The Tale of Four Elements: Nurturing a Circular Economy Portfolio

Element Inception: Policy Coherence


  • 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

  • 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.

Political Momentum: Crisis as an Opportunity?

Concluding Thoughts



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Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific

Regional Innovation Centre UNDP Asia-Pacific


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