Circular economy: Why it needs a new Silicon Valley

16 August 2021

How can we help the circular economy to achieve a breakthrough? In the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region, an accelerator based on the model of Silicon Valley is currently being created - the Circular Valley. Initiator Carsten Gerhardt talked to us about his plans.


The headquarters of Circular Valley - home of the Circular Valley Foundation - has an almost iconic location. The nearly 70-meter-high gas boiler in the Barmen district of Wuppertal is a listed building and stands on the exact spot where Friedrich Bayer founded what would later become a global corporation in 1863. Early industrialization found one of its culmination points in Germany here and made Barmen rich - while a certain Friedrich Engels drew his own conclusions from experiencing the dark side.

The industrial monument is now a state-of-the-art event center, including the largest 360-degree screen in Europe. "It's an incredibly authentic place," says Carsten Gerhardt, "and that's why we threw the first stone in the water right here."



ALUMINIUM: Mr. Gerhardt, with the name 'Circular Valley' you evoke quite a big association.

Carsten Gerhardt: Of course, this is where great things are to begin. We want to create a place that will be as important for the Circular Economy as Silicon Valley is for digitization. A place where concerted efforts are made to develop solutions and bring them to market.


Of all the places to do this, why are you doing it here?

Gerhardt: Because there is quite simply no better place for it than the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region. Only here do five decisive factors come together in this form: First, there are a myriad of companies here that have a need for circular economy, including more than 300 global market leaders. Second, some of the most important companies in the circular economy are also based here. And third, there is a unique scientific environment in this region, an enormous density of universities and research institutes working on the topic of circularity. In addition, there are two cultural factors.


You are referring to multiculturalism?

Gerhardt: Exactly, this region is decidedly cosmopolitan; it has always been an immigration region. And it is also the site of the first and second industrial revolutions on the European continent. So why shouldn't the next, the fifth industrial revolution also find its center in this environment? In my eyes, the five aspects are the core of our narrative: Basically, nothing has to be reinvented here. It's just a matter of cleverly bringing together what already exists.


You established Circular Valley as a non-profit foundation. What role should it play in this pentagon?

Gerhardt: The role as a network node. This is where knowledge and skills are to be shared, where providers and demanders of knowledge meet.


And what are you planning in concrete terms?

Gerhardt: A key pillar is public relations work, because of course we also have to reach consumers. Incidentally, I believe that this works best through art.


Through art?

Gerhardt: Yes, just think of the 'Trash People' by the object artist H.A. Schult - I've hardly ever seen better public relations work for the topic of sustainability.


And the core of your activities?

Gerhardt: At the heart of our activities is the establishment of an accelerator: Idea-rich startups from all over the world should be able to come into contact with established companies here. A third point is still somewhat in the future: If we can establish such a place, then Circular Valley not only has the right, but also the duty, to make joint recommendations for action to politicians.


You also have politics itself on board?

Gerhardt: Yes, the Minister of Economics as patron, the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs and the Minister of the Environment of North Rhine-Westphalia. Thematically, then, the "Holy Trinity" of sustainability.


Circular Valley is more than a German or an European project?

Gerhardt: It has to be a global project, we need the connection to the world. After all, our problems don't stop at borders. If we do it right, a place of longing can emerge here, where people from all over the world can be fertilized and then return home with new knowledge and new ideas.

You will also be presenting Circular Valley at the ALUMINIUM Business Summit in Düsseldorf at the end of September. An obvious setting?

Gerhardt: Absolutely, aluminum is the prime example of a material that can be wonderfully circulated. Aluminum is extremely valuable and difficult to extract, which is why it should remain in the cycle as long as possible. I have the impression that this knowledge has also largely reached the public.


The Covid pandemic has fueled the discussion about globalization versus regionalization. Do you see Circular Economy as a driver in one direction?

Gerhardt: I don't see any really good reason to produce goods in the one, big world factory and then transport them halfway around the globe. You have to consider that the share of pure production costs in the total price of products has fallen drastically in recent decades. Whether a 50-euro shirt is produced for 1.50 or two euros has become almost irrelevant in relation. If we start to rethink this, we can also bring back employment. But we have to stop putting pressure on the price precisely where the material footprint ultimately arises.


In the past decades, countless initiatives around greening have quietly gone to sleep. Why should it work this time?

Gerhardt: I believe the time is right for several reasons. For one, there is a broad understanding that we need to act. Covid has reinforced this awareness: We have seen that we are not resilient enough, that damaging biodiversity will ultimately backfire on us. Moreover, unlike decades ago, we now have the necessary technologies. And third, there is incentivization - the Green Deal, for example, doesn't just include bans, it also includes lots of incentives.

Our planet has fantastic technologies, sufficient free labor and money in abundance. So, in my view, the conditions are right.


But can it happen fast enough?

Gerhardt: We know from history wonderful examples of how people were able to change completely within an astonishingly short time. If it really has to be done, if everyone gets down to work, we can make a decisive change in our economy within five years..


Experience Carsten Gerhardt at the:

ALUMINIUM Business Summit 2021:
September 28-29, 2021
Altes Stahlwerk Düsseldorf

Further information and programme


About the person

Carsten Gerhardt is a partner at Kearney Germany responsible for sustainability and circular economy issues. Gerhardt studied physics, mathematics and English in Germany, the USA and Canada and earned his doctorate in theoretical solid-state physics. In addition to his work as a management consultant, he is also the initiator of the Wuppertal Movement and Circular Valley.