[Blogpost suggestion & development] Cradle to cradles strategy to spread and arguments to criticize it

Hey everybody,

I think it would be nice to have a blogpost somehow finding out what are the differences between Closed Source strategies for scaling Cicular Economy and Open Source strategies. This might help to have a fruitful and insight producing discussion and to build bridges between different approaches. I came up with it, when I found a new understanding on what the strategy of Cradle to Cradle might be:

There is a german interview podcast about science I follow and in the recent episode the guest is the cradle to cradle founder Michael Braungart. Of course have I listened to Braungart talking before, but never for 90 minutes. And after 90 minutes I had the pieces of the puzzle together to understand their strategy for spreading.

We always said that cradle to cradle is a phantastic design idea but with their closed source approach they don’t have a working strategy for really spreading it to the world at scale.

Here is what I understood, what might be their strategy:

##Politics: laws in favour of c2c solutions
Braungart is talking about that the law should change: It should demand non toxic materials etc. – basically stuff that cradle to cradle solutions can deliver.

If this would happen, all the cradle-to-cradle companies that hold patents or solutions for products and materials have a huge market over night, given to them by law; they can license their patents and inventions for example. With laws like this in place, cradle-to-cradle solutions would have been an incredible business investment!

In that light all the rest he is saying makes sense! In the podcast he repeats 3 times (!), that when you print the IKEA catalogue in Germany, you are allowed to use ‘only’ 50 toxic chemicals. Chinese printers use 90. So we let the Chinese print the catalogue and fly it in to Germany.

But with laws forbidding these chemicals in Europe also Chinese companies would be forced to avoid them if they wish to continue to print for us, and so they would have to buy the cradle-to-cradle patents or licenses… He repeats several times, that “innovation” is the only thing we have left in Europe to sell to the world.


Ok, this is logically coherent. A strategy based on laws and patent logic.

##Collecting Arguments Against It
But if it is logically coherent, is it necessarily right?

I think it should be possible to find a number of arguments challenging it. I suggest to start to collect them. Paste your ideas below. Once we have a number of arguments together lets create a Blogpost, publish it and push those arguments to the world as a contribution to the discussion. (Something similar we could do one day with the Circular Economy concept the EMF is pushing). You know, stimulate debate.


Here are two rather obvious arguments for a start. The second one is a bit longer but i think pretty interesting!

###(1) The patent system is broken
The logic is build somehow on the patent system. And the patent system is broken in many areas and harmful for innovation. https://www.eff.org/patent

###(2) Secrecy is bad for innovation in general, & especially in the field of circular economy!
Where the solutions are not patented they are at least kept a secret! So the strategy for spread described above creates or demands a culture of secrecy and intransparency! And this is bad for innovation.

While it is not sure, if the strategy described above will work out, it is sure, that strategies of open sharing and open sources definitely would help to teach and spread existing solutions and improve them in that process. It would allow to build circular networks that would bring these innovations even to the next level.

Every circular economy or cradle to cradle concept is about networks with different ways of collaboration – networks where all outputs of every manufacturer or factory become input materials or resources for others. To invent and arrange these complex networks in a flexible and dynamic economy you need transparency!

You can try to build them without transparency but the transaction costs (= negotiation, communication, contracting, trust-building costs) would go through the roof! The pace for setting up these networks would be super slow and the networks probably very fragile because redundancy is not there. And it is very questionable if the critical amount and spread of innovations needed to make politicians pass a law demanding them can be reached with this strategy at all (politicians create usually only laws that people can follow easily. Noone will pass a law today demanding that cars must fly or run on rock instead of gasoline.)

IN SHORT: Secrecy increases transaction costs for collaboration massively. But c2c and Circular Economy are about better and cheaper collaboration.

(transaction costs and the enormous effect on them of open sharing are very well explained here in this classic 2005 TED Talk by Clay Shirky “institutions vs. collaboration”; watch on Youtube)

Further Arguments against C2C:

A 100% closed cycle for technical nutrients is an illusion, there will always be abrasion, leaks and spills, and residue on biological nutrients that were use alongside at some point during the cycle. So we need to know what things are made of, so we can substitute technical nutrients quickly when it turns out that they’re not so good after all or that a better alternative has been developed. This will also allow OS-designers to know, which nutrients are most urgent to find alternatives to.

