By showcasing circular economy related teaching and research globally, this programme aims to enable collaborative ventures and knowledge exchange across academia, policy makers, and business outside the Foundation’s formal programmes.

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Profiled university interviews

University of Bristol

Interview with Professor Palie Smart - PhD, Head of School, School of Management (Member of EMF Network and a Profiled University)

When did you first come in contact with the circular economy? What was your lightbulb moment and what was it about the circular economy that inspired you?

As a sociologist with an engineering and management background, I have always been interested in how people organise for economic, environmental, and societal benefit. During my PhD at Cranfield and my work within the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and Cranfield-Cambridge-Imperial-Loughborough Industrial Sustainability Centre of Excellence, I began to work on the concept of the circular economy. Cranfield became one of the pioneer partners with the Foundation around that time, and I took greater interest in new ideas concerning the circular economy and circularity in the global enterprising organisations. The circular economy is an opportunity for all, but also a driving force for a more inclusive and sustainable economy.


Higher education plays a key role in the transition to a circular economy. How do you see higher education as a way forward for the circular economy?

As someone who leads a School of Management, we can influence the way young people view their role in the world beyond academia. We have a motto to “develop the next generation of leaders and global citizens“. We can do more of this through our teaching, research, and engagement activities. We are the first UK Business and Management school to declare a Climate Emergency.


Having recently joined the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Profiled Universities - and as a Member of the Network, could you elaborate on how the University of Bristol is including circular economy teaching in it’s curriculum?

Major initiatives include the CABOT Institute for Environmental Sustainability and our commitment to sustainability as part of sustainable future on-line programmes that are open to everyone. We are ranked No.1 on the People and Planet in the Russell Group Universities League Table.


The university published its circular economy strategy three years ago focusing on managing its resources through a circular economy approach. How much progress has been made against the targets? How has awareness of the circular economy increased amongst staff and students increased in that time? And, what have been the main challenges so far?

The aims of the University’s Circular Economy strategy are focused on resource efficiency, minimising our environmental impacts via procurement and supply chain activity; use and lifecycle; end of life management, with a strong focus on the waste hierarchy, ultimately delivering improved cost management. More recently, we have set up a University Sustainability Council led by our PVC of Global Engagement to help deliver this strategy and address emerging challenges; with the context of Bristol’s One City Climate Strategy 2030.


Students moving through higher education systems are a key group of catalysts who can be mobilised to learn, think, and act differently to impact the linear system and act as agents of change. What do your students think about the circular economy? How do you envisage they will take that knowledge forward in their careers?

Having an awareness of the global economic system with a circular economy lens helps younger generations think about the economic, social, and environmental impacts of organisations in a way that hasn’t been done before. There is no better time to be alive and deliver on UN 2050 ambitions. We have little choice, but to act. Assuming the precautionary principle in the face of a resource contained planet is the humane position to take.

My concerns lie with those that are happy to ‘sound-off’ but never commit to action. However, some do have galvanising powers to mobilise a social movement that has potential for positive impact. The role of technology needs to be harnessed but not seen as a panacea for a sustainable future. Fundamentally, we need to change how people think about their relationship with the natural environment and their fellow persons.


Your research and teaching interests are in the fields of operations and innovation management. How important is the role of academic research in terms of policy and decision-makers, to drive the transition to a circular economy? Can you give an example from your own experience?

My own work in leading journals such as Research Policy, Journal of Operations and Product Management and Journal of Product Innovation Management on Industrial sustainability espouses the grand vision of a generative, restorative, and net positive economy, and calls for a future research trajectory to address institutional and systemic issues regarding scaling-up and transition, through transformative strategies. Some of this work is supporting the Government UK Made Smarter Digitalisation ambitions towards a Cleaner and Net Zero economy.

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