Circular Economy In Practice #6: Time Travel to 2050 – What will the future look like exactly?

Produced by Camille Duran / Published by Eleen Murphy / Senior Editors Eleen Murphy & Camille Duran / Music Credits: License by Ins. Green White Space.

Shaping our future – well, it won’t happen if we just sit around and imagine it, will it? No, we need a clear picture of exactly where we’re going in order to make the right decisions and take the right path to get there. And how do we do that? With a special technique called Backcasting: defining a desirable future and then working backwards to identify the steps that we need to take for that future to become true.

Last month, we took our time machine to the World Circular Economy Forum in Helsinki and asked 8 very brave volunteers to take a trip to 2050 and report back on what they found. In this episode we share the highlights from the trip and discuss in detail what we learned. Self cleaning clothes, soil health, vegetarianism, and yes – it looks like incineration will be out of the picture too. Strap in!


wwf The Nordic Council is the official body for formal inter-parliamentary co-operation. Formed in 1952, it has 87 members from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Åland.
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Transcript from the Episode

Camille Duran [CD]: Hi everyone. No I am not waking up, I am stretching. I am stretching because I am just back from the future. Yes, I was in 2050 for a short break with the team and a few friends… and I have to say this time machine is not as good as the one we used last year, in our series on climate finance. Anyway, we got the job done, I’ll explain in a minute.

Welcome, you’re listening to Green Exchange – we’re back to our Circular Economy series. We have new insights to bring to the table. I have to say that … in this episode we took risks that no one ever took before. But be reassured, everyone came out of it alive.

How about you? How are you? What’s cooking at the moment? Do you feel alive?

[Intro Jingle]

CD: You are listening to Green Exchange – Circular Economy In Practice: What will the future look like exactly?

Exactly… we don’t know, but we’ve tried to come up with an answer that is as realistic as possible. Actually no, it’s not true. Because that’s not how things work. It’s not about trying to be realistic and imagine what will the world be like in 2050. That’s the passive approach.

[Robot Voice]: Passive

CD: We cannot afford being passive here, I know you probably live in a bubble just like I do – but let me tell you, things are not looking good…

[Audio Clip]

CD: We cannot just sit in front of our TV and try to guess whatever will happen. I suggest we leave predictions to futurologists, mediums and …economists. At Green Exchange, we believe the future is for us to hold.

[Robot Voice]: Active



CD: So what is a proactive approach to future management? If you heard our very first pilot episode in late 2015 (looong time ago), you may remember a planning method we talked about in detail. This method is called backcasting – the opposite of forecasting.

Forecasting – as you probably know – is basically predicting an unknown future.

Backasting is about defining a desirable future and then working backwards to identify steps that we need to take for that future to become true. In other words, what are the policies and programs we need to roll out in the coming two years, five years, ten years, twenty years, for that future to become true. This is a way to create a roadmap a blueprint that we are sure will take us there.

You do this everyday with your children when you really think about it. You want them to become a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer – so for that future to become true they need to be well educated, disciplined and study hard. You know what’s the path, they will need to go to that type of school, hang out in that type of neighbourhood, say no to drugs – although I know a good lawyer that…[voice fades away].

And who cares about what your kids really want, right?

“No you cannot be an artist sweet heart, this is not a job this is a hobby.”

“Traveling the world hitchhiking? haha what a strange idea…”

“Stop crying, you will be a lawyer… get to work. I have been backcasting for years with your mother, you know?”

So… Back to our story. Earlier this month we got out of the studio to make a real-life experiment. We needed eight volunteers. Not any volunteers. People with vision, with experience, with influence, and knowledge of how the system works. We wanted a mix representing different countries – North and South – and coming from different sides of society (public sector, private sector, civil society).

Most importantly, our candidates had to be ambitious, and willing to take risk.

