Going back in Circles, are we?

In Scene 3. 37 in the play Acadia, Thomasina prods Septimus by saying: “Every week I plot your equations dot for dot, x’s against y’s in all manner of algebraical relation, and every week they draw themselves as commonplace geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God’s truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose? Do we believe nature is written in numbers?”

Septimus answers. “ We do.”

Thomasina retorts, “Then why do your shapes describe only the shapes of manufacture?”

Septimus: “I do not know.”

Thomasina: “Armed thus, God could only make a cabinet.”

Well, that was well-deserved cynicism apportioned to those wielding all the wood, glass, iron, steel or silver in this world for centuries. So much so that the linear (exponential too) tangents of reckless consumption, capitalism and consumerism became easy scapegoats for those screaming about environmentalism and sustainability.

After all, it was the geometry that we were goofing up on when we forgot to dispose, recycle or send back stuff after all the sourcing, manufacturing and consumption. When stuff did not circle back, it piled up – in landfills, in smog blankets, in atmosphere, in ocean sinks and in humanity’s collective oblivion.

That’s why when someone utters the word ‘Circle’, it sounds both odd and refreshing.

The Circular Economy, a project of the World Economic Forum is spelunking the caves of a forgotten world at a time that could just not have been more precise.

Torches of disruptive models are shining ahead all around the world right now when uberisation has taken almost every industry by storm. Technology is crawling slowly but firmly ahead, uprooting old ways as apps bring users and providers together like never before.

New icons are enabling people to tap upon an app for something but simultaneously, they are empowering them to stave off middlemen, unnecessary layers of market and hence irrelevant carbon in the process.

Sounds good and about time, doesn’t it?

But is it all just a new brochure with new frills and flounces?

What is a Circle, again?

Towards a Circular Economy (TCE) highlights how when the global population will hit nine billion by 2030, with as many as three billion new middle-class consumers, there would be an unprecedented pressure on natural resources to meet future consumer demand.

That’s where the concept of the circular economy as a redesign of this future will fit in perfectly. This is a design where industrial systems would be restorative and regenerative by intention and design. A fourth Industrial Revolution so to say, should ideally be vastly different from what the first one brought (new sources of energy – leveraging carbon-based fuels deposited and stored in the ground over the course of hundreds of millions of years and hence, linear models of production). The fourth one would not be linear, and thus, a tad better.

In this linear geometry the ‘take, make and waste’ iterations not only led to deforestation, pollution and carbon impacts but also scuppered the quality of life for people, many species of plants, animals, and marine life.

But the current market wheels, propelled by unicorns of the post-Uber world, lubricated by the power of app economy, are taking a new direction altogether. Now, at least in theory, the circular market enabled by technology allows a user to know the source of every component in the products, how it was produced, the energy consumed in its production, who may own it next and how much they will pay you for it.

WEF is upbeat about the outcomes of combining circular economy principles with digitization technologies.

Not to forget, advancements like sensor technologies and IoT trends where each component that goes into a manufacturing process will be connected and the data collated from those connections would empower people with hitherto-latent knowledge on the source of the product, how it was produced, and the energy consumed in its production.

As WEF reports have put it unequivocally: “The circular economy has the potential to positively affect everyone’s lives and everything we buy for a more sustainable future.”

“We are in the midst of a digital transformation in which technology is helping businesses, entire industries and countries to enable, differentiate and fundamentally define their strategies. This is driving a tremendous amount of innovation and economic growth, while also creating unprecedented challenges as resource and energy consumption increase.”

Oblivion and ignorance would cease to be cocoons anymore where humanity, consumers and manufacturers was dumping their duties and concerns about environment’s bigger picture.

The curves of bigger picture, so far lost under the dust of convenience and constraints, are now being re-drawn through new apps and technology tools.

The circle is remerging.

But would it matter?

Do aggregation platforms or apps empowering customers or the ones cutting middlemen help in reducing wastage or carbon footprint?

