Jess Scully: Systemic change for a circular economy

Jess Scully: Systemic change for a circular economy

Jess Scully: Systemic change for a circular economy

Jess Scully: Systemic change for a circular economy

Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.

Transitioning to a circular economy is a significant shift in the current system. In this interview, Jess Scully, one of Sydney's most fearless leaders, shares ideas on how we can create systemic change together. It gives us a glimpse of hope that change is possible—and we have everything we need to make it happen.

Jess Scully is a consultant, curator, author and the former Deputy Lord Mayor at the City of Sydney. She has been involved in many creative and innovative initiatives, including Vivid Ideas, YIMBY and TEDxSydney. Her latest book, Glimpses of Utopia: Real Ideas for a Fairer World, shows how we can reshape our world to be fair and sustainable.

The current linear economic system vs. a circular economy

We are in a period of drastic change, marked by two prominent challenges. One is climate change. The recent IPCC report made it clear that we have a narrow window for action within a limited timeframe.

The other huge challenge is inequality, which affects people in many ways. For example, housing affordability, displacement from communities, food crisis, precarious working conditions. A high percentage of people are finding themselves ageing without security or stability. That's just in an Australian context. Globally, inequality is seriously pronounced.

These are symptoms of a system that is broken. The current system is extractive. It takes, makes and wastes, rather than being regenerative and collaborative. Value is seen as something to be extracted from resources, people and communities, with a focus solely on achieving specific outcomes.

The extractive linear system that stands in contrast to a circular economy is recent and short-term. It was created in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries to address specific circumstances, when we didn't have all the information.

Currently, prosperity and wealth are measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product). However, it doesn't account for the true costs associated with it—for example, loss of natural resources, human costs under poor working conditions and the impact on the natural environment.

Even Simon Kuznets, who developed the concept of GDP in 1934, acknowledged that it wasn't meant for comparing countries globally. How can we even continue to use it 70 years later?

The current economic system is no longer fit for purpose.

In my book, Glimpses of Utopia, I talk about how we need to update the operating system for this new era. We can learn from the past century, but also the enduring, non-Western and Indigenous cultures that centre our duty to each other and to nature.

But we've got to do it with a set of values that prioritise a future that reflects human values. How do we define, articulate and express those values? We need to find a way to value things that are essential to us as humans, and create a value chain that reflects the true costs of things.

Systemic change for a circular economy: where do we start?

It's hard to change the system. Even talking about the future feels vague. Which future? Whose future? Is it tomorrow, five years from now, 100 years from now? We also don't have the tools, techniques or language to talk about it.

Previously, values were determined through social decision-making. We care about education, kids, health and safety. So we're going to allocate our shared resources to achieve those objectives.

Right now, we don't have meaningful conversations to define and agree upon a common value set. There's a deep disconnect between the values we hold as humans and the financial value assigned by the economy.

The good thing is these are human constructs, so we can influence and change them. But where we fall down is when there's discomfort and anxiety. We react in lots of different ways. It's easy for some to take advantage of our feelings, and put forward very simple explanations—you are earning less because of immigrants. You can’t afford a house because you’re addicted to avocado toast. At its worst, it leads to political polarisation and extremism.

So the first step for a circular economy is having a conversation about values and what we value. We need an inclusive and clarifying approach.

We need to explain what's not working, and collectively come up with systems, processes and language to talk about what the alternative is instead.

We're a couple of steps back on that, but we're recognising that we have a problem.

Building shared values for a circular economy

Defining our values is a process that we need to undertake together. We can all write down our list of values. I have my list, and you have your own. There are many lists, but how do they overlap? We've all got to do it together.

Some countries, like New Zealand, Scotland, Finland and Iceland, have a 'wellbeing economy' that focuses on human flourishing. Australia has just issued its own Wellbeing Economy framework: this is a really inspiring and positive first step for us.

Human flourishing: Often referred to as the Greek term, 'eudaimonia', meaning the state or condition of 'good spirit'. It's commonly translated as 'happiness' or 'welfare'. Human flourishing is the state of optimal well-being and fulfilment that individuals can achieve when they lead lives that align with their true potential and values.