We also needed a stage, a big one. And a time machine, a good one.  Long story short we went to Helsinki in Finland to run our experiment as part of the World Circular Economy Forum. Remember when in Episode 5 Bas de Leeuw, our guest, talked about this forum and I caught him on record?….

[Audio Clip From Episode]

Bas de Leeuw: …and the agenda for the event next June.

CD: So can we come and produce a live talk show from there?

Bas de Leeuw: Absolutely!

[Clip Ends]


CD: There we were, a few months later, talk show on the big stage, and I don’t think they expected us to bring a time machine…  By the way I would like to thank all the project partners for making this possible: Sitra Fund, the Nordic Council of Ministers, and the World Resources Forum.

Fast forward – Our eight volunteer participants are standing on stage ready to time travel. We organised them in two teams. Team Blue and Team Red.

CD: In team Blue we had:

  • Per Bolund, Swedish Minister for Consumer Affairs & Financial Markets
  • Mariel Vilella, Managing Director ar Zero Waste Europe
  • Wytske Van der Mei, Deputy Director for Sustainability at the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment.
  • and Elin Larsson Sustainability Director at Filippa K, an ambitious Nordic textile brand.

[Audio Clip From Event]:

In team Red we have:

  • Alice Kaudia, Environment Secretary in Kenya
  • Nancy Strand, Director of the Norwegian Waste Agency
  • Kimmo Tilikainen, Minister of Agriculture & the Environment, also in Finland.
  • And finally Kari Herlevi, Project Director for Circular Economy at Sitra Fund in Finland

[Clip Ends]


CD: What happened next?

We set the time machine on “year 2050”. Each team was assigned two observation missions, so four missions in total – ten minutes per mission. The goal was to observe what a circular future looks like and harvest as many good ideas as possible within those ten minutes. This way, after coming back into the present, we would be able to define blueprints and roadmaps that will take us to that fully future.

In short, a backcasting gameshow – live in front of an expert audience. There was some pressure, that’s true, but I thinks we got somewhere.

[Audio Clip From Event]:

CD: Here, I just want you to press the red button when I tell you. Is that okay?

Guest: Yes.

CD: Are you ready over there? Are you sure you want to do this? [Laughter]. Okay, let’s go. So I’m going to first press and then I tell you…..Now!

[Sound of time machine]

[Clip Ends]

CD: While team blue was in 2050, I talked to team red to learn about what’s in the pipe at the moment, and the present challenges they are facing – and you can find the link to the full discussion on the episode page. Then it was time for Team Red to time travel.

[Audio Clip From Event]:

[Sound of time machine]

CD: Did it work? Yeah they’re here! Let’s give a hand for the time machine!

[Clip Ends]

CD: while Team Blue came back to 2017 alive. Worth mentioning. And – same principle – I sat with Team Blue to ask them a few questions about their current work- and you can find the full panel discussion on the episode page.

Twenty minutes later – when team red completed its two missions – we brought them back into the present. And here again, everyone made it safe and sound. Thank you to our time machine engineers who kept us out of trouble.

It was time to hear what was observed by our guests in 2050. In other words – what’s their vision of a desirable future, what does a fully circular economy look like? This is where I would like to spend a bit of time today so we can visualise and understand the kind of insights that came out of this experiment.





Wait – let’s get my colleague Eleen on the microphone to help me debrief here. Hello Eleen.

Eleen Murphy [EM]: Hello!

CD: How are you? How circular do you feel today?

EM: Pretty circular…I think I ate too much carrot cake so that could be part of it [laughter].

CD: Okay so you’ve been following our little experiment and spent some time analysing the results.

EM: I have.

CD:  So all their observations were captured in graphic form by our colleague Carlotta Cataldi who did an amazing job in documenting all this live.

EM: Well done Carlotta! And the full graph and drawing is also available on our episode page

CD: Right. But before we go through all the insights, I’d like to play a few sound bites to give our listeners a sense for the dynamic of the discussion. There was a lot of excitement…

EM: Yeah, clearly!


