In the circular economy (CE), the strategies of narrowing, slowing, and closing the resource loops (see [1
]) are the result of co-creation among multiple actors and organizations, which often requires collaboration between the public sector and private business systems (see, e.g., [2
]). For now, public and private actors have been considered separately within the fields of CE research. For example, in urban, political and social ecology, public strategies [3
], the relation between public policy and business [4
], social movements [3
], public innovations [3
] and drivers for CE [4
] have been studied. The field of industrial ecology, instead, has primarily focused on the physical flows and production of energy and matter between industrial and natural systems (see, e.g., [7
]), including examinations of industrial ecosystems, eco-efficiency, cleaner production, zero waste, and natural capitalism [10
]. In addition, industrial ecology considers the industrial and natural systems as a whole and concentrates very little on the organization of independent actors, especially public ones, within the systems. This paper aims to break the aforementioned dichotomies by examining the public agency involved and organized in the business interface. Since the resource flows that industries are operating with are often location-specific and occur within a certain public area, the issue of material circulations and organization becomes relevant for public actors responsible for the overall development of the area (e.g., urban planning performed by cities).
This study is positioned in the field of industrial ecology (e.g., [11
]), as the aim is to study the roles of public agency in the context of local material flows and industrial symbioses occurring in industrial ecosystems and in the field of CE research; particularly, its streams discussing organizing and managing multi-actor systems for CE (e.g., [14
]), as the study discusses how public actors aim to support and organize CE actions in regional industrial and urban CE systems. For now, some methods from disciplines other than engineering have been used in industrial ecology to understand the behavior of the relevant actors and organizations [9
]. Currently, public actors have been recognized as playing a role in industrial CE ecosystems, but the nuances and different embodiments of that role remain uncharted. For example, Gibbs and Deutz [13
] have noted that public policy intervention could play an enabling role in recognizing, initiating, and maintaining conditions for inter-firm networking in CE. Similarly, Chertow and Ehrenfeld [17
] have recognized that public actors can facilitate inter-firm collaboration in CE. Furthermore, Aarikka-Stenroos et al. [14
] have acknowledged the diversity of actors, including public actors, in CE ecosystems but have not analyzed public actor roles within them explicitly. This study examines further how the role of public agency in CE can manifest in practice.
Knowledge about public agency and its role in industrial CE actions is lacking, calling for studies on the public sector role in CE ecosystems [18
]. Apart from social studies and in addition to the industrial ecology field, the public actor is studied here as a part of the economic-technological structure of industrial CE ecosystems, i.e., how public actor involvement and organization manifest in the business interface within an industrial CE ecosystem. This take on multi-actor organizations in CE also contributes to organization studies, as it considers the ways in which multiple actors collaborate for CE and the yet unexplored characteristics and models of such organizing (see [17
]). All industrial actions take place in societal contexts, and the public sector can therefore catalyze the sustainability transition [11
], for example, through public laws, policies, procurement processes, and authorization protocols (e.g., [20
]). Moreover, the public actor can define what is to be considered as sustainable and preferable actions within its territory (see, e.g., [5
]). Public agency is therefore inherently critical in industrial CE actions that are usually strongly local and place-specific. Furthermore, the pressure for sustainability also directly considers the public sector, and new urban revitalization is needed to support societies to obtain urban environmental, economic, and social sustainability with means such as Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) (see [22
]). So, alongside private actors, public agency is also clearly involved in CE and industrial actions. This paper especially considers regionally manifested public agencies such as cities and local authorities and the way they contribute to environmental sustainability among/through their territories (e.g., public urban planning affecting the CE ecosystems that are evolving around local side streams and material flows) in the context of industrial CE ecosystems.
As Aarikka-Stenroos et al. [14
] define, “A circular economy (CE) ecosystem is a multi-actor entity in which interdependent actors play complementary roles. The actors can include companies, industry actors, public and governmental actors such as cities and municipalities, and ministries, universities, non-profit organizations and citizen-consumers. A CE ecosystem emerges or is created around a common, system-level goal related to resource circularity, circular economy knowledge, or circular economy business and business models. The agency varies from focal actor-driven ecosystems to distributed agency, and ecosystem structure varies between tightly coordinated CE business models to loosely-coupled affiliation structures around CE-oriented goals.” As this paper considers public agency in the nexus of industrial ecology and organizing for CE, the focus is on industrial CE ecosystems linking to the general industrial ecology concept of an industrial system—“a particular configuration of stocks and flows of matter, energy, and information” [9
]. However, industrial actions happen in social and urban contexts, which is an important issue to acknowledge: as expressed by industrial ecology terms, an industrial system and its environment form a joint ecosystem where the resource flows happen [7
]. Industrial CE ecosystems are therefore considered here as a part of a wider urban and social context, namely cities.
