The Tale of Four Elements: Nurturing a Circular Economy Portfolio

By Alex Oprunenco, Brent Welsch, Ida Uusikyla, Luong Nguyen, Shumin Liu

Our regional initiative was conceived as an experiment to apply a systemic and portfolio design methods to better understand and act upon the issue of plastic pollution and circular economy Asia and the Pacific. As with other complex challenges, we have found that engaging with and in the space of circular economy by default puts you in a position to have to do things differently. By its very nature, circular economy implies a different trajectory compared to the current take-make-waste model that is predominant in the Asia Pacific region today and context from what we have now. This is great but how does one begin to steward institutions, processes and behaviours towards a future that designs out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and seeks to regenerate natural systems?

As we started our work in Viet Nam, we observed how we have begun to evolve from “engineers” to “gardeners” organically. We have been seeking to support, help, and learn alongside local stakeholders as much as we can. Now we can see our emerging “portfolio approach” taking shape through 4 interconnected elements. These features include: (1) policy coherence and decision-making; (2) movement for change; (3) organizational learning and capability; (4) transitional financing vehicles. We will share our learnings on each through a series of blogs that in the future will contribute to our organizational offer in this space.

Element Inception: Policy Coherence


Due to real-time constraints (e.g., time, human and fiscal resources, etc.) the usual expectations of public policy teams are to develop quick silver bullet solutions that will have impact while also appealing to political sensitivities. Typically, this work requires public policy professionals to develop “options” for decision-makers that resist integrative potential. Rather, clarity in choice with trade-offs and stark juxtapositions in approach are preferred. Due to predominant current-state institutional incentives we rarely witness an appetite for or drive to deliver holistic approaches that adopt a whole system approach towards policy challenges. Finally, this dynamic is often riddled with conversations driven from a position of risk mitigation and aversion often (but certainly not always) resulting in safer “options” finding their way through this decision-making gauntlet.

The public-policy domain pertaining to plastic waste abounds with these types of dynamics. Globally, obsessions with piecemeal approaches such as “bans” on single-use plastics, public-facing awareness campaigns and extended-producer responsibility approaches that seek to shift the burden of the waste issue on to producers serve as primary examples. While none of these approaches are wrong per se, none of them are completely sufficient in isolation either. Essentially this approach promotes siloed interventions and denies the inherent interconnections throughout the waste-management chain from production to disposal. Moreover, it ignores the underlying factors that serve as root causes for why these dynamics (economic, political, social) exist in the first place. As such we are aligned with other critiques that this approach is not coherent with the scale of the challenge either in terms of its conceptual understanding or subsequent real world-efforts. We have acknowledged upfront the inherent complexities embedded in what we were exploring and that this will require a different approach in organizing action.

Our work in the plastic waste/circular economy space has adopted a soft-systems approach: we are obsessed with the human dynamics that make-up the inherent complexity of this issue. Mindsets, worldviews, and culture and how these inform the often embedded individual and collective frames that we hold around issues is of central importance in our work. We believe that the public policy frameworks that are currently seeking to address plastic waste are the result of a predominant frame of waste management. This framing again presents trade-offs and avoids the integrative possibilities that emerge through a circular economy approach: such as how we might address the perils of the current economic model through a model that facilitates both economic growth and environmental stewardship..

In Da Nang, Viet Nam we tried testing our approach and held assumptions for the first time. We rapidly developed a holistic understanding of the challenge space through two methods: use of ethnographic interviews to surface lived experience and systemic design to illicit holistic exploration of the challenge space. This work brought several insights that allowed for strategic reframing of the issue that has aided our efforts since to contribute to a portfolio approach that emphasizes policy coherence. Lessons we have surfaced for ourselves include:

