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Circular economy requires skilled engineers

Blog post

The engineering community plays a key role in the transition towards a circular economy. The skills needed in a circular society require changes in all higher education in the field of technology, the report states.

On the 4th of November, we published a joint Nordic study on the needs for engineering skills in a circular society and how current higher education in the field of technology meets those needs. More details on the report can be found at the end of this blog post.

The results of the report can be summed up concisely: engineers play a key role in the transition towards a circular society, and the skills needed in a circular society require changes to all higher education in the field of technology.

The role of engineers in a circular economy

The role of engineering graduates in a circular economy cannot be overemphasized. Since all products should be in line with circular economy principles in the future, it is obvious that product designers bear a huge responsibility, and it is the technology professionals who are creating these design solutions. To promote a circular economy, we do need experts from several other fields as well. These include economists and social scientists, who can contribute to creating a market and business models for circular products.

Regulation promoting circular economy is progressing actively at both the Finnish and EU levels. However, these noble goals may come to a halt if issues concerning competence are not addressed in time. It should be noted that it takes years for a person to complete higher education and changing the degree curriculum requires time as well. The changes should, therefore, be implemented as soon as possible.

The framework we are proposing is based on the idea that every engineer should have basic circular economy skills.

Skills needed for a circular economy

Circular economy, which inevitably is our future, differs from present-day society in every imaginable way, including the way we think. Where many of us have embraced a take-make-waste way of thinking, the builders of a circular economy and those who operate in it must turn towards a circular economy model. This is particularly important for engineers, who have enormous power and responsibility as product designers. Higher education in the field of technology should therefore be updated to take on this responsibility.

The report suggests that the Circular Economy Competence (CEC) framework presented in the report should be adopted in STEM higher education (Figure 1). The goal of the CEC framework is to provide every technology professional with the skills to be part of the solution in promoting circular economy. Currently, it is possible to complete various elective courses, special programmes and even degrees that develop circular economy competence in the field of technology. The framework we are proposing, however, is based on the idea that every engineer should have basic circular economy skills. The foundation for these skills lies in developing awareness and ways of thinking, for example by teaching planetary boundaries and circular economy principles. The more specific fields of expertise would deal with circular product design strategies, circular business models and understanding system-based thinking and digitalization. Since engineers can't solve everything on their own, teaching must also involve interdisciplinary cooperation with students of other sciences.

Model of the Circular Economy CEC framework
Figure 1: Circular Economy Competence framework

Instead of settling for this abstract level, we have also taken a closer look at what this approach could mean in practice. Digitalization solutions supporting circular economy, for example, are essential to product or service life cycle management, in which key solutions and expertise consist of collection, reliability, analysis and data processing tools. Not all engineers need in-depth knowledge of all these, but it is beneficial to understand the basics – and not only for the sake of circular economy.

The current state of STEM higher education

The report also examined a few technological degree programmes from each Nordic country, and the findings were not very comforting considering the competence requirements presented in the CEC framework. All degree programmes contained some elements that could be interpreted as supporting some areas of circular economy competence presented in the framework, but none of them covered all the necessary areas of competence.

Since we are calling for circular economy training for all engineers, the most generic degrees should also include the basic circular economy competences.

The degree programmes examined were deliberately chosen to cover "generic" STEM degree programmes. Nowadays, many higher education institutions have degree programmes specifically related to circular economy where we expect the CEC framework's competence requirements to be met, but since we are calling for circular economy training for all engineers, the most generic degrees should also include the basic circular economy competences.

What measures are needed to remedy the situation?

The report specifies several recommended measures, which are targeted at policy makers, higher education institutions and employers. Out of the numerous recommended measures, I will address here the ones I consider most important. The measures with the greatest impact concern the development of educational content in the field of technology and the continuing education and training of engineering teachers on circular economy topics.

In the report, we suggest that engineering disciplines should assess how current competencies among the graduates meet the needs outlined in the CEC framework and modify teaching content and practices as necessary to meet the requirements of the framework. In many cases, this does not require changes to the teaching content, but can be implemented by modifications in teaching practices by adding, for example, interdisciplinary cooperation to the courses or by adding elements of product design in accordance with the principles of circular economy to the boundary conditions of assignments.

However, it is clear that without a skilled teaching staff, the deep integration of circular economy topics into all engineering studies cannot be expected. That is why it is extremely important to invest in the continuous education and training of teachers in the field. In addition to higher education institutions, policy makers have a key role to play in this, and earmarked financial support should be provided for this purpose.

Technology studies have a long history of emphasizing calculation exercises and other assignments. They have a clear purpose of directing the student to apply a certain problem-solving mindset to a certain kind of problem. However, these problem-solving models do not meet the needs of today’s circular society, as they do not simultaneously take into account, for example, the longest possible service life of the device, repairability, upgradeability, non-toxicity, recyclability, resource efficiency and so on. On the other hand, the silver lining is that the current study modules and courses can provide significant leverage for the development of circular economy skills with just a little fine-tuning – as long as we have teachers with sufficient knowledge of the topic to integrate it into the study content. 

Background information for the report

The Towards a Circular Economy – skills & competences for STEM professionals report was prepared in collaboration with the Association of Nordic Engineers (ANE), covering a total of more than 500,000 technology professionals from engineering associations in Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Finnish engineering associations (TEK, IL, TFiF and DIFF) are represented in ANE by the Engineers Finland co-operation organization. The report was drawn up by Ethica Oy, a consulting company for circular economy planning and sustainable business, on behalf of ANE's circular economy working group.