By combining and adapting Aarikka-Stenroos et al.’s [14
] concepts of “industrial” and “urban” CE ecosystems, “industrial CE ecosystem” in this paper refers to a location-specific community of hierarchically independent, yet interdependent actors (such as companies, municipalities, associations, citizens) aiming for environmentally sustainable energy and material flows through optimizing and innovating with material flows and stocks (see [4
]) in symbiotic collaboration and by utilizing/contributing/reacting to the wider urban operating environment within which they are located. Industrial CE ecosystems are furthermore place- and time-dependent physical set-ups providing place-specific needs and assets (see, e.g., [14
]) related to the ecosystem. All industrial CE ecosystem actors and materials do not need to be collocated, nor can they as some resources (e.g., rare minerals) and producers are not locally available. This means that the boundaries of an industrial CE ecosystem can vary between different resources. Nevertheless, the ecosystem is characterized by issues specific to a certain area (such as available local side streams or the transport costs of rarer raw materials to that specific area). The writers acknowledge that these issues also include social and economic concerns alongside the environmental ones (for examples on public agency-related social and economic aspects in CE, see [5
]) and involve a larger group of actors than just public actors and companies (such as citizens; see [5
]). Important here are the questions related to public actors as users of power within their territories: how the power is distributed, how different stakeholders are included or excluded in the public decision-making and actions, or how local material resilience and stocks should be supported in relation to the feasibility radius of material flows. However, these considerations are not covered further here, as the paper concentrates on environmental sustainability and public agency from industrial and organizational points of view.
A way to support industrial CE ecosystems is to strengthen collaboration activities between companies as well as between companies and government (e.g., [19
]). The activities include closing the material loops, reducing the resources needed, and preserving the materials in the loops as long as possible [27
]. Indeed, the ecosystems approach is highly relevant, as in industrial CE ecosystems, the presence and influence of public agency and collaboration between public and private actors is clearly visible. Namely, in industrial CE ecosystems, companies often contribute to sustainability targets set by the prevailing social context and public actor (for examples, see [3
]). Industrial CE ecosystems encompass a broad variety of physical and social settings (e.g., [6
]) in which CE applications take place and that in the discipline have been classified as “eco-industrial parks”, “green industrial parks”, “eco-clusters”, “industrial recycling networks,” or “eco-centers” (see [28
]). This study examines eco-industrial parks (EIPs) for enabling concrete and hands-on considerations of public agency in industrial CE ecosystems. EIPs also relate closely to sustainability change agencies, as they have been referred to as a strategy for developing and establishing CE [31
], even as a requirement for implementing CE on the meso level [7
]. However, in EIPs, the micro level meets the macro level as single collocated companies collaborate with the representatives of the local city. Based on this variety of agencies and referring to Aarikka-Stenroos et al.’s [14
] definition, EIPs are seen as representations of industrial CE ecosystems in this paper.
Since the forms of public agency in industrial CE ecosystems have not yet been studied properly, the purpose of this study is to provide new knowledge on the avenues for public presence and influence in industrial CE ecosystems. The research considers how public actors can contribute to achieving and promoting environmental sustainability-oriented CE operations among their territories. Public agency in industrial CE ecosystems is examined in the context of EIPs, which are arguably the most studied industrial CE ecosystems where public and private actors often pursue environmental goals and innovations together (e.g., [32
]). Moreover, EIPs involve change agency, as most of them have emerged through an eco-transformation of an existing industrial ecosystem [34
The research deliberates on two studies. Study 1 presents an extensive multiple case study based on secondary data of 20 industrial CE ecosystem cases around the world. Through the study, the roles (research question 1) and modes (research question 2) for public actors in industrial CE ecosystems are recognized. In Study 2, the recognized roles and modes are analyzed further through a focused and longitudinal multiple case study on four Finnish industrial CE ecosystem cases. Moreover, the second study explores and showcases the organizational structures (research question 3) in which the different public actor roles and modes may emerge in industrial CE ecosystems.
