costs to adapt are low (Herstatt, Verworn 2004, p. 4). These early stages are described as the “fuzzy front end (FFE)” of the innovation process and take place before the development starts (Cooper et al. 1996, p. 7).

The goal of this study is to examine thoroughly the application of CE design principles. Their weighting in the different phases of the FFE shall be uncovered and understood within this research. Besides that, their practical applicability in practice is yet missing. Some of these principles might be used more frequently and their importance will certainly differ within the different stages, depending on the scope and tasks of the FFE endeavor. Furthermore, some principles might already be used unconsciously. Building upon the manifested theory, these principles shall be uncovered as well. Overall, this thesis will shed light on the missing link between theory of CE principles and their practical application. The chosen industry is subject to a dynamic growth of the electric vehicle market, while still being criticized for its lack of environmental quality. The inference from this highly dynamic branch, that is planning to take ambitious, united steps towards circularity will benefit other industries that are less structured in their approach towards circularity.

Jürgen Thiesen:
Luise Degen:

Some of the most cited publications in the field of circular product design principles are:
Bakker, C.; Wang, F.; Huisman, J.; Hollander, M. den (2014): Products that go round: exploring product life extension through design, in: Journal of Cleaner Production, 69: 10–16.
Bakker, C.; Hollander, M. den; Hinte, E. van; Zijlstra, Y. (2015): Products that last: product design for circular business models, Edition: 2nd edition, Delft: TU Delft Library.
Bakker, C.; Hollander, M. den; Peck, D.; Balkenende, R. (2018): Circular Product Design: Addressing Critical Materials through Design, in: Offerman S.E. (ed.): Critical Materials, World Scientific: 179–192.
Bocken, N. M. P.; Pauw, I. de; Bakker, C.; Grinten, B. van der (2016): Product design and business model strategies for a circular economy, in: Journal of Industrial and Production Engineering, 33: 308–320.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012): Towards the circular economy - economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition.
Hollander, M. C. den; Bakker, C. A.; Hultink, E. J. (2017): Product Design in a Circular Economy: Development of a Typology of Key Concepts and Terms, in: Journal of Industrial Ecology, 21: 517–525.

Braungart, M.; McDonough, W.; Bollinger, A. (2007): Cradle-to-cradle design: creating healthy emissions – a strategy for eco-effective product and system design, in: Journal of Cleaner Production, 15: 1337–1348.
Cooper, R. G.; Geschka, H.; Kleinschmidt, E. J. (1996): Erfolgsfaktor Markt, Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2012): Towards the circular economy - economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition.
Herstatt, C.; Verworn, B. (2004): The ‘Fuzzy Front End’ of Innovation, in: European Institute for Technology and Innovation Management (ed.): Bringing Technology and Innovation into the Boardroom, London: Palgrave Macmillan UK: 347–372.
Kirchherr, J.; Reike, D.; Hekkert, M. (2017): Conceptualizing the circular economy: An analysis of 114 definitions, in: Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 127: 221–232.
Suárez-Eiroa, B.; Fernández, E.; Méndez-Martínez, G.; Soto-Oñate, D. (2019): Operational principles of circular economy for sustainable development: Linking theory and practice, in: Journal of Cleaner Production, 214: 952–961.
World Economic Forum (2019): A Vision for a sustainable Battery Value Chain in 2030.