Can researchers use their knowledge and insight even more actively to address the societal and environmental challenges we face? The answer is 'yes', at least according to researchers from VITO, Lund University and Maastricht University. They see a role for action researchers working directly with companies to accelerate the adoption of the circular economy in companies, industries and value chains.

As a society, we are fully committed to a low-carbon economy. At VITO, we are looking at the challenges posed by this transition, such as the increased demand for raw materials and potential waste from renewable energy technologies. In recently published research, researchers from VITO, Lund University and Maastricht University highlight the need for circular business models in various industries to further improve the sustainability of low-carbon technologies and processes. But how do we ensure that those business models quickly find their way within companies, industries and eventually the entire renewable energy technology value chains? For that, a new approach may offer answers.

Action research on demonstrators

Using an action-oriented case study methodology, the researchers supported five demonstrators working on circular business models for photovoltaic (PV) systems.  Using an experimental and iterative approach, they worked with the companies involved to develop a framework to support Circular Business Model Innovation (CBMI). This approach proved crucial for assessing the viability, desirability and feasibility of circular business strategies. In addition, their work confirms that using multiple evidence-based tools can provide companies with valuable insights at different stages of the business model innovation process.

The CBMI framework was applied during the ideation, design, experimentation and scale-up phases of a new business model. It clearly showed the importance of combining qualitative and quantitative tools. Qualitative tools, such as prototypes and customer journey approaches, enable rapid and cost-effective testing of business models, while quantitative tools such as simulations and life cycle assessments (LCA) are essential for evaluating financial viability and environmental benefits. The study also highlights the importance of visioning and cocreation, and shows how collaboration between various stakeholders can maintain focus and facilitate communication and learning across different value chains.

The crucial role of action researchers

An important aspect of this research is the crucial role of action researchers in driving the innovation process. A broad team of action researchers brought together diverse knowledge on the circular economy, business models and CBMI processes, and provided essential support to companies. Their involvement as an independent knowledge partner increased trust within project consortia, helped overcome conflicts of interest and bridge information gaps. Action researchers facilitated the identification of opportunities beyond individual companies' strategic horizons and provided rigorous methodological support in applying tools and methods. Their contribution was essential in navigating complex innovation cycles and supported companies in developing robust, circular business models.

The study shows that closer collaboration between research institutions and companies is an important factor for the rapid realisation of the circular economy. In this study, the focus was on the photovoltaic (PV) systems sector. However, the methodology is more widely applicable and has already been applied by VITO in several projects within a variety of value chains and industries.  

Find more information in the full study: Towards a Circular Solar Power Sector: Experience with a Support Framework for Business Model Innovation


Are you also looking to implement circular economy strategies within your company, sector or value chain? Looking for a partner offering an integrated approach? Get in touch with us today.