This paper aims to illustrate the different roles, modes, and organizational structures of public agency in industrial CE ecosystems. The research questions as well as research methods are described in Section 3
. After that, the results of the study are presented in Section 4
. From the literature and empirical results, six roles for public actors were identified: operator, organizer, supporter, financer, policymaker, and regulator
. In these roles, the actor can have two different modes: facilitative
. Finally, the ways the roles and modes are organized in industrial CE ecosystems are illustrated. The paper contributes both to academic research and practice by providing a more comprehensive perception of public agency in the industrial CE operation field. The contributions, as well as the recommendations, research limitations, and ideas for future research, are discussed in Section 5
Reflecting the levels of Ingstrup et al.’s [35
] model, this study deliberates in three research questions what roles (RQ1) and modes (RQ2) public agency may have in an industrial CE ecosystem, and what kind of structures (RQ3) the public agency may form in the ecosystem. The research unfolds in two studies. In Study 1, an extensive multiple case study through secondary data of 20 industrial CE ecosystem cases was conducted in order to sketch the diversity of public actor roles and modes in industrial CE ecosystems. Then, in Study 2, a focused multiple case study of four Finnish industrial CE ecosystem cases was performed to analyze and showcase the public agency roles and modes in detail in the focal industrial CE ecosystem and explore the related organizational structures.
In both studies, a multiple case study was seen as a natural fit for the purpose, as it is “a strategy for doing research which involves an empirical investigation of a particular contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context using multiple sources of evidence” [49
] (p. 5). When selecting the cases for Studies 1 and 2, a purposeful sampling strategy was chosen in the form of theoretical sampling. The aim of this research was to develop rather than test a theory, for which purpose the theoretical sampling is an appropriate method [50
]. This deductive approach involves finding case manifestations of the studied theoretical construct that help to examine and elaborate the construct, its variations, and its implications [51
] (p. 288). For the unit of analysis, EIP was deemed as a unit best representing an industrial CE ecosystem in practice at the moment: In EIPs, public agency is evident (for examples, see [11
]), and EIPs furthermore provide an illustrative setting to examine public agency in real-life action. Furthermore, EIPs have been intensively studied and documented during the last few years (see [7
]), providing a good basis for Study 1. When examining the public actor roles, modes, and organization structures in industrial CE ecosystems, qualitative analysis methods were used, namely adapted principles of qualitative content analysis and typological analysis. Qualitative designs often serve as the first step in analyzing a phenomenon and should be further developed by quantitative approaches when necessary [53
]. Next, the application of the chosen research methods in Studies 1 and 2 is described in detail.
3.1. Study 1: Extensive Multiple Case Study
First, an extensive multiple case study based on qualitative secondary data of 20 industrial CE ecosystem cases around the world was conducted in order to widely explore the public roles (RQ1) and modes (RQ2) in industrial CE ecosystems. The case selection in Study 1 was based on the EIP lists provided by Gibbs and Deutz [13
], Erkman and Van Hezik [54
], and Bellantuono et al. [19
], as well as the data availability and representativeness of the cases. In qualitative studies, typically the focus is on a relatively small sample selected for a quite specific purpose [51
] (p. 264). For this purpose, 20 was considered a sufficient number of cases to be studied.
The chosen 20 cases were studied through existing secondary data, which is a common and acknowledged source of information to be used [55
] (p. 103). As the observed cases are based on secondary data provided by other researchers, the chosen cases were the ones most studied in the field and therefore included a great deal of existing knowledge. When choosing the cases, a preliminary aim of gathering ten cases representing “better environment as a spin-off from business” CE strategy and ten cases representing “business based on CE” CE strategy was set. This is because these strategies were considered to represent two major (opposite) CE strategies. This is why the very Western-oriented EIP lists were manually complemented by four Asian cases, namely Kawasaki Zero-Emission Industrial Complex, Rizhao Economic and Technology Development Area (REDA), Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP), and Ulsan Eco-industrial Park. As a result of the case selection, 20 cases that represent almost evenly the aforementioned CE strategies were chosen for further examination. The cases are presented in Table 1
When examining the public actor roles and modes in industrial CE ecosystems, adapted principles of qualitative content analysis and typological analysis were used. Here, the inductive approach, in which particular instances are observed and then combined into a larger unit [69
], was used. Following this method, the case material was first analyzed, and issues of public involvement labeled based on the public measures used, and their purpose (e.g., financial instruments for preserving the system) and the way they were used (e.g., carrot vs. stick set-up). The labels were then combined into bigger, distinct themes. This resulted in six roles and two modes for public agency in industrial CE ecosystems that were then used for typological analysis.
