Open Data Systems for the Circular Economy

Berlin played host to this year’s CE100 Summit, held annually by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

A digest of thoughts during a plane ride back from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation CE100 gathering in Berlin. This short post covers key themes and inspiration from the event, thoughts on building the information layer needed for a circular future and Provenance’s role in enabling that layer.

There are several books that shaped my understanding of the circular economy: from Small is Beautiful to Biomicry to The Whole Earth Catalogue, but most of all, the heavy plastic version of the Cradle to Cradle book. Today it seems the concepts and ideas are still the same, basically: no waste.

My favourite circular economy books: Cradle to Cradle by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher. Natural Capitalism by Amory Lovins. Biomimcry by Janine Benyus. The Whole Earth Catalogue by Stewart Brand et al.

However, there is a dimension that has emerged that was a sub-theme or not present at all in the above books: the flow of information and the intelligence mechanisms designed to digest and react to information in order to iterate our biological and technical systems toward sustainability. There could arguably be another axis to the classic “butterfly” diagram below, for flows of data and finance.


Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Outline of a Circular Economy.

The CE100 gathering brought together mainly representatives from large industries – from Nike to Coca Cola, some academics, and a few startups and small businesses – including Provenance. There were presentations from the startups Ecala Group (Joshua Foss), Thread International (Kelsey Halling), Biopolus (Frank Marton), Circularity Capital (Andrew Shannon) and us (slides at the end of this post). Open Desk, Open Source Vehicle, Fab Lab Berlin and OSCE also led the way in terms of new information enabled circular thinking.

Materials innovation and product design are crucial to enabling a circular economy – and Agency of Design did a phenomenal job of getting even the suit-iest of suits to get creative with their brilliant cards for inspiration. Dr. Peter Childs cited the 80,000 plastics used in products currently, in his talk on Artificial Intelligence. We have a lot of work ahead of us to design all materials into a format compatible with infinite recycle.


Ideas for a reinvention of the bike helmet during a circular economy design thinking workshop led by Agency of Design.

Why is Provenance relevant to the circular economy?

Access to information on material products, their creation and life cycle is essential to recapturing material value and designing out waste. Why? Because to make design choices, we need information. To recycle or reuse material, we need to know where it is, what it’s made of and what condition it’s in.

Some conversations with corporate players suggested that the information would be captured internally by the brand, and for products to form closed loops to stay within one businesses system. This makes some sense – they are looking for ways to recapture value and form new business models. However, this is a limited solution.

In the short term, if material data and ownership were logged in an open system and could be accessed (with permission of the current owner) by anyone, that could spark the creation of businesses ready to utilise today’s waste to build new products. In the long term, a closed system would mean that not only if a company went out of business, their product could become waste, but also limits the inter-company material sharing, which could stifle innovation.

A Provenance asset page shows how products can be associated with information and stories. Batches of things can gain their own unique history online showing ownership, time, location, materials and processes.

The Provenance platform allows businesses to open information about their material products (from food to fashion) and track the journey of individual incidences or batches of products. Our tools allow for this product data to be communicated easily, even woven into stories and experiences. The importance of bringing the emotional and rational