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Exploring inter-organisational collaboration in the circular economy: A proximity-based framework
Growing resource degradation and scarcity over the globe, resulting from our linear ‘take-make-dispose’ pattern of production and consumption have resulted in a calll for a paradigm shift in resource use. Against this background the transition to a circular economy (CE) has been promoted. CE aims at resource conservation through smart product design and retention of the maximal value of products and materials brought into the economy through consecutive cycles of use by various means such as repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling (Geissdoerfer et al., 2016; Kirchherr et al., 2017). Literature suggests that collaboration with existing or new partners – from the product value chain and beyond – is vital in order to implement the technological and organisational innovations required for the reconfigurations into circular value chains (Ellen Mac Arthur Foundation, 2014; Geng & Doberstein, 2010).
While such inter-organisational collaboration is widely considered to be important, a closer look at the literature reveals that collaboration processes and their success characteristics are not yet well understood in literature and in practice. Geng & Doberstein (2010) identified the lack of well-functioning collaboration as one of the major barriers preventing CE from diffusing more widely in China. In scientific literature, collaboration in the context of CE has hardly been addressed: a Scopus search on ‘circular economy’ AND ‘collaboration’ reveals only 36 articles to exist on the subject. Out of these, only a handful of contributions build on theoretical literature constructing a solid framework for analysis. As a complex, multi-disciplinary field, the circular economy derives its analytical tools from combining insights from multiple fields such as industrial ecology, cleaner production, reverse logistics, and waste management.
This paper proposes a new framework for studying inter-organisational collaboration processes in circular economy implementation which is based on an established theoretical approach from innovation sciences and human geography. Using Boschma’s dimensions of geographical, organisational, institutional, and social proximity allows for studying the dynamics and characteristics of actors in CE collaboration processes, particularly with regard to cross-functional learning and knowledge transmission. Having constructed the framework, we explain how the proximities can be assessed and collaboration results be analytically represented. While commonly quantitative indicators are used for measuring proximities, we add to the existing body of literature by arguing for a widening of the application of the proximity concept through qualitative assessment methods and indicators which provide for new types of analytic insights. In a first empirical application of the framework we show that it can reveal how inter-organisational characteristics influence collaboration in CE. Tentative results also show that some proximities are relatively more important than others and that their importance changes over the collaboration process. We also conclude that the mixed method approach of combining quantitative indicators with more qualitative forms of measuring the proximities offers considerable potential for extension for the proximity approach from being applied in classic technological innovation contexts to complex, uncertain contexts such as in CE implementation.