In typological analysis, the researcher first identifies an organizing framework [70
], which is then used for processing and categorizing the data to be collected. For this purpose, the concepts of roles and modes are based on the levels of actor-type and relationship in Ingstrup et al.’s [35
] model of alignment levels in institutional logics. Against the organizing framework—here the roles and modes—the cases are grouped, empirical regularities examined [71
], and possible commonalities searched [70
]. The found examples of public actor involvement in the 20 industrial CE ecosystem cases were categorized into the roles and modes based on the most prevalent means and nature of interaction the public actor had in each setting. As a result, a table of examples for both modes in each role was created (see Section 4.1
3.2. Study 2: Focused Multiple Case Study
In Study 2, a focused longitudinal multiple case study of four Finnish industrial CE ecosystem cases with good research access was conducted, which provided a deep understanding of how the public roles and modes actualize in an industrial CE ecosystem, and how the system functions and is structured. Therefore, Study 2 has a twofold purpose. First, it validates the findings in Study 1 by closely examining and showcasing the public actor roles and modes within the same industrial CE ecosystem in four well-known cases. While Study 1 on the 20 international cases provided a sketch of the roles, modes, and a list of actions that can be executed by the same or different public actors, Study 2 concentrates on examining what kind of public institutions can (co-)exist and what kind of actions each of them can actually perform. Second, Study 2 explores the structures the different roles and modes may emerge in, i.e., public agency on the system level (RQ3).
Study 2 relied on four Finnish industrial CE ecosystem cases chosen based on access to data and pre-assumptions of their very high representativeness of the studied phenomenon. Studying Finnish cases was seen to provide a highly representative picture of the latest avenues of public agency in industrial CE ecosystems, since Finland has been generally recognized as one of the leading countries in CE globally. Finland was, for example, the first country in the world to have a national road map to CE [72
], and the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra was selected as the winner of the public-sector category of the Circulars Awards in 2018 [73
The cases were studied hands-on through ethnographic follow-up during the period of May 2017–September 2019. This included, for example, regularly meeting representatives of the industrial CE ecosystems, attending workshops organized by them, and visiting the ecosystem locations. In addition, ten interviews with key actors (three from top management, four from development, two from operations, and one from research) from each case were conducted. For comprehensive understanding of each case, the primary data was complemented by secondary data such as public documents (e.g., written reports of city government or committee decisions or strategy policies) and EIP-specific reports (e.g., magazines, reports, or annual reports). The cases with related data sources are presented in Table 2
The decision to have different cases for system-level observations in Study 2 was based on two main factors. First, studying the inner organization mechanisms of a system requires longitudinal knowledge and access to data throughout. This was achieved by selecting easily accessible cases that the researchers had already collaborated with. Secondly, using different cases between Studies 1 and 2 provided a possibility for data triangulation, improving the validity of the research.
In Study 2, the concentration was on the system level of Ingstrup et al.’s [35
] model of alignment levels in institutional logics. As in Study 1, adapted principles of qualitative content analysis were used when analyzing the four Finnish industrial CE ecosystem cases for ecosystem structures. First, a schema of the overall organizational structure for each of the cases was created. Then, the structures were further analyzed with an emphasis on public actors and their roles and modes in the ecosystems. Conducting the overall organizational review first and the analysis on the roles and modes only after that ensured the study was not led by the presumptions of the researchers. As a result, examples of the relations between different public roles, modes, and organizational structures were recognized. Study 2 therefore shows how the recognized roles and modes can be situated in an industrial CE ecosystem and how the ecosystem is structured. For analyzing and illustrating the relationships between the studied industrial CE ecosystem actors, a software program Kumu (https://kumu.io/
) for visual network mapping was used. The illustrations are shown in Figure 1
and Figure 2
, in which a combination of the findings from all four cases are presented. The figures show both the business and administration structures between the ecosystem members.
4.1. Roles of Public Agency in Industrial CE Ecosystems
Based on the case study of 20 industrial CE ecosystems in Study 1, six clear distinct roles of public agency in industrial CE ecosystems were identified and later validated in Study 2, which contributes to research question 1. The roles differ from each other on the basis of the avenues and means through which a public actor influences/contributes to the actions that happen in the ecosystem. This way, the roles simultaneously present different interfaces for public–private interaction, i.e., they are avenues for public actors to intervene in industrial CE ecosystems. The six roles for a public actor to play in industrial CE ecosystems are operator, organizer, financer, supporter, policymaker,
. The roles and related mechanisms and field of engagement are presented in Table 3
. The roles correspond to the actor-type level in Ingstrup et al.’s [35
] model of the levels of alignment as they explain in detail the different types of public actors occurring on the actor-type level. It must be noted that the same public actor can have several roles at the same time, and there can be several public actors (e.g., local municipality, government, public servants) having different or overlapping roles within the same ecosystem.