  • To foster coherence, test assumptions through field experience. We used ethnography to understand how issues of plastic pollution are experienced by different segments of the population and actors in the waste management system. It helped reveal some “unseen” aspects that are often missed through traditional data-gathering, analysis, and policy development. For instance, we discovered the important and seemingly invisible function that informal waste-pickers have in “managing” waste. Their invisibility implies that they are filling a system gap but are not recognized for doing so through official channels and hierarchies. Moreover, the bespoken policies and projects stewarded through official mechanisms rarely consider existing social or cultural norms, for example that people don’t want to appear in public handling or touching waste. Perhaps a nuisance, but it can ruin a municipal waste segregation project.
  • To foster coherence, look beyond technical fixes. Embedding the ethnographic research into the systemic design process allowed us to shift the focus of the conversation from a framing of “plastic waste” as a technical/management problem to a much more nuanced understanding, where behavioural and cultural patterns across the sector rise in importance and stakeholders were able to see and accept the limitations implied by a focus on surface level interventions like glitzy apps or grass straws.
  • To foster coherence, take a life-cycle perspective. As we were reflecting on the artefacts we generated, we could firm out another intuitive hunch that plastic pollution is a tip of the iceberg and a longer-term transformative change would require a shift in how we design, produce, and consume goods and services in the modern economy. While we had ‘circular economy’ in the back of our minds at the outset of this work, here it was beginning to emerge as an imperative direction. Ignore it and you end up chasing ever elusive spectre of waste management. As you will see this stark realization had an overarching implication not only for our portfolio design methodology, but also for our engagement and positioning going forward.
  • To foster coherence, nest change efforts in local community and develop local examples to drive it. As mentioned, plastic pollution is ultimately a behavioural and cultural challenge, not a technical one. Hence, to seed it in the context we needed to invest in local community as the social infrastructure through which these behavioural changes can take place. In our experience with incubating the 5 Green Avengers and developing a Circular Economy Hub it created many alternative paths that would have otherwise got stuck in government department political infighting. As we were recently reminded: Systems do not change systems. People do.

Dynamic Coherence to Support Change

Reframing the challenge helped us understand that achieving policy coherence will require a double shift in terms of approach:

  • From a traditional approach (as outlined above) that intervenes through isolated single point solutions to a concerted portfolio that ties together complementary interventions that experiment with relevant regulatory regimes, consumption and segregation behaviours, investments, etc.
  • From a traditional approach focused solely on downstream spaces in waste management towards transformational potential residing in complemented downstream work with upstream spaces of production and consumption of goods and services.

It outlines a very different and more comprehensive perspective on how to prioritize and link decision-making for impact in this complex space. Admittedly, this is a much more laborious and long-term endeavour. As such, it requires a mindset and strategic demeanour that embraces system transition (change will occur in non-linear trajectories over time) and complimentary portfolios that work together to provoke and catalyse change where possible.

In Da Nang this has taken the form of two portfolios of experiments seeking to improve the current system (what we are calling a compliance portfolio) with another portfolio embedded with more transformational intent (what we are calling the green consumption portfolio). Organizing portfolios in this way allowed retaining short-term focus on effecting change within the system we know while adhering to a vision of a circular economy to anchor and seed transformational efforts aiming to break new ground and resulting in new economic and social trajectories. Ultimately, along with the necessary effort to evolve these dynamic portfolios as circumstances change, it allows for strengthening policy coherence and rigor over time.

Political Momentum: Crisis as an Opportunity?

So far, we have reflected on how our approach allowed us to make and position our work as more coherent vis a vis the nature of the challenge, lived experience, the way the current system is organized, and where the system should evolve in the future. The last facet we would like to share is how this work has been positioned advantageously to support change with respect to political momentum.

Obviously, the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic has massively shifted the focus of political establishments globally. Specifically, in receptive jurisdictions it has created the conditions necessary to usher in a sense of mission critical for policy and decision-makers. Our work in Viet Nam serves as one small example as it relates to the plastic waste challenge, and green and just transition more broadly.

This sense of “mission critical” was missing from the conditions for change when we started this work in 2019. While local authorities acknowledged (to an extent) the severity of the problem and extended credible acknowledgement of our work, it was far from critical for them. As such it was difficult to generate the momentum necessary to drive a system change initiative of this nature. However, the pandemic has shifted this dynamic by exacerbating the various issues that were already present and has also created new ones. Circular economy has become a solution space not only for local authorities but is now on the radar of the National government. In short, the pandemic has created a window of opportunity for a national conversation on green and circular economic recovery.

Because of tenacious commitment, our efforts and learning are well positioned to inform these national efforts. This speaks to one of our most fundamental roles (to quote from Milton Friedman): to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

As such we are now at a convenient juncture: there is a strong demand signal for this effort, and we are able to respond to this demand through further developing this service offering both at the city level as well as linking it vertically to UNDP’s work with the government at the national level. Call it a coherence dividend.

Concluding Thoughts

We are now a year and a half into this effort, and despite being slowed down by pandemic, this work has allowed us to really put theory to the test. Through this journey these few insights (that continue to evolve, grow, change) have blossomed.

However, this is not the whole equation. While policy coherence, it is doomed to fail if it is not continually embedded in the social fabric of the local environments. In our next blog we will seek to unpack this more…stay tuned :)

#CircularEconomy #Vietnam #Portfolio #Experiments #Plasticwaste #Policy #Governance #SystemicDesign #systemstransformation



Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Doing development differently through designing, developing, curating, collating and championing innovation and digital across the Asia Pacific Region.