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If anyone knows a thing or two about circular economy and the raw materials transition, it is Jacqueline Cramer, the (former) Dutch Minister of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment from 2007-2010 and professor of sustainable innovation at Utrecht University. Cramer, currently a member of the Amsterdam Economic Board (AMEC Board) and chair of the Supervisory Board of Holland Circular Hotspot, stood at the cradle of the circular economy movement in the Netherlands.

Over the past seven years at the AMEC Board, Cramer has been active as a ‘transition broker’ in the circular economy transition program in the Amsterdam region as well as a director. In the book ‘De kracht van netwerksturing; Tien Bouwstenen voor een Slimme, Groene en Gezonde Metropool Amsterdam‘ (in English, How Network Governance Powers the Circular Economy) published last year, Cramer expounds on the lessons from those experiences. She also explains how network governance can help in the implementation of large-scale transition initiatives.

The book proved to strike a chord even on an international level. “The positive reception of the English-language version abroad led to a sequel: ‘How to govern Circular Economy: An International Comparison‘. The book is set to be presented on January 17, 2022, on the occasion of World Expo Day in Dubai.”

Back to the basics for a moment. Where does your involvement with circular economy stem from?

“I’ve been personally concerned with the question for quite some time: how do you effect transitions from one system to another? Like the transition from a linear to a circular economy? To be clear: This is by no means about changes within a single company, but about the interplay of different parties in the entire system.”

This is by no means about changes within a single company, but about the interplay of different parties in the entire system.

Jacqueline Cramer

“As a minister, I have seen firsthand that, while the government can manage the goals to be achieved and the application of policy instruments, in order to carry them out you actually need the cooperation of all kinds of parties. But this level of cooperation does not happen by itself. It has to be organized. If you do that in a goal-oriented way, you can achieve a lot in actual practice.”

“After being a minister, I consequently focused mainly on governing such networks, ranging from (local) governments, business and knowledge institutes to civil society organizations, and especially in the field of the circular economy. That’s what I call ‘network governance.'”

How did you address that at the AEB?

“At AEB, I set up a circular economy program centered on two focal points. Firstly: closing the loop, i.e. high-quality recycling and product reuse of 9 prioritized raw material streams, which range from mattresses, diapers and biomass, to circular construction and demolition materials. And secondly, stimulating the market for circular products via circular procurement by governments, companies and knowledge institutes. In addition, circular initiatives have been set up on 22 other raw material streams and over 40 organizations are now actively working on circular procurement.”

Can you give specific examples of that? And how that process went?

“For each circular initiative, we first used market consultation to select the most promising innovation. We then discussed with the entrepreneur in question how the innovation would be able to become a successful business case, and what help would be required from other parties in order to achieve this. The Board then merged these parties and the initiator into a consortium: the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’. Together, they ultimately brought innovation to the market.”

Networking is often seen as something informal, it is sometimes mistaken for a bit of chitchat. But there is nothing casual about it at all.”

Jacqueline Cramer

“That approach is universally applicable. At the same time, each initiative is still a case of custom work. For example, in order to be able to recycle mattresses instead of – as is often happens at the moment – incinerating them, extra money had to be made available. To do this, we set up a voluntary ‘Extended Producer Responsibility’ scheme together with market players and governments.”

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“And for the high-quality recycling of roadside vegetation, we have been able to build the business case by forming a consortium of a recycling company with suppliers that have a sufficient volume of grass verges. On top of that, we are also helping to find a high-value market in the form of insulation materials and basic chemicals.”

“We are also currently working on establishing a regional Circular Textile Valley out of all the textile initiatives in the Amsterdam region.”

In your book, you have formulated 10 “guiding principles” for effective collaboration that are based on all of your experiences with the AMEC Board. It sounds a bit like the Ten Commandments for the raw materials transition. What should we imagine in this respect?

“The book offers in 10 lessons a guideline for orchestrating a chain transition.

1) Create a coalition of the willing: parties who want to work together to effect change.

2) Recognize that the transition progresses in several different, cyclical phases: realizing a fully circular chain in one go is not realistic.

3) The change process is more or less the same, but the place, time and people are always different. It calls for, in short, a tailored approach.

4) This is not a project with very well-defined steps and procedures, but rather a process. The end goal is clear but the path to it is not.

5) Context is important. Look closely together with experts who are at the cutting edge for interesting, but also promising initiatives. Show some ambition!

6) Also in terms of context: look at what it takes to make a circular initiative take flight. Often, the automatic reaction is: ‘It won’t work, the government has to change the legislation first.’ Look instead at what conditions need to be met as a matter of priority, and focus on those.

7) Define who the key people are that you need to have.

8) Realize that circular initiatives often require different kinds of business models.

9) Appoint a transition broker to lead the processes: a neutral person with enough authority. And mandate!

10) Finally, make sure everyone gets down to work, and that people can hold each other accountable for their own roles and responsibilities.

“This approach is not only suitable to use at a regional level, but is also valid for the approach to national circular initiatives. A good example is the initiative under the Beton Akkoord (‘Concrete Agreement’).”

To what extent can other regions, such as ENZuid, take advantage of these insights to get major chain transitions off the ground? For example, the book puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of network governance.

“The insights from the book are excellent for applying to other regions and sectors.”

“In all cases, it boils down to: how do you identify the frontrunners and how do you bring them into the market? Then you have to map out the route, lay down agreements and make sure that the right consortium shows commitment. All in all, it is quite a delicate process. That is why the role of the ‘transition broker’, somebody who oversees the network, is so important. “

“Network governance is all about formal, orchestrated governance. Networking is often seen as something informal, it is sometimes mistaken for a bit of chitchat. But there is nothing casual about it at all.”

“The principles in the book can be applied on a regional, but also on a national level. The book even caught on internationally. At international events, for example, all sorts of people approached me and asked: how can we use these insights? But I have no idea about the conditions in your country, I said. In order to meet that demand, I started doing research into 16 countries, ranging from Turkey, Finland, Italy and Poland to Brazil and Taiwan. I asked them whether they recognized the importance of network governance as a complement to traditional public governance. That turned out to be the case. I then examined the socio-cultural and political factors that determine whether network control is easy to introduce. On that basis, I again formulated ten lessons on how diverse countries can get circular economy off the ground. I am now sharing these insights across the globe through Holland Circular Hotspot. I find that encouraging, because circular economy does not stop at borders.”

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