The operator contributes to the operative functions of an industrial CE ecosystem. In other words, the actions of the operator affect how the system functions on a daily basis. The means of interaction are mostly managemental, including both more imperative (e.g., the development of old industrial area guided by local authority; public departments assessing, accepting, and inspecting the system members) and collaborative approaches (e.g., public departments promoting, building, and maintaining IS with a partner-like mentality; environmental services provided for the system members).
The organizer concentrates on the organizational structure of an industrial CE ecosystem and how its operations are organized. The organizer contributes to the setting, vision, and goals of the ecosystem and can even be the initial force launching the industrial CE ecosystem (e.g., state legislature created a commission to plan the reuse of the old industrial area; the system was established by the local municipality). The organization contribution can happen through collaborative acts such as shared public–private management of the ecosystem (e.g., a department of the local municipality is responsible for excursions to the otherwise privately organized ecosystem). On the other hand, the organizer can have direct controlling and guiding actions within the ecosystem (e.g., formal agreements on sustainability goals with companies; selecting the operator).
The financer is responsible for the public finance actions implemented toward the industrial CE ecosystem. The means cover financial incentives such as ready-made public infrastructure or beneficial energy prices for companies to move toward sustainability. More direct financial support for the ecosystem members is also possible. This support for the ecosystem also includes direct investments such as financial support toward voluntary sustainability actions, funding for sustainability projects, covering the costs of the ecosystem operator, or providing services free of charge for the members.
The supporter provides support functions for industrial CE ecosystems. Usually, the supporter is physically located outside of the ecosystem and has partner-like interaction with it. The supporter can have by-product exchanges and contracts with the ecosystem companies, or there can be state-owned enterprises located in the ecosystem. The supporter participates in a collaborative/consultative manner in actions that promote and enhance sustainable actions in the industrial CE ecosystem (e.g., public research institutes offering their expertise for companies; mutual development projects with companies).
The policymaker shapes the sustainability policy/agenda implemented in the industrial CE ecosystem. The means vary from national environmental and sustainability policies to regional IS programs and system-specific agendas. The policies and programs can be co-developed together with system members or executed top-down (e.g., acceptance of a company to a national program; public plans of transforming old industrial areas into green ones; national policies guiding the development of the ecosystem). The policymaker often oversees that the ecosystem actions are aligned with public sustainability policies. According to these local/regional/national policies, a policymaker may have concentrated, for example, on resources considered abundant or scarce (e.g., available space, biomasses, renewable energy) within its territory.
The regulator affects the industrial CE ecosystem through legislation and regulation regarding the ecosystem itself or its operations context. As laws are a result of the actions of national-level policymakers, the regulator role naturally has a strong connection to the role of policymaker. To justify the regulator as its own role: a public actor has the role of regulator when the public sustainability policies are integrated top-down into an industrial CE ecosystem in a certain, regulated manner. In a softer approach, legislation is used to guide and encourage ecosystem members toward sustainability. This means guidelines through which the regulator indirectly affects the ecosystem, for example, an ecosystem operator accredited by local authorities. In a more imperative approach, even strict regulation is targeted toward the ecosystem. Here, detailed rules and standards are used (e.g., strict rules for the environmental qualities of the ecosystem members; clear demands for IS; required compliance between the ecosystem actions and national legislation).
4.2. The Characteristics of the Relationships in Different Roles—The Two Modes
In the identified six roles, the premises for public interaction seemed to vary regarding the means used and the nature of public–private relationships. In fact, two modes for public agency—facilitative
—were recognized in Study 1, which contributes to research question 2. When the presented roles depict the public actions, the modes represent the characteristics of these actions. This way, the modes depict the nature of public–private relationships and correspond to the relationship level in Ingstrup et al.’s [35
] model of the levels of alignment. The modes differ from each other based on the level (direct–indirect) and way (definitive–supportive) of involvement and engagement in the industrial CE ecosystem actions. In both modes, the public actor is active, but the means to interact with the ecosystem differ evidently. The modes and their nature in each of the six public actor roles are presented in the previously mentioned Table 2
. Here, the examples from the literature were categorized into the modes based on the most prevalent characteristics (either the level or way of involvement and engagement). This means, e.g., that the example categorized as dirigiste may be indirect but simultaneously very definitive, resulting in the mode dirigiste.
In the facilitative mode, the public actor uses indirect supportive and encouraging means to enhance CE actions in the ecosystem. The presence of public agency is not so prominent, but the public actor stimulates the ecosystem in the background. The public actor creates propitious frames, opportunities, and incentives such as infrastructure and environmental services for sustainable actions. The subtle means also include financial incentives, beneficial prices, sustainability-promoting legislation, and advisory CE road maps for companies. The facilitative public actor is usually located outside of the ecosystem, which naturally results in such collaborative interaction with the ecosystem where the public actor is a partner/customer of the ecosystem.
