More than peanuts: Transformation towards a circular economy through a small-wins governance framework

Termeer, C.J.A.M.; Metze, T.A.P.


Governments across the world aim to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. A pressing question is to what extent and how they can influence transformative change, especially since a circular economy also inherently conflicts with norms underlying existing policies and regulations. Existing circular economy governance literature provide lists of barriers and develop targeted interventions without analyzing underlying mechanisms. This paper bridges this gap by presenting a coherent conceptual framework of continuous transformative change through accumulating small wins. Examples from Dutch Circular Economy Transition Program illustrate the arguments. Small wins are characterized by concrete results in terms of in-depth changes of moderate importance. In the long run, these small wins can amplify and accumulate into transformative change through non-linear mechanisms such as energizing, learning by doing, the logic of attraction, the bandwagon effect, coupling, and robustness. The related governance framework consists of three groups of interventions: 1) setting a provocative ambition; 2) identifying and appreciating small wins; 3) activating mechanisms through which smalls wins can accumulate in transformative change. The small-wins perspective embraces ambiguity, cherishes emerging change, replaces linear governance models by circular systems thinking, and provides insights about how small wins accumulate. First observations indicate that, although the small-wins perspective intuitively makes sense to governance actors, it clashes with the rather unrealistic expectations about governing transitions in rapid, radical, and top-down/linear ways. Hence, governing the acceleration of a linear to a circular economy, requires the transformation of the linearly organized governance system itself.