From microscopic to metabolic

A child of the United Nations where her mother worked as a translator, and born to immigrants from communist Poland, Eva Gladek grew up in an international milieu in New York City. And with a scientist father, she became fascinated by biology.

“Some of my first toys were microscopes and test tubes! I was obsessed by what I couldn’t see and set my heart on studying molecular genetics. But when I took a course on extinction as part of my degree, I woke up to how seriously humanity was impacting natural systems.”

It proved to be an epiphany that led Eva to leave the lab behind and become a science journalist. Determined to sound the alarm about the planetary crisis, she produced pieces for ABC and the Discovery Network – but ultimately frustrated by viewer and network disinterest, she returned to study, undertaking a Master’s in industrial ecology at Yale.

“It felt like coming home – this was the work I wanted to do. It shaped my entire career around systems thinking, material flows, circular economy, and enabling humanity to live sustainably within planetary boundaries.”

Completing her studies, Eva went on to set up Metabolic in 2012, a multi-faceted Amsterdam-based organisation whose mission is to ‘transition the global economy to a fundamentally sustainable state’ by applying systems thinking.

The scale of the challenge we’ve set ourselves is absurd for a small organisation like ours – but it’s what motivates us, and we have a vanishingly small amount of time to tackle the crises we face today.

Urban transformation

Metabolic’s theory of change frames six transitions for realising a regenerative, circular economy – cities and regions, food and land use, products and services, finance, governance, and mindset. Occupying only 3% of the planet’s surface but consuming 75% of its resources and generating 50% of its waste, cities in particular offer a huge leverage point for redesigning production and consumption, catalysing regional change, and improving human well-being.

As part of this work, with MAVA support, Metabolic and partners have developed tailored strategies for circular economy transition in three cities in Poland – Krakow, Gdansk, and Lublin. These imagine the cities as healthy, productive, and inclusive with each neighbourhood playing its part, and together accelerating the development of a sustainable economy in Poland.

“We’ve worked with around 50 cities altogether but this was the first time we’ve had a cohort of cities going through our process at the same time, and able to learn from each other. Beyond the strategies, it was critical to seed cross-sector collaboration and create local circular economy clubs that are now driving the transition. Just recently, we had a message from Krakow saying the action plan had been incorporated into municipal policy.”

Now, collaborating with three other organisations – Circle Economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and ICLEI – Metabolic is helping create a Circular City Actions Framework and a suite of tools that enable cities to develop circular strategies for themselves. And Metabolic have also published an inspiring 2050 vision for cities.

We’re contributing with an action planning tool that will help cities conduct baseline state analyses, understand current resource flows and impacts, agree a vision and roadmap, and then host city ‘challenge’ initiatives that solicit proposals for solutions to problems like food and plastic waste. There are around 100,000 cities in the world – we can’t work with all of them, so if we want to scale impact, we need to give them the resources that help them transition to a circular economy on their own.

Seven pillars

Crunching data, understanding system flows, identifying intervention points, and strategising, Metabolic advises governments, businesses, and NGOs on how to create disruptive, scalable solutions that can shift how economies function.

In addressing the challenge of redesigning global systems for a circular economy, Metabolic have developed seven pillars on which a fully circular economy should be based. These propose a broad definition of circularity that looks beyond material flows and familiar concepts such as recycling, the service economy, and waste as a resource, and that embraces other dimensions of sustainability such as renewable energy, biodiversity, health and well-being, equity, and resilience.

Circularity is an opportunity to reinvent how we live and how do business – but just like doing Rubik’s cube, we have to ensure that in solving one problem, we don’t create another. We’ve translated the pillars into metrics and indicators that we use to evaluate the circularity of products, projects, businesses, and investment portfolios. Business models that support not just one, but all of them, will rise to the top through natural selection, so to speak, and become self-replicating solutions.

Beyond growth

Metabolic’s analysis shows it’s possible for everyone to prosper within planetary limits but Eva is quick to admit that realising a fully circular economy is a tremendous challenge given vested interests in current systems and structures. Changing mindsets is critical.

Many people think circularity must necessarily involve sacrifice. Transforming our consumerist, growth-dependent neo-liberal economic model doesn’t mean eco-austerity. If collectively we develop an alternative vision of where we want to be, then we can create forms of governance that harness the power of markets to scale solutions that shape an economic system which mirrors the balance of the natural world, empowers communities, allocates resources more fairly, and supports lasting well-being.

How is Eva contributing to MAVA's mission?

Eva and the Metabolic team are helping deliver MAVA’s action plan on accelerating circular economy practice.

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