In the dirigiste mode, the public actor uses direct, somewhat imperative means to enhance CE actions in the ecosystem. The presence of public agency is definitive, and the public actor actively intervenes with the ecosystem. Moreover, the dirigiste actor is usually the initial force, the primus motor for the organization of the ecosystem. This presence often lasts after the initiation as well, and the dirigiste actor is present in the industrial CE ecosystem even in a physical manner (e.g., as the operator; public enterprises located in the ecosystem). In the ecosystem, the actor uses decision-making power and controls, manages, and assesses the ecosystem members. Alongside the controlling actions, the public actor can cover the costs of some environmental actions in the ecosystem or provide inputs such as wastewater for the companies. In the dirigiste mode, the public actor has a strong agenda based on public policies (e.g., urban planning of the local territories guiding the CE actions, designated locations for CE operations, and allocation of (scarce) lands; programs for transforming old industrial areas into eco ones; national eco-industrial demonstration park programs) and regulation (e.g., strict standards for emissions) that the ecosystem members must obey or are willing to obey in order to receive public fame and respect.
Although the facilitative and dirigiste modes are somewhat opposites of each other, they should not be seen as dichotomous. Namely, the same public actor can have different modes in different roles or even within the same role. Moreover, the division is not clear-cut, and the modes should be seen as two opposite ends of a continuum depicting the level and way of public engagement in industrial CE ecosystems. In fact, in the middle of this continuum, there is a more passive state where the public actor does not necessarily have significant implications in the ecosystem. There were occasions in the case sample where the public actor was not willing or able to promote circular actions. Such examples are Santa Cruz, where the public actor withdrew entirely from the ecosystem (see [64
]), and Fujisawa Eco-industrial Park, EBARA Corporation of Japan (see [59
]) and Value Park (see [68
]), which are totally private projects. However, the “passive” mode needs to be addressed better in future studies.
4.3. The Public Actor in Industrial CE Ecosystem Structure
In Study 1, the six public actor roles found depict the means of influencing. The two modes in turn depict the ways the means are used. As the means and ways to use them vary, presumably the roles are also situated differently within an industrial CE ecosystem. Ingstrup et al. [35
] found in their study that the third important level regarding institutional logics and the concept of alignment alongside the actor-type and relationship levels is the system level. In fact, the roles and modes of the public agency in industrial CE ecosystems actualize as interfaces for public–private collaboration. Promoting the actions considers not only public–private interaction, but also facilitates fruitful private–private confluences. Next, Study 2 examines public actors and agency position in industrial CE ecosystems by zooming in on the organizational structures of the ecosystems through four Finnish industrial CE ecosystem cases.
In Study 1, the roles and modes were identified from a vast, global, and complex sample, which enables their generalizability. However, this study alone does not provide a deep understanding of their occurrence within the same system. Therefore, Study 2 first validates the roles and modes by analyzing them closely in four Finnish industrial CE ecosystem cases. Simultaneously, Study 2 contributes to research question 3, as the four cases examined show empirically how an industrial CE ecosystem functions and is structured, how public actors operate in the ecosystems, and how the roles actualize in the industrial CE ecosystem structure. As the emphasis is on observing the position of the roles, the results of the four cases are presented as combined illustrations where the examination is divided into two perspectives. In Figure 1
, the administrative structures where the different public actor roles emerge are presented. The business transaction structures between the public roles and private companies are shown in Figure 2
. In the figures, the most permanent relationships and actors are shown in red, while other industrial CE ecosystem actors are illustrated in gray (as the emphasis here is on public agency). Next, the administrative and business structures are depicted simultaneously in the following case descriptions, as they partly overlap. For each case, the most prevalent public actor in each role is considered.
