“A sustainable circular economy should be about social values too”

Sustainability Lab director Maja van der Velden on redefining energy, repairing our electronic products and bridging knowledge gaps in circular economic thinking

Person hosting repair workshop

Maja van der Velden at a repair party at Oslo's Science Park

"When we talk about energy conservation we talk about how we make products use less energy - how buildings, for example, maintain warmth longer so they consume less energy. It’s a term used in larger projects. But here we want to actually look at how we can conserve energy in products. When you manufacture a product, energy is in the resource extraction process, in the manufacturing of the materials, in the manufacturing of the components and then in the end product."

Sitting outside Mathallen in Oslo’s Grünerløkka, Maja van der Velden, Professor at the Department of Informatics (IFI) at UiO, is explaining her understanding of energy conservation. Van der Velden, who has lived, worked and raised a family in Norway for 18 years, hails from the Netherlands and can often be spotted biking around the city on her e-bike. She recently became Director of the newly established Sustainability Lab at IFI and is mobilising the Circular Energy project to forge new understandings of energy. Her aim is to bridge research silos of energy production and consumption, and to show that energy is both a material and social force in our everyday lives. As she explains:

“If we start using our products longer than we do now, we actually start conserving energy because it means that we postpone the production of a new product as well as the recycling of the discarded product.”

The project was launched in May of this year and leverages scholarship on policy, design, law and anthropology to develop understandings of e-waste in the Nordics and transitions to a circular economy.

Repair as a political act

Van der Velden is keen to emphasise the potential of nurturing repair culture not only for shifting to ecologically sustainable consumption models, but also for its capacity to strengthen local communities and political engagement. Speaking about her fieldwork undertaken at Repair Cafes in Amsterdam, van der Velden highlights the social benefits of learning to love what we have through repair:

“So people meet in a café and the next time you meet at a hearing at your local council. You start creating these kinds of relationships – which I think is very important for building more sustainable futures for our communities.”

In her recent article ‘Fixing the World One Thing at a Time’: Community repair and a sustainable circular economy, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production1, van der Velden details how people’s personal attachment to electronics, usually formed over a period of two years or longer, often predicts how likely they are to repair it, and so conserves energy. Beyond ecological advantages, the research demonstrates how citizens can become more engaged with the world around them, shifting them from passive consumers to politically engaged actors:

“(people) start saying things like, why is it made like this, why is it so difficult to repair? Why can’t I open it myself? Why don’t I have the right to open it?”

This is, she points out, an especially valuable opportunity to help people access information about resource extraction, and the conflicts that arise around mining the minerals and precious metals found in everyday items, such as smartphones, as well as the unsustainable design of these products.

Barriers to repair

While Maja is an advocate of repair culture and circular thinking, she is quick to cast a critical eye upon the matter. Her principal concern is it that, without data and reflection, motions for a circular economy might easily come to depend on recycling only, which – as research has shown – should be the last measure when it comes to sustainability.

Waste pyramid

Photo credit: Eléonore Maitre-Ekern, Postdoctoral Fellow, UiO

“It’s so much easier for companies to say yes we are sustainable, yes we are working towards a sustainable economy with our sector or our products but then the firm wants to focus on recycling.”

Without the regulation and legislation in place to equip citizens, NGOs and private businesses to adopt models of repair, rather than rapid systems of replacement, we will make little progress on sustainability agendas. What is needed now is the data and knowledge frameworks for understanding what works, and in which context it is better to repair than recycle or replace.

The Circular Energy project was launched in May 2021, and endeavours to communicate research on the circular economy. The Sustainability Lab will be working with UiO’s Klimahuset and Science Library on public engagement projects, follow us on social media to keep up with events and news.


1 van der Velden, M. (2021) ‘Fixing the World One Thing at a Time’: Community repair and a sustainable circular economy, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 304, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.127151

Tags: repair, circular economy, sustainable consumption By Eleanor Johnson
Published June 21, 2021 12:29 PM - Last modified Apr. 12, 2022 10:08 AM