Arming the workforce for a circular revolution: skills and labour in a circular economy

January 4, 2018
Jobs & Skills
Digital technologies are pivotal in creating a circular economy.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is in full swing. Enormous leaps in computing, connectivity, and nano-, digi-, and bio-technologies are not only radically changing how we go about our daily lives, but fundamentally opening up new possibilities to propel the transition to the circular economy. The increasingly ‘smart’ world that we find ourselves in is allowing us to track and process vast quantities of data about our appliances, homes and grids, dramatically increasing the material and energy efficiencies of our cities. Blockchain technology is enabling fully decentralised and sustainable systems and our constant connectivity is a breeding ground for sharing platforms. From modular smartphones to modular buildings, the circular city is rapidly taking shape around us. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is fueling this transition, and the unwavering progress we’re making is only broadening our circular horizons.However, they are also creating volatility in the job market.The very same technological developments that are expanding the possibilities for circular cities are also significantly destabilising labour markets the world over. With each passing year, the surging advancements of technologies are encroaching on our roles within the job market and labour, once exclusively performed by humans, is increasingly becoming automated. This volatility also comes at a time when broader patterns of globalisation and demographic changes are compounding these structural shifts in employment and fundamentally transforming the type of work to be done, where it is done, and who it is done by. In the changing landscape of the working world, anxiety surrounding our place in the labour markets of the (near-)future is mounting. With these macro movements showing no signs of slowing, we must pay concerted attention and ensure that we evolve with the changing landscape.Decision and policy makers must prepare for this growing employment shiftWhile it has never been more difficult to predict the future of work, this unavoidable shift serves to underline the importance of adaptability and resilience. In order to effectively traverse the transition these factors are vital. Appreciating this, policy and decision makers must be proactive in maximising the benefits and ensuring the stability of our labour markets. Naturally, it is difficult to prepare for a job market that may only exist in 20 years. Yet, stemming from this uncertainty is a growing recognition of the importance of ‘future-proof’ skill-sets; tailored to flexibility and adaptability, rather than rigidly teaching to the moulds of today’s jobs (which may not be there tomorrow!). Topping the list for most desirable skills for the future, according to the World Economic Forum, are creativity, social and people skills, and complex problem solving.[1] To keep up with our rapidly evolving economic landscape, we must re-skill and align our labour force with the future of employment.So what skills does a fully-fledged circular economy need?Systemic shifts in the way we do business will ultimately require a similar re-skilling of our labour force. A deeper understanding of the activities needed to support a circular economy is therefore an important first step in identifying the skills that urban policy and decision makers should be cultivating and investing in.Beyond what is typically thought of as a ‘circular’ or ‘green’ job - commonly associated with waste management or renewable energy installation - labour in a circular economy also reflects the design principles and new forms of collaboration that a circular ethos fosters, and as such, includes occupations that are as varied as they are connected.  


Naturally, different types of circular activities require different skillsets. A recycling operative, for example - a core occupation of the circular economy - requires appreciably different skills than those of the director of a trade association - who can encourage greater collaboration between companies and help enable the circular economy as a result. Interestingly, the skills required for ‘enabling’ activities are often similar to those presented as the valuable skills of the future- creativity, complex problems solving, and people skills, amongst others. As the number of ‘enabling’ jobs continues to grow over time [2], so too will it become clear that the transition to circularity is not an isolated pursuit, but one that goes hand in hand with the development of a prosperous and resilient labour force. There is still much progress to be made for the future of circular employment. Undeniably, there is substantial room for the circular economy to grow, as only ~8% of jobs within the Netherlands [3] are currently contributing to this transition. Nevertheless, there is no blueprint for a circular city and each will have to venture down its own pathway to circularity. Ultimately, each city's unique ‘fingerprint’ of skills and jobs must be acknowledged and understood in order for them to effectively maximise the benefits of the transition. We must continue to measure and monitor circular employment within each nuanced context, understanding skill strengths and gaps.  While technology will facilitate circular cities of the future, we must ensure that cities are still places for people. Decision and policymakersmust steer and align their labour force with the skills for tomorrow in order to be resilient in the uncertain future of our world of work. The circular revolution is in full swing, and the tools to create a prosperous transition are in our hands.

Circle Economy has developed a standardised and replicable methodology to qualify and quantify circular employment in cities around the world. Find out more in the report: “Circular Jobs: Understanding Employment in the Circular Economy in the Netherlands".


References[1] Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2017). ‘Cities in the circular economy: The role of digital technology’. Retrieved from: [Accessed: 04/11/2017][2] World Economic Forum. (2016). ‘The future of jobs: Employment, skills and workforce strategy for the fourth industrial revolution’. Global Challenge Insight Report. Retrieved from: [Accessed: 04/11/2017][3] Circle Economy & EHERO (2016). ‘Circular jobs: Understanding employment in the circular economy in the Netherlands’. Circle Economy and the Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation.

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