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AI to support transition to circular economy

Could Finland become a model country for harnessing artificial intelligence to support the transition towards a sustainable economic system based on a circular economy, asks Minna-Maari Harmaala.


Minna-Maari Harmaala

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 06.11.2020

A circular economy is a model striving for ecological sustainability and a so-called new economic basis which aims to ensure that production and consumption remain within the capacity of our planet. This objective is backed by the longevity of materials, avoiding throw-away culture and the efficient reuse, recycle, refashion and repair of products, raw materials and waste. A circular economy has also been set as a goal for Finland, and a strategic programme to promote a circular economy for Finland for 2035 will be prepared in 2020. The aim is to achieve an explicit and large-scale systemic change in the way the economy works.

The participation and engagement of all economic operators in a shared goal will be needed for the circular economy to be a success. We must all come together. This also calls for a new kind of cooperation to ensure that we will learn to utilise raw materials, products and discarded materials as well as waste. Or as the old saying goes: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. The problem is that the current economic system is so complicated that we as companies, consumers and organisations may not be connected to exactly those actors with whom cooperation would be essential to achieve a circular economy. Thus, a circular economy requires new learning and an exchange of information, which our society and economic system or network of companies are not yet accustomed to.

In 2017–2019, Finland ran an artificial intelligence programme under the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment which concluded that turning Finland into a world leader in artificial intelligence is a realistic aim. The report recommended “investments in the use of data and AI, especially in business to business markets in which Finland already has strong leading expertise“. Here the pieces fall into place remarkably well as we harness AI to support the circular economy.

According to McKinsey’s report, AI can be used to support a circular economy in three different ways: by promoting design, enabling or supporting the realisation of the circular economy business models and by optimising infrastructure. It is possible to use AI to design new products, components and materials that support a circular economy through an efficient iterative planning process supported by machine learning that will enable fast prototyping and testing. Artificial intelligence can optimise the circulation and reutilisation of products and materials by combining data and learning from data, and through that, it can considerably increase the benefits and competitiveness of the business models of a circular economy. By using AI, it is also achievable to build and improve the reverse logistics needed in a circular economy and, in general, enhance sorting, dismantling, reproduction and recycling. According to the report, in food production alone, the savings brought by a circular economy may be as high as $127 million in 2030. This is based on the different benefits for farming, processing, logistics, predicting demand as well as the utilisation of surplus production.

Artificial intelligence may well be that infamous missing piece on the road to a circular economy. Could Finland become a model country for harnessing artificial intelligence to support the transition towards a sustainable economic system based on a circular economy? We have an AI laboratory here at Haaga-Helia; in our laboratory, we will be doing our part to find out. What could your company be doing to promote this, starting today?