The Circular Ecosystems – what it is about and what are they like?


Recently, the word ecosystem has become increasingly used, including in the context of the circular economy (CE). We are talking about business ecosystems, textile ecosystems, battery ecosystems or innovation ecosystems by the circular economy. The ecosystem is understood in a certain way as a clever expression when we want to describe a situation where many operators work together to develop things, or many operators are needed to achieve a common goal.

Through natural ecosystems, it is easy for us to perceive the need for different complementary actors and each has its own place and role in the ecosystem. The ecosystem is a functional metaphor for describing a complex entity of many actors, where different functions and with-it different factors and roles are needed. The CE is a phenomenon which, in principle, requires multilateral cooperation and is therefore systemic. That is why it is natural, that the word circular economy ecosystem has spread so widely. At the same time, perhaps precisely because of its agile versatility, the words “ecosystem” or “circular economy ecosystem” are also somewhat vague: So, what these words really mean?

What is meant by the ecosystem and what fines does the ecosystem research provide for understanding ecosystems in the Circular Economy?

An ecosystem is not only a functional metaphor but also a research concept, meaning a network-like, constantly evolving entity formed by many actors in which the actors have complementary roles and in which the actors interact with each other. An ecosystem often has a certain common goal, such as creating new knowledge or doing business. Ecosystem research, conducted in the areas of management and innovation and technology management, precisely explores such phenomena.

City bikes enable an ecosystem that involves the city as well as businesses and city dwellers.

Ecosystem research has grown and evolved rapidly past time, since many phenomena in today’s society from digitalization to sustainability require that we understand and perceive larger entities and also be able to operate in such entities. Ecosystem research also provides the basis for clarifying and structuring the circular economy ecosystem debate, as ecosystem researchers have long outlined different types of ecosystems and their principles and figured out how different ecosystems work. In the light of such research data, we can understand even better the ecosystems of the circular economy.

Different ecosystems work very differently, depending on, for example what the goal of the ecosystem is, meaning what connects the actors together – whether it is, for example, the creation of new knowledge or a business. Many actors are easily involved in developing new knowledge, for example on plastics processing because then even competing companies can easily benefit from synergistic technological development. The structure of an ecosystem also affects its functioning and even its management – whether there is one active locomotive player at the center of the ecosystem or whether it is more a matter of cooperation between so-called horizontal actors of the same level. The locomotive operator often has more power to influence what others do in the evolving ecosystem, while in horizontal co-operation, actors have to find a direction to do things together.

Who is part of the Circular Economy Ecosystem?

The actors in the circular economy ecosystem are very diverse. They can range from small or large companies to service companies, cities and municipalities, ministries, universities, non-profit organizations, associations and citizen consumers. For example, city bikes enable an ecosystem that involves both the city and businesses and citizens.

The operator does not always even have to realize to be part of the ecosystem.

Another example is the textile recycling ecosystem, which covers a wide range of industrial and commercial actors from textile fiber collectors to processors, but also the consumer citizen who returns the textile back for processing. It is important to note that a single actor can belong to several ecosystems. It is also essential that the operator does not always even have to realize to be part of the ecosystem.

The actors of the Circular Economy Ecosystem have a common goal – since the goals are different, so are the Ecosystems of Circular Economy

The circular economy ecosystems are very different in both their structures and their objectives. Some focus on the circulation of resources and materials, some on the circulation of information and some on enabling business and creating economic value. On the other hand, some may have all these features.

A simple example of an ecosystem that focuses on the resource and material cycle could be the recycling and reuse of textiles or ensuring the circulation of nutrients. However, the main goal of the circular economy ecosystem can also be to develop the circular economy know-how, that is simply to develop new information and technologies, such as new fiber processing technologies or digital fiber identification technologies, in order to be able to recycle textiles better. In addition, it is important to understand how commercially such new activities are possible. This is done, for example, in the ecosystem of the Telaketju network and the textile cycle.

In the circular economy business ecosystems, it is about the company which is able to do environmentally sustainable and profitable business by developing its network value in this direction. For example, Neste whose supply chains and customers have changed enormously as the focus of its operations is shifting from fossil fuel production to renewables.

In the circular economy business ecosystems, it is about the company which is able to do environmentally sustainable and profitable business by developing its network value in this direction.

Interesting ecosystems platforms in the circular economy are, for example, Netlet and Resq, which combine construction or food surpluses and their users, and by using a platform model make it circular economy business. Regional industrial symbioses, such as co-operation in the Kemi-Tornio region or ECO3 in Pirkanmaa, also form an interesting circular economy ecosystem type. In this case, the circular economy ecosystem is characterized by the management of material flows locally, but also in the implementation of international business.

In the CICAT2025 project, we have studied several different circular economy ecosystems, and these will be the subject of interesting research articles in the near future. The Circular Economy Ecosystems report, commissioned by VTT researchers and TEM, is also useful to read. The circular economy ecosystem is a complex but important concept. Let’s create more knowledge together about this important phenomenon, as understanding the systemic level of the circular economy and the functioning of different circular economy ecosystems is essential to improve the circular economy!

Leena Aarikka-Stenroos
Consortium PI
University of Tampere, Hervanta