From education to employment

Disruptive innovation – preparing young people for the circular economy

Circular economy is a term growing in resonance across the globe.

It refers to an economy that is regenerative by design and is being offered as a practical solution to the planet’s dwindling natural resources.

A circular economy goes beyond recycling, which only offers a part and energy-intensive solution. Instead it is based around a restorative industrial system that is geared towards designing out waste.

The implications of this shift for businesses are significant. According to the Waste & Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) Circular Economy 2020 Vision, the European Union could benefit from an improved trade balance of £90 billion and the creation of 160,000 jobs if we realise the potential of this model.

As further education providers, we need to be considering the impact of this shift on curriculum design. If our goal is to develop employable learners who can add value to their employers, how can we incorporate the principles of the circular economy in our learning programmes?

At Banbury and Bicester College we recently joined forces with local schools in a competition held as part of the first Disruptive Innovation Festival. The festival itself was staged by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and brought together thought-leaders, entrepreneurs, businesses, makers and learners. It was designed to raise awareness of the driving forces behind the move to a circular economy.

Our project set out to test students’ ability to develop innovative and sustainable products. Each group was invited to create a household tool, which could later be transformed into a children’s toy – a simple concept which prompted them to consider the life-cycle of an object with a dual purpose.

The college team won the day, with a product that started out as a clamp-like vice that could become a children’s cricket set. Other entries included a footstool which became a toy cat and a tool rack which became a sling shot. The project challenged students’ design, thinking and teamwork skills and encouraged them to consider feasibility and how the product could be manufactured and marketed.

Partners in the project welcomed the opportunity to share the principles of the circular economy with the workforce of tomorrow. The manager of our local sustainability hub and repair centre commented that while the concept of a circular economy is still relatively fresh, there is a lot of room for the younger generation to embrace and explore this new way of thinking. As companies are starting to embrace the concept, they will require new recruits who are already up to speed when they enter the workplace.

As we consider the impact of this model on curriculum design, I believe we have a responsibility to model it in our own learning environments. We are at the start of our journey, and have recently been working with our estates team to ensure the products we buy, such as floorcoverings, support a circular economy.

We also need to think about how the principles can be applied to learning programmes beyond the obvious. This isn’t just about product design and engineering, but about understanding its relevance for business, enterprise and the creative industries.

The imperative for our college is all the greater as Bicester, home to one of our two campuses, is one of four eco-towns being developed in the UK to showcase environmentally sustainable practices. The development of 5,000 homes and associated employment and facilities, aims to be zero-carbon through the use of renewable energy, good public transport and homes with high energy efficiency ratings.

The industries growing up around this significant development will provide increased employment opportunities for our young people and we want to ensure that they develop the hard and soft skills required for success. As part of Activate Learning group we are also responding to this regional priority by developing a new studio school specialising in sustainable construction and logistics.

The circular economy offers an opportunity to harness innovation and creativity and I believe that further education providers need to be at the forefront of the associated skills development.

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Lisa Rawlings is director of curriculum at Banbury and Bicester College, part of Activate Learning

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