[Audio Clip From Event]:

Mariel Vilella [MV]: Yeah, so we had a really vibrant discussion and we all agree that 2050 is going to look amazing!

Per Bolund [PB]: Of course we have efficiency production patterns, but there will also be very, very localised production patterns where we are actually mending, repairing our goods and our clothes in the local neighbourhood in every block in our cities

Kari Herlevi [KH]: So we discussed that soil health is in the core of the agricultural policy practices, and nutrients are also circulating and are used in a more precise way.

Elin Larsson [EL]: So in terms of materials, we’ve banned fossil fuels, but it’s a multi-diverse palette of different sources.

KH: In addition to that, meat consumption will be reduced and the vegetarian diet increased.

CD: Oh really? We’re all going to be vegetarians?

KH: Nope, but it will be increased.

CD: Okay so we’re going to go to mission two, which was: how will we shop in 2050?

MV: We’re going to have services, and it’s going to be possible to repair your clothes, to give it back, to maybe redesign them so it’s more innovative.

PB: We’ll start sharing our clothes much more. We’ve seen that the cars here are kept standing 92% of the time, and actually I think we all have suits in our wardrobes that are used even less than that. So if we can subscribe to clothing services, so instead someone comes to our door with a wardrobe every week, and we leave it back after the week is done, so we can use our clothing material together and have a common wardrobe – I think that’s a success story.

CD: Yes, interesting, I give a bonus here, but it’s going to be tight!

KH: More importantly, we have shared living spaces, and cities are walkable so you can really get everywhere.

CD: No cars?

MV: No cars.

CD: Oh really? No cars? Show of hands here? Ahh interesting, you get a bonus here!

[Clip Ends] 


EM: You got them pretty excited 🙂

CD: Yes, they were all great and it was fun. So let’s dive in!

EM: Well overall the level of ambition was good, i would say it’s very encouraging. Some bold ideas, which is what we need – remember we’re talking about 33 years down the road so we quite a bit of room to be ambitious here.

CD: Correct. Should we go mission by mission?

EM: Yeah I think so. So, there was four missions as you explained, on four different themes – each mission outlined a question and a couple of SDGs to keep in mind for the observation exercise.

CD: Yeah, so Mission One was: What does textile production & supply look like in 2050?

EM: Yes, and we said we would talk about textiles in to this at this point in the series, so.

CD: Well there you go!

EM: Yeah so there was a lot of focus on materials of course – beyond fossils. So, only recycled, bio-based, closed-loop materials in the future. Production will be much more local than it is today as well, with individual fashion, 3d printers for clothes, and a local makers movement.

CD: Right and these are things we’re starting to see in different regions, but it’s still very much at the prototyping stage. This was a point that we talked about quite a bit in the two panel discussions, you know this local versus global industry for textile or other products. What kind of circle are we drawing here when we talk about circular economy? Global loops of materials, where we’re sending the materials to China where they’re being recycled and brought back into the production line? Or are we talking about more regionalised assets, localised production where communities are in charge of the making, as an advanced version of the makers movement we see today, but with much more localised assets. That was a very interesting point in the panel discussions.

EM: Yeah and it seems most people are unsure of how things should look.

CD: Yes and I think this is mainly because industry and all the big brands are not ready to accept that things will probably look very different, so they don’t want to imagine their empire disappear…and they are a dominant voice in the circular economy discussion today, so…

EM: Exactly

CD: what else came out of this mission?

EM: Well, regulations will demand sustainable procurement they said. No more incineration of textiles, which is great. Full transparency will be provided to the consumers and regulators, and they’ll be using no harming chemicals…

CD: Long way to go…:)

EM: Yeah!


CD: Mission two was also focusing on textiles…

EM: Yes it was, but this time on the consumer side. So: what will shopping for textiles and fashion will look like in 2050?

CD: I want to know!