In Case 1—Ekomo eco-industrial centre, Ämmässuo, the industrial CE ecosystem has basically evolved around a public waste management company, its surroundings, and its operations. The public company is the central organization, and has its own regulated waste treatment operations, but it offers the wide park area as a platform for private companies to join. The park area is allocated for waste treatment, which makes it ideal for companies to have their own waste treatment-related streams and operations there. The public waste management company is therefore an organizer in the ecosystem as it provides infrastructure and space for individual companies to be considered. This is done with a facilitative mode, as the central organization does not necessarily interact or intervene with the private companies but allows them to have their individual ongoing operations. However, the central organization still coordinates the ecosystem actions on the system level as an operator with a facilitative mode. It, for example, has an administrative office that coordinates the actions, passes, and visitors in the park area. The central organization is also a supporter with a facilitative mode when it has, for example, applied project funding for developing the ecosystem services, developed models for deepening the collaboration between the ecosystem members, and offered education for the members and local citizens as well. As the central organization is a public company, its funding comes from the local cities that have the role of a financer. The funding is primarily for handling the public waste treatment obligations, meaning the financer has a dirigiste mode. The central organization’s public background also affects the policies and regulations implemented in the ecosystem. The national government is the regulator with a dirigiste mode, as the national laws on waste treatment directly guide the actions of the ecosystem members. The local cities implement policies toward the ecosystem through the public waste management company. However, within the ecosystem, the policies are not so binding, and the park members act very independently. The local city authorities therefore have the role of policymaker with a facilitative mode.
In Case 2—Rusko Waste Treatment Centre, the whole industrial CE ecosystem builds around a public waste treatment center and its operations. Thus, the actions taking place within the ecosystem are basically internal actions and projects of this central organization. Here, the ecosystem has emerged around a public waste management company and its processing area. The local municipality has in due time created the public waste management company and area in order to perform its legal obligations to handle public waste management. Therefore, the local municipality has the roles of an organizer and policymaker with a dirigiste mode, as the ecosystem has been created to fulfill the local needs of public waste management. The policies guiding the industrial CE ecosystem are closely related to the national legislation on waste management. The operations in the ecosystem are based on these laws, as the meaning is to fulfill the legal obligations. Thus, the national government has the role of a regulator with a dirigiste mode through the national waste management laws. As the functions of the ecosystem are organized around the public waste management company and its legal obligations, this central organization is also in the role of an operator. The central organization itself does not seem to possess many means for enhancing ecosystem actions because of the strict legislation that does not allow it to have so many openings outside of its main duties. However, the company has a facilitative mode, as it is a platform companies can join in order to get their waste streams processed alongside the streams from public waste management. The central organization is naturally also responsible for the processing facilities, equipment, and services in the area, giving it the role of a supporter with a dirigiste mode. The central organization invests yearly in several CE development projects. The public waste management company itself is funded by the revenues from waste disposal fees, meaning the central organization is also a financer with a dirigiste mode.
In Case 3—ECO3 Kolmenkulma Eco-Industrial Park, there are two main public actors with multiple roles in the industrial CE ecosystem, namely the local municipality and public development company owned by the municipality. Here, the ecosystem is seen as a way to enhance the business opportunities and vitality of the local municipality, meaning the local municipal government has the role of a policymaker with a dirigiste mode as there is a clear public agenda behind the ecosystem. Alongside the local policies, the actions of the public actor in the ecosystem must also be aligned with the overall local and national legislation defining the frames for public agency in such contexts. This means that the national government is present in the form of a regulator with a facilitative mode, as there are necessarily no direct but general laws guiding the industrial CE ecosystem. The ecosystem itself is a collaboration platform offered for private actors by the local municipality through the development company it owns. This way, the municipality is an organizer with a facilitative mode, as it has created the infrastructure for the ecosystem but is not directly organizing the ecosystem. The development company is the central organization of the ecosystem and in charge of the ecosystem operations, giving it the role of an operator. Although the central organization has a very partner-like mentality toward the private companies, the mode is still dirigiste, as the company negotiates with the companies that wish to be located in the industrial CE ecosystem and, for example, presumes the attendees to have a well-designed, established, and active business model. However, the central organization also has the role of a supporter with a facilitative mode as it aims to enhance the business opportunities of the ecosystem members. It inter alia offers meetings where the members can meet each other, share information and guide the companies with funding applications. The public development company is directly funded by the local city, meaning the city has the role of a financer with a dirigiste mode.
In Case 4—Topinpuisto Circular Economy Hub, the industrial CE ecosystem has emerged within an old public landfill area. There are a public waste management company as a central organization and private waste management companies located in the area. Although they operate quite independently, the waste management company has the role of an operator and organizer with a facilitative mode, as it has taken an active role toward developing a common vision and brand for the area. This central organization sees the park as a platform enabling private actors to carry out their sustainability-enhancing business. Moreover, it sees the ecosystem alongside the physical area to also cover the broader network of related actors. For this ecosystem, the central organization has, alongside its obligatory waste treatment duties, offered services, such as meeting rooms and joint events. In this role of a supporter with a facilitative mode, the central organization has also, for example, applied external funding for creating a visitor center in the area. The local city government is the financer of the public waste management company. The funding being direct, the mode is dirigiste. The public waste management company is to fulfill the public policies and duties, but the local city does not actively guide the ecosystem actions, giving it the role of a policymaker with a facilitative mode. The national waste treatment laws also directly guide the public waste management company, but because the private companies in the area are not so dependent on the central organization, the regulation appears for the ecosystem mainly as guidelines. The national government therefore has the role of a regulator with a facilitative mode.
