Hy-Fi - a circular tower of organic bricks. Credit © Arup

+ We are on the cusp of a third industrial revolution - it offers a radical vision of really doing more with less, or even doing more with nothing at all.

We are on the cusp of a third industrial revolution, where a convergence of new technologies in communication, energy and transport will completely change the structure of the economy from linear to circular. As with any revolution, there will be winners as well as losers. Only those firms who are prepared for what is coming will survive.

In the new, circular economy, waste will be reduced to near-zero, as products are re-designed and services changed so that any waste becomes an input to another process. 

Value is not destroyed; instead it is preserved – and also created by sharing under-utilised assets. This model is not only less environmentally damaging, but economically more efficient, meaning many markets based on the current linear take-make-dispose process are being turned upside-down by new, circular disruptive innovators.

I think this is really exciting. It offers a radical vision of really doing more with less, or even doing more with nothing at all. YouTube’s costs barely change whether 10 or 10,000 people access their service, offering enormous freedom to users.  Now imagine the world when this is the norm rather than the exception.

The impact of the new circular economy is already plain to see. Ecovative, a company founded by Eben Bayer, produces a material grown from a fungus which is cost-competitive with current building insulation products, but uses no virgin natural resources: only organic waste and fungal spores. Last year saw a pavilion constructed from bricks of this material at MoMA PS1, with engineering support from Arup.

Resource sharing platforms such as Uber and Airbnb are also part of it. They allow under-utilised assets, namely un-driven cars or empty homes, to be offered to the market at much lower costs than the market incumbents. More importantly, by increasing the efficiency with which existing assets are used, fewer assets are needed to meet society’s demands, so overall resource use is reduced.

As a structural engineer, I recognise the opportunities offered by the circular economy. Structural engineers are responsible for the consumption of huge volumes of natural resources, the value of which is often destroyed at the end of a building’s life. The opportunities for adding value by applying circular thinking to structural engineering are huge. 

You might be thinking, ‘so what?’ I would caution against such complacency. To borrow a phrase from Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything. As the third industrial revolution develops, distinctions between markets will blur, boundaries between professional silos will break down, and society will transition to a more prosperous but less primary energy-intensive model. 

Some firms will adapt, many start-ups will flourish, and many, those not able or willing to adapt, will go to the wall. As wave after wave of disruptive innovators enter the new marketplace, how will your firm react?