A closed design does not allow for a very important aspect of OS: easy to open, to reproduce broken parts, to repair, to re-use parts (modularity). Closed C2C does not promote longer life cycles and better re-usability of parts. However, recycling must be the last step of the cycle design, not the only one.

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Hey @transitionmaike,

The second one is great! But i am not sure if i understand the first one. Could you elaborate a bit more on it?

In the C2C-approach they suggest to keep the two nutrient cycles, biological and technical, cleanly separated. As I said I think this is an illusion.
Many substances are toxic in very small amounts, and often this is only known after it has been in use for a while. Especially when we develop new substances, we may experiment with some that we haven’t tested yet. So when we want to design cycles that are sustainable, we need to know what is in them in case we find out that some substance is not sustainable. Closed design does not give us this information.

Hi Lars,

I’m crossposting from Facebook:

In my mind, Cradle-to-cradle cannot help but be what and where it is
in the natural evolution to a more open world
so rather than demonize it
it is more effective to recognize its importance, the role it has played to raise awareness and what we must do now to evolve to a new system using it as the launchpad

So many professional written articles about McDonough describe him as very me-centric and concerned with IP
This in itself is not uncommon
What is interesting is that circular design
and the broader societal impact it encompasses
such as industrial symbiosis and economics
can only truly work if there is transparency
It will be challenging to implement industrial symbiosis on a global scale
if everyone keeps their chemical and process formulations ringfenced

C2C emerged out of a ME world of private IP
but its greatest impact can only come from a shift to a WE world of open knowledge

The bigger question that C2C raises for me is this:
How do we nurture a broader transition from private IP to shared knowledge?

I actually woke up thinking about the limitations of private IP
A very simple idea occurred to me this morning
Private IP disallow human feedback loops
which are so vital to true innovation

When I know what you have done
I can take that knowledge and add my new ideas to it
creating something new and better
The whole evolves to be greater than the sum of its parts
when IP can be freely shared

Private IP ringfences knowledge artificially
preventing it from being shared
and hence, preventing me from contributing my ideas to yours

In this respect, Elon Musk’s bold move
might be a strong signal for the virtues of shared knowledge
He held onto his intellectual knowledge for the same reason many do, to protect it from some bigger fish
Yet, in the end, he made the decision to open source it all
because he realized that the innovation that can result
is far greater when shared with more people
than just the few engineers in his company

Today, our collective ignorance in applying mass industrialization
has led to an ecological crisis of enormous proportions
Innovation is therefore of the utmost urgency
and we must do everything we can to share ideas
and foster the highest rate of innovation we can
to collectively tackle the crisis

The framework has shifted
It is no longer about protecting my knowledge assets to make the greatest return for my shareholders
but rather, it is a race against time
to salvage human civilization from the destructive forces we have unleashed in nature

In a sense, the struggle to free circular design
the struggle against cradle-to-cradle
which a form of ringfenced circular design
is the birthing of the new WE paradigm
struggling to emerge from the old ME paradigm
We are in the transition period
where there is clinging to ME
whilst aspiration towards WE

There is a tension within
as part of us worries about our own personal survival
"If I give away my knowledge freely, how will I live if those that have more capital can simply take it and build a better mousetrap than me?"
and the other part is drawn by the idealism of a collaborative society
This tension pulls us towards ME at one moment
then pulls us towards WE in the next

As long as we are still in a predominantly ME system
we will face great challenges
The few brave souls who are willing to absorb the personal losses
are the couragous soldiers of the new paradigm

Yet if we unite together collectively, we who share in the WE vision
we can a more effective buffer against harm from a ME-centric world
We can co-create another parallel WE economy
that lives within the ME economy
and nurture it to grow
By supporting other like-minded people by patronizing the goods and services produced in this new model
we support each other’s emancipation from the ME paradigm
and the co-creation of the new WE paradigm

The transition time towards a freer world
is always accompanied by equal amounts of confusion, attachment, insecurity, doubt
as well as hope and excitement
…all signs of an encroaching whole system paradigm shift


I think it’s important to remember that:

Slowing loops (Walter Stahel) is about product flows = repair, remanufacturing, refurbishment, servicing
Closing loops / C2C is about material flows = recycling

C2C is an important story, but only one part of the bigger picture.

I’m not sure what this is referring to exactly. In Europe we have REACH regulations to which all chemicals entering the EU (above a certain quantity) must be tested.

Maybe he’s suggesting that governments incentivize that chemical companies bring cleaner chemicals to market, which might make sense because at the moment the regulations are more push than pull.