EM: Yeah, me too! Well, according to team blue: “throwing away will not exist anymore”. So, we don’t throw anything out. And: all clothes will all have a story, they say.

CD: Ah because they will be worn by several people, so that’s where the story is coming from, I like this idea. Maybe not for all my clothes – I don’t know if my socks need to have a story…you see what I mean?

EM: Well your socks will probably be compostable, I’d say…

CD: Of course…great idea. Or edible…

EM: Ugh…We’ll see what the future brings…

CD: It’s true!

EM: Well, moving on anyway! Apparently, they say materials will be completely different from today: more durable, no cotton, no virgin polyester…

CD: Wow, no cotton.

EM: Yeah! That’s a totally different world. According to our guests there will be hubs for services, every thing on a subscription basis. Community wardrobes, repair, seasonal storage, and so on. And, micro taxes, and very high customer service.


CD: All this were great points and I know there are many other ideas around all this but these were the main points. Team Red?

EM: Yeah, so Team Red, you know, were on two different missions. The first one was: What are the fundamentals of the bioeconomy in 2050?

CD: And for those interested in more bioeconomy talks, remember we have a series on this and our previous agriculture episodes also touch on bioeconomy. What did you take from the debriefing?

EM: Well obviously, soil health will need to be at the centre of all policy and programs world wide. Everyone agreed on that.

Forest management was a big topic as well with two team members from Finland and one from Kenya. Intensive restoration in Africa was one thing. And lots of products are made from the trees.

CD: That was also an interesting talking point in the panel discussion with team red: What is sustainable forestry management? How and where do we make those products from trees because as discussed in our series on bioeconomy: you can have sustainable forestry practices in a country like Finland, for instance, but if you send your wood to China to make your cellulosic fibre for instance – where its done in a way that would not be permitted in Europe, with a lot of impact on the environment, harmful chemicals etc. – then the impact of your industry ends up being really bad overall. So i hope that in the coming years we are going to be able to level the playing field.

EM: Yeah that’s a great point. And there is a lot of work to be done on that front. What else… they envisioned hydroponics everywhere, wide spread vegetarianism and zero food waste…

CD: Zero food waste, that would be good. I take that, we will also eat insects. I personally started, if you want to know…

EM: Oh really!? What do you eat?

CD: Well I eat crickets and roasted worms – mainly in the salad and sometimes in my muesli.

EM: Really…

CD: Not in the muesli, but in the salad it’s good. So get used to it Eleen it’s the future!

EM: I’ll keep that in mind. I have a few years to work on it…




CD: Right. Mission 4?

EM: What does living in a circular city look like in 2050?

CD: This one was good.

EM: Yeah, It was, and here’s what we got. Construction materials are sustainable, all buildings are high standard. People are sharing space all the time for everything, ownership is not the standard anymore. Cities are clean and completely silent – and every person has access to nature and biodiversity.

CD: [Laughs] Yeah we went a bit off track here because I don’t know if this is circular economy, the nature and biodiversity part, but why not…

EM: Hey, but it sounds nice, right? There’s also Zero Waste – so no incineration and landfilling of materials. And you had an interesting discussion about this in one panel, right?

CD: Yeah, many people are still unclear whether waste incineration has a seat at the circular economy table or not, and I think it’s still very uncomfortable to admit for many, but everyone is more or less aware of the answer. Maybe we can have a quick listen to that part:



[Audio Clip From Event]

Mariel Vilella [MV]: Today they are having the seperate collection of 85%. By 2030, if all cities in Europe had 85% separate collection, incineration would be reduced to 75% percent. So I think incineration is this model from the 80’s and 90’s and this is what we see also in northern countries – they have invested in this large infrastructure which is there and has created a bit of a lock-in situation, a bit of an over-capacity. And it hasn’t given the flexibility necessary to overcome that model, whereas in the south, this investment didn’t happen, and there’s been more opportunity and more flexibility to not go through the incineration stage. I think this is the lesson that is important to bear in mind when we really want to build a circular economy.