Xitij Kothi, CEO and Founder, Parcelled (that aggregates multiple last mile distribution companies at the backend and distributes demand generated from its app/website amongst them) nods in affirmative.

“Internet is solving basic problems in India today. In existing businesses, use of technology is creating a sustainable business use case by making processes more efficient leading to cost reduction, higher productivity and utilization of assets. We ensure that every player does not need to have physical presence/stores/outlets in different places to generate demand. When it comes to reducing wastage or carbon footprint, if you look at our business model you will realize that we are cutting down on the number of middlemen involved in the entire logistics cycle which in turn reduces amount of fuel consumed.”

When Ramanathan, Founder & CEO, Inthree decided to tap the rural part of the pyramid for an e-commerce foray of its own kind, he chose the existing Indian Postal network over a new distribution channel infrastructure. “Our channel strategy worked well as points like Postal network or kirana shops are both easily accessible as well as trust-worthy for a rural customer. All that was needed was to level out some challenges through a tracking system or bringing structure to a relatively unstructured market.

Shashank Kumar, Co-Founder, Razorpay brings out the indirect contributions that being a quintessentially tech-driven player allows.

As an online payments company, it would be rather ironical if we used paper in any form. At Razorpay we’ve completely eliminated the need to use paper. The on-boarding process for sellers is also completely online, avoiding the tedious route of printing, signing and shipping of documents. All that the seller needs is a laptop and an internet connection to run a business online. We also encourage our employees to reduce their dependency on paper, allowing them to help understand the various needs our sellers might have considering all transactions are paperless. Employees also have whiteboards embedded on their desks, which eliminates the need to have post-it notes or additional paper. These are small baby steps, but also necessary ones to ensure that we build a better planet for tomorrow and that starts with not cutting trees”.

Rough edges of the circle

For e-commerce and other start-ups, the number of concerns is as high as the advantages that this new wave can mean for environment.

The number of rejections, and logistics-related kilometers are always staring you in the eye if you are a carbon-concerned player.

Kothi confronts the problem and wonders about this aspect being a major slice of lifecycle for this industry. “We want to and are trying hard to address these issues through ways like Q&C checks, inspection level work on returns, as well as remarketing and nearby fulfillment centres. This could mean working on the zig zag models but in one or two cycles a lot of carbon footprint can get covered.”

Aggregation platforms or apps are a great way of solving the problem of mapping demand and supply where either demand or the supply is sporadic, Kothi avers but he points out that this is true as long as the cost of the aggregation platform/app leads to significant cost savings for the business/customer. “Or if the problem is a significant pain point for the customer for which the customer is ready to pay a premium in case the cost of this platform is higher than current alternative.”

Then there are those hidden carbon or environmental costs that new-age disruptors may be tagging along? Aren’t this new flurry of apps and avalanches of online players pumping up more consumerisation and logistics wastage? Would the fuel consumption for taxi apps or increased server usage for online aggregators not be a question-mark again?

Industry players choose to look at the glass half full here.

In the long term, carbon footprint can be significantly reduced through such technologies.” Kothi opines that taxi apps are being able to map supply and demand so well that cabs have to travel the minimal distance without a passenger (called dry runs) or logistics reducing the distance travelled by a product till it reaches customer doorstep to the minimal by improving local utilization, efficient supply chain etc.

WEF’s report latest report, supported by SUN, also concluded that a circular economy leads to gains brought about by the impending technology revolution, and in the case of Europe double that positive impact to an annual net benefit of €1.8 trillion by 2030.

It is also being wagered that the circular economy would have significant impacts on the environment, since carbon dioxide emissions would halve by 2030, relative to today’s levels.

WEF has strongly suggested measures like reinventing a regenerative food system, based on the optimisation of nutrient loops, and minimizing significant negative externalities that linear industrialised current model is responsible for.

The potential is there certainly, and a tremendous one at that. Apps and e-commerce unicorns may add a layer here and cut a layer there. But when it comes to gestalt theory, the big picture is the one that always counts – the whole rather than the parts of any system or its properties.

Geometry still works.

Pratima H


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