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A Design Thinking Approach to Circularity-Promoting Inter-Municipal Administration Structures

Experiences from the project ‘bergisch.circular – the circular municipality’

Published onJun 21, 2023
A Design Thinking Approach to Circularity-Promoting Inter-Municipal Administration Structures
Jan Bitter-Krahe1,*, Anna Mader2, Laura Bergs1, Franziska Erbe1, Niklas Wirtgen2, Johanna Liedtke2
1Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt, Energie gGmbH;
2Neue Effizienz gemeinnützige GmbH
*[email protected]

Extended abstract

Today’s production and consumption patterns go along with high consumption of resources and generation of waste, both of which, among others, negatively impact biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions (Khajuria et al., 2022). The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production) underlines that to mitigate these impacts, the current linear economic system must become more sustainable (United Nations, 2016). A solution is the transition to a circular economy, an economic approach which aims to keep resources and products in cycles as long as possible to reduce resource use and associated environmental impacts (Chizaryfard et al., 2021; Kravchenko et al., 2019; Kristensen and Mosgaard, 2020; Papageorgiou et al., 2021; Sánchez Levoso et al., 2020). Municipal administrations and local governments play a key role in supporting this transition as they break down overarching sustainability and circularity goals into local level decision-making (Papageorgiou et al., 2021). Additionally, inter-municipal networks and cooperation can increase the impacts from sustainability and circularity-focused decisions on a local level by enabling synergies and “strength in numbers” (Sarra et al., 2020). However, municipal actors often still lack knowledge on circular economy as well as time, resources, opportunities or the mandate to develop and implement innovative structures that foster circularity and sustainability (Obersteg et al., 2019; Sarra et al., 2020).

Building on these aspects, in our project ‘bergisch.circular’, we follow a science-based, collaborative and creative approach to develop and implement circularity-promoting inter-municipal administration structures within the three neighboring municipalities Wuppertal, Solingen and Remscheid and evaluate how these aid in promoting circular economy on city and regional level. Within bergisch.circular, we follow a definition of circular economy based on  several relevant sources (Circular Cities Declaration, 2020; Kirchherr et al., 2017; Papageorgiou et al., 2021; Potting et al., 2016):

“Circular Economy is understood as a holistic economic concept that keeps products, components and materials in the economic cycle for as long as possible by integrating the 10R strategies (Refuse, Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Refurbish, Remanufacture, Repurpose, Recycle and Recover), thus replacing the "end-of-life" concept. The extended life cycle and closed-loop recycling reduces both resource consumption and waste generation, as well as the associated emissions. In the implementation in cities, the involvement of administrative institutions, citizens, companies and research institutions must be taken into account.” (Own definition based on Circular Cities Declaration, 2020; Kirchherr et al., 2017; Papageorgiou et al., 2021; Potting et al., 2016)

Based on this holistic and cooperation-focused definition, we use a Design Thinking approach to collaboratively develop, test, iterate and implement solutions for circularity-promoting inter-municipal administration structures. Due to the creative and open concept of ‘Design Thinking’, there are numerous different interpretations and implementations of the methodology (Meinel et al., 2011). Within bergisch.circular, we structure our approach according to the five phases of Design Thinking according to the Hasso-Plattner-Institute (Uebernickel et al., 2020) which is one widely acknowledged in German-speaking areas. In the following, the five phases as well as their implementation within our project approach are summarized:

1.     Understanding and observing: Analyzing the status quo situation in the region

2.     Defining the perspective: Familiarizing with the consortium and substantiating the problem

3.     Ideation: Developing and selecting ideas for circularity-promoting inter-municipal administration structures

4.     Prototyping: Creating prototypes of administration and communication structures

5.     Testing: Implementing and further developing structures

Along these phases, we follow an iterative process, i.e. we experiment, jump back to previous phases if necessary, include new knowledge and experiences and re-develop prototypes until successful solutions are developed and implemented (Meinel et al., 2011; Uebernickel et al., 2020). To overcome the challenge of lacking resources and mandate, project offices in all three municipalities were created and municipal decision makers included in the process.

So far, we conducted a series of Design Thinking workshops, going through the different phases of the approach. All workshops consistently aligned with three main principles: (1) An open and collaborative co-creation process was followed, (2) actors and stakeholders from the three involved municipalities of Wuppertal, Solingen and Remscheid were actively involved and (3) developed solutions should both contribute to circular economy on a municipal level as well as inter-municipal cooperation. Within the structured but iterative and flexibly moderated first workshop series, we developed two prototypes for inter-municipal administration structures – one focusing on structured learning and exchange and one focusing on the integration of circular practices in administration structures and hierarchies. The iterative development process included several feedback loops with other municipal actors and stakeholders as well as iterative improvements between these loops. Utilizing the flexibility and solution-oriented approach of the Design Thinking methodology, we conducted additional workshops and, based on this, installed collaborative ‘task forces’ to explore additional solutions and bring circular economy into local decision-making processes.

Thus, after approximately 1.5 years, i.e. half of bergisch.circular’s project duration, we have collaboratively developed and explored potential solutions for circularity-promoting inter-municipal administration structures for the three participating municipalities. However, these solutions are yet to be implemented and tested in the actual administration structures. Still, based on the first experiences from the project and especially the followed Design Thinking approach, there are several preliminary conclusions, we can draw. As promising the iteratively developed solutions might seem, it is crucial to acknowledge that the success of (inter-)municipal transformation processes, especially structural ones, are dependent not only on the motivation and innovativeness of the involved actors but also on political dynamics, willingness to change and available resources of other relevant stakeholders. This includes, for example, decision-makers on various levels who need to support rather than impede the transformation process. Therefore, benefits and challenges need to be communicated transparently. This, however, not only includes societal, organizational, economic and environmental aspects but especially perceived personal benefits and challenges.

Another important stakeholder group to be considered are administration staff who might be facing structural and task-related changes. If solutions are perceived as “threatening” rather than beneficial, there is little chance of a successful implementation. Finally, the development and implementation process as well as potential solutions need to be sensitive to current dynamics. This also includes issues that are seemingly not or only indirectly connected to our project’s main focus topic of circular economy. Especially the recent war of aggression against Ukraine and related multiple crises (energy, resources, migration etc.) influence all areas of municipal administration and shift the focus away from topics received as more abstract, such as circular economy or sustainability.

These experiences from the first half of the project underline the potentials of the open and flexible Design Thinking approach we are following within bergisch.circular. The approach allows us to include the potentially impeding aspects described above into the further development and testing of solutions. These additional inputs are used to improve the solutions, increase their usefulness and, thus, their potential for success. Therefore, in the second half of bergisch.circular we will resume following the five phases described above, especially focusing on the fifth phase ‘Testing’. Based on this, we aim to contribute to the circular transformation in the three participating municipalities and beyond.


Circular Economy, Municipal Administration, Inter-Municipal Cooperation, Design Thinking 


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