CD: So I have a tough question for Per Bolund. And you see me coming, right? So I’m going to ask it. I’m a resident of Sweden, so I’m going to say “we” – we have this excuse that there’s so much waste to incinerate in Europe, so we’re helping all the countries that have landfilling to recover their waste by importing it to Sweden where we have overcapacity. And that’s okay, and we have decades in front of us. So my question, which I prepared of course, is: Instead of importing waste to burn in Sweden, how do we export a circular economy system that helps those countries move faster towards higher recycling rates, using the zero waste roadmap (which is different than waste-to-landfill)? That’s an important distinction to note in the media. And how is the Green Party engaging on this? Because I’m behind.

Per Bolund [PB]: Excellent. Well I think that we are in a lock-in position and we have to start unlocking it. And we are working on that and we are doing enquiries on how to get the economic system moving from incineration towards recycling, because we know very well from science that we can save so much resources and energy if we reuse and recycle instead of just incinerating. So we are moving ahead, and of course there’s quite a long journey to go, but we are also not just incinerating, we are actually champions when it comes to recycling our goods. So we have very efficient recycling systems and I think that is something that we can really give access to to the rest of the world.

CD: When are you going to convince the government about this Swedish circular economy roadmap? Incineration will not be in the blueprints, will they?

PB: Absolutely. We are taking huge steps forward, so I think that more and more people, both within government and within politics – but also from the consumer, producer and business side – are seeing that we have so much to win in moving to a more circular pattern. Not least providing labour opportunities: the kind of mass production that we’re stuck in today is very efficient when it comes to labour, it’s very automised. And if we can go in a pattern where we are reusing more, we are refurbishing, renovating our materials, that would provide lots and lots of new labour opportunities. This would really solve the problem in many countries, where we have a part of the population that don’t get access to the labour market.

[Clip Ends]



CD: Back to what was said in mission four?

EM: Yeah that was pretty much it… Oh, there was no motorised transport! People appreciate the value of slow living, they walk everywhere. no washing machines, and self cleaning clothes

CD: Self cleaning clothes?

EM: Yep, apparently.

CD: What?

EM Yeah I’m not sure if I can expand on that one, or explain it. But yeah, that’s our future.

CD: Okay well, let’s move on, there are many things we cannot understand from 2017…Can you imagine that one day – inch’allah – we may be listening to this podcast from 2050, sitting here with self-cleaning clothes, feeling stupid because team red were right…I think we are young enough for that to happen…no? We will be in our sixties in thirty three years?

EM: Yeah, our sixties I think. Hey, do you think we’ll still be doing Green Exchange in our sixties?

CD: Of course we will. I calculated it actually that if we keep at fifty episodes per year, it will be episode 1690. One thousand, six hundred and ninety.

EM: That’s a lot of episodes!

CD: Let’s do it!


CD: We’ll post all the links I think for those who wish to dig deeper. I would like to thank everyone who participated in this experiment: the project team and the guests. It’s always pleasant to get support and enthusiasm when we are trying to push the boundaries of what can be done on a stage in 90 minutes. Eleen, thanks for helping me with this debrief, it’s always better when you’re around!

EM: Thank you Camille! Always a pleasure.

CD: Stay tuned, in next episode of this circular economy series we will talk about one big idea that kept coming back during the discussion and that we haven’t covered yet – on purpose – so we can dedicate a full episode to it. We will talk about international cooperation & collaboration in general.

We hope you had a good time. This episode was made possible by the Nordic Council of Ministers, a big thank you to their team for the support in producing this debrief.

Backcasting – that was our focus for today, but really, it should become a habit for everything we are trying to achieve. it is powerful.

We’ll be back soon with more green knowledge, inspiration, and entertainment. Keep up the good work in the meantime!



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