5.5. Future Research
This study does not try to present an all-inclusive theoretical background, but essential elements of public agency in industrial CE ecosystems. The provided framework serves indeed as a grounding for further research, as it covers a variety of themes whose generalizability to a broader CE context could also be explored within the industrial ecology field and by other disciplines. The field of CE and related agencies is ever-changing and developing, and similar research with a bigger sample would enhance the generalizability of the results into a broader global context, from public agency in industrial CE ecosystems toward public agency in CE in general. Furthermore, the Study 1 cases would deserve a deeper examination in order to explore the global variation, diversity, and actual presence of the public actor roles in detail. In this study, the Study 1 cases now served as sketches for public actor roles and modes examined in detail in Study 2.
More studies are also needed for further developing the findings of this paper: How do the different roles of a public actor within the same system affect each other? What kind of practical effects do the modes facilitative and dirigiste have, i.e., do they result in principle in different outcomes? Furthermore, the continuum between the modes could be complemented with the “passive” mode, if further studies support this. Similarly, a series of longitudinal studies made with up-to-date data would provide valuable insights into the temporal nature of public agency.
For recognizing best practices for industrial CE ecosystem development as collaboration between public and private actors, context-specific factors cannot be ignored. The history of the area and local community needs to be considered while planning and developing the operations of an industrial CE ecosystem [23
]. The writers see industrial CE ecosystems as entities inseparable from their local urban and societal contexts. However, this study concentrated on public agency and actions happening within certain territories and did not discover the meaning of space, i.e., place-specificity itself (e.g., context-specific factors affecting an ecosystem, how the physical and abstract space is perceived by the ecosystem members). Moreover, related to material stocks and flows, it is also important that public actors consider the notion of place variously between different materials and have separate policies for the materials: As the feasibility radius of the material flows differ (e.g., rare minerals available only as exported aboard vs. plastics produced and consumed in high volumes locally), public policies for the materials must also differ. Although in general, the aim in CE is to utilize resources as locally as possible and it seems rather logical that the industrial CE ecosystems that acknowledge and therefore utilize place-specific issues, such as opportunities for symbiotic benefits within a certain territory, are more likely to succeed, this calls for future research on the topic.
In the future, more industrial CE ecosystems will be located in urban areas or even be urban areas themselves. Here, the public actor can offer or function as a platform for inter-organizational collaboration (e.g., material stocks of construction material or a digital platform for knowledge exchange on available current side streams). This platform approach deserves more future research. Green Transit-Oriented Development (Green TOD) would be one avenue for studying the topic, as it offers a strategy model for regional industrial CE ecosystem development.
With strategic planning (see [23
]), industrial CE ecosystems can enable and enhance the sustainable practices and sustainable development of the region they are located in, for example by identifying possibilities toward and benefits of symbiotic transactions in CE, revitalizing economic life, increasing co-operation between companies, and providing new business possibilities. The examination of these possibilities should also include the aspects of social sustainability. Some justice, democracy, and equity-related challenges have been seen in material flows (see [4
]), but this paper has not examined public agency from the governance and social sciences point of view. Next, the social dimensions of sustainability could be discovered and public agency examined against these dimensions. There are multiple issues related to the public actor as a local authority possessing regional power, for example how different stakeholders are included and treated in public CE planning. Public actors have power and influence in societies, and therefore it is important to consider who public actors represent and how they use their power.
Social sustainability also includes addressing the different actors in (industrial) CE ecosystems. For example, Figure 1
and Figure 2
show how the examined industrial CE ecosystems consider a wide range of actors, such as companies, kindergartens, households, associations, and universities. Future studies could therefore examine, for example, what kind of power structures and issues emerge among the different actors and stakeholders of CE, which roles different stakeholders can have, and whether the recognized public actor roles be performed as such or in an adapted manner by private sector actors as well.
Finally, material security has recently arisen to a new spotlight with the COVID-19 pandemic, as the supply of many resources, such as medical and protective equipment and even groceries, became extremely challenging due to the sudden increase in demand. Material security became a large public challenge, and public actors are very interested in reducing material security risks and gaining resiliency toward crises, such as possible future pandemics or cataclysms. The public actor roles, modes, and structures provided in this study may serve as future avenues for public actors to acknowledge the current and future realities and build resilience toward material security risks.