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Engaging adolescents in circular economy through an online business game

Educating the circular entrepreneurs and responsible consumers of the future

Published onJun 21, 2023
Engaging adolescents in circular economy through an online business game
 Saskia Manshoven1,* Wim Van Opstal1, Jeroen Gillabel1, Anse Smeets1
1VITO (Vlaamse Instelling voor Technologisch Onderzoek), Boeretang 200, B- 2400 Mol, Belgium
* [email protected]

Extended abstract

Younger generations are an important group of actors in the transition to a circular economy (Generation Climate Europe and European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, 2021). Not only do they act as consumers, they will also become the entrepreneurs and leaders of the future. In literature, focus is mostly on circular economy business model innovation by companies (Bocken et al., 2017; Geissdoerfer et al., 2018; Guldmann and Huulgaard, 2020; Urbinati et al., 2020). Little research is available on how consumers see their role in the circular economy (Maitre-Ekern and Dalhammar, 2019), in particular in the case of adolescents (Francis and Davis, 2015). As demonstrated by Kirchherr et al. (2018), barriers to circular economy adoption are rarely technological in nature, but rather cultural, related to awareness and willingness to engage with circular models. Most consumers are not aware of their role in circular economy or perceive new business models as high-risk, which are important barriers hindering active involvement and behaviour change (Sijtsema et al., 2020). While young people tend to be more conscious about sustainability than older generations, they lack knowledge, skills, and support to actively participate and implement circular economy principles in practice (Krajnc et al., 2022). Yet, the engagement of adolescents is key in creating a mindshift towards more circular behaviours and increasing acceptance and adoption of circular business models (Korsunova et al., 2021). Moreover, as they are the entrepreneurs and leaders of the future, youngsters play a crucial role as creators of change in redesigning the current economic model and rethinking production and consumption systems.

Circular economy is making its way into industry, professional education, and teaching curricula in schools. Yet, teaching about a circular economy is often considered challenging as it requires multidisciplinary knowledge and is rich in trade-offs, while conventional teacher-led instruction methods are often not very engaging and do not encourage behavioural change (Chappin et al., 2017; Whalen et al., 2018). Recently, game-based learning tools are gaining attention in teaching practice on sustainability and circular economy (Bocken et al., 2019; de la Torre et al., 2021; Manshoven and Gillabel, 2021; Ouariachi et al., 2018; Whalen et al., 2018). Apart from cognitive learnings, hands-on games can also teach skills, such as decision-making, problem solving and entrepreneurship and they are often considered more engaging than traditional, more passive, teaching methods (Wouters et al., 2013; Belvilacqua et al., 2015). While a few games on circular economy and new business models exist aimed at professionals and higher education (Manshoven and Gillabel, 2021; Whalen et al., 2018), the subject is still very new in the school curriculum.

Recently, the game ‘ecoCEO’ was developed as a learning tool to introduce high school students (16-18y) to the principles of circular economy and its supporting business models. In the game, students play in teams competing against their classmates in building and managing a company, making use of different types of investments and circular business models. Throughout their experimentation journey they can earn money and victory points by narrowing, slowing, and closing loops (Bocken et al., 2016). A card game prototype of the game was co-designed with teachers and students and tested extensively in trials with classes across Europe, one of which is described in a paper by Roba et al. (2021). Following feedback of teachers and students, the card game was turned into an online game, addressing its major challenges related to game set-up, rules explanation, game duration, and language, and again tested iteratively in classes. The resulting online game is free to use for teachers across Europe and the world, and available in +20 languages.

In this paper, we investigate the attitudes of adolescents toward circular business model adoption, both from the angle of their role as consumers, as well as from their role as (potential) future entrepreneurs. To do so, we use the user data obtained from the digital ecoCEO game. A digital game has the potential to reach thousands of teachers and students worldwide, enabling the gathering of a large-N database of user data. These user data are twofold: (1) logged game data about their game progress and entrepreneurial decisions in the game context, as well as (2) answers on a short in-game survey about their behaviour and perceptions of circular business models in their personal lives.

Logged game data keep track of the students’ choice of investments in circular strategies in the simulated game context, such as material efficiency improvements, a recycling plant, a reuse facility or circular design, their preference for selling or renting models, and their material management behaviour in terms of mining and recycling materials. The in-game survey investigates students’ prior experiences with circular business models, such as buying or selling second-hand, renting, or repairing, in a selection of everyday product categories relevant to them. It also gauges their current perception of circular models and behaviours using a set of statements related to smartphone use and clothing, capturing their views on business models based on reuse, repair, and sufficiency (Bocken and Short, 2016), including considerations such as access versus ownership (Poppelaars et al., 2018), sustainability bias (Colasante and D’Adamo, 2021) and circular premium (D’Adamo and Lupi, 2021). Since risk aversion and short vs. long term focus are important challenges often mentioned related to circular business model adoption by companies (Rizos et al., 2016; Takacs et al., 2022; Tan et al., 2022), these characteristics are also surveyed and related to observed and reported attitudes towards circular business models.

Combining both the game data and the survey responses in an integrated statistical analysis provides a unique insight in the adoption behaviour, perceptions, and appreciation for circular economy business models among a relevant group of actors: young people who do not only act as consumers in their own right, but will also become the entrepreneurs and decision makers of the future.

Analysing this unique dataset will enable us to answer the following research questions:

·       RQ1: How willing are European adolescents to adopt circular economy strategies and business models?

·       RQ2: What is the relationship between risk aversion and time preferences, and the adoption of circular business models in a simulated game context?

·       RQ3: What differences and similarities do we notice between revealed game-based entrepreneurial decision-making processes and survey-based consumer choices?

Results are expected to provide insights in adolescents’ perceptions of circular economy, a group that is often under-studied in literature. The strength of the game tool lies in the combination of it being a hands-on, experimentation-provoking, simulation tool for learning, as well as a data gathering tool on user behaviour and perceptions on circular economy. Distinguishing between smartphones and clothing, we expect to see different  levels of acceptance for the different circular strategies. We anticipate that respondents with high risk aversion and preference for short-term benefits will be less inclined to adopt circular business models. While the game in itself is a valuable learning tool to introduce circular economy in the classroom, results of the data research can contribute to designing more effective awareness raising activities to engage adolescents in the transition to circular economy.


Gamebased learning, circular business models, adolescents, secondary schools, online game. 


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