With human flourishing as the goal, what are the essentials we need to thrive and reach our full potential? We can start with the Human Development Index, which outlines the essential elements for human thriving:

  • A long and healthy life
  • Being knowledgeable
  • Having a decent standard of living

For example, a list could look like this:

  • Essential elements for wellbeing: food, shelter, clean air, water and access to health.
  • Being able to express ourselves, including political and creative expressions.
  • A feeling of community and belonging, being able to engage with other people.
  • Access to the Internet and technology that allows us to connect with each other.
  • Receive support to live a good life. Caring support. Mental health support.
  • A greater level of buying power than the universal basic income.
  • Social infrastructure to meet all these needs.

One great way to change is to learn from systems that already exist in different cultures, regions and older traditions. First Nations communities, for example, have been practicing regenerative and interconnected responsibilities for hundreds and thousands of years. In Australia, it's particularly important to engage and collaborate with First Nations communities, and incorporate their values into this shared vision.

The barriers to a circular economy in Sydney

Systemic change means counting the true cost. It's structural and it's a leap. Let's use an organic composting facility as an example. To build it, we need tens of millions of dollars of investment. We need land at the right location. We also need a supply chain of where the feedstock comes from and who will buy the end product. There's a huge set of risks that someone needs to take.

Governments have a huge responsibility to take on these risks, and support the transition through to a circular economy through regulation, infrastructure and incubating new markets.

But right now, we don't have regulation or infrastructure to address resource wastage. Turning waste into resources is not incentivised. Without pricing externalities—things like pollution and waste, businesses can't compete against those who do it for free.

Circular economy businesses and organisations should get political. You're on the ground doing all the hard work. You've identified your problems. You have your set of values, and you've built a community that resonates with your values.

We can combine the knowledge and experience of everyone who has done it, and transition from individual issues to identifying systemic issues. We can then work with academics, researchers and experts from various fields to come up with a list of specific, tangible asks.

Next, empower the early supporters. Individuals are the driving force in demanding and achieving systemic transformation. We can empower them to become the voice for transformative change.

For circular economy businesses, finance is one of the biggest challenges, but don't underestimate the smaller grants that support small-scale initiatives. They're incremental changes, which allow us to draw inspiration and extend it to a broader sector level.

Taking actions for a circular economy

Individuals should get involved in political engagement and have clear advocacy for the causes we support.

But as I said earlier, we have to be very clear about the things we're advocating for. We can go to a protest everyday, but unless you have an alternative, nothing is going to change. So let go of the very long list of things that I'm angry about, focus on the specific, tangible things that we want collectively.

In everyday life, it's incredibly helpful to reflect on our individual experiences to identify structural issues or needs within a system. What problems do you run into? Ask your friends if they encounter the same problem. The more you can identify the deep structural issues, the more you can understand what to advocate for.

Support circular economy businesses and organisations. If they're having trouble, how can you help them? You can help amplify their messages, and explain what's missing and what's needed.

We all have our own networks of family, friends, social media and professional connections. We can galvanise other people to support the change. We can all contribute to a more coherent and holistic explanation of what's not working and where we can strive to be.

Learn more


This interview is part of ReCo Circular Sydney 2023 Series, supported by the City of Sydney Knowledge Exchange Sponsorship program. Explore more free content at:


Interviewed and edited by Danling Xiao.

Danling Xiao is the co-founder of ReCo Digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin

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Learn more about Circular Sydney

A professional headshot of co-founders of ReCo Danling & Anett

Imagine a city where waste reduction, resource efficiency and economic growth go hand-in-hand. That's the power of the circular economy, a system that keeps resources in use for as long as possible.

But how does it work in practice? Circular Sydney brings you inspiring stories of local innovators and organisations who are pioneering circular practices in Sydney.

Through 35 interviews with 40 change makers, Circular Sydney showcases the exciting opportunities for a circular economy in Sydney.

Circular Sydney is proudly supported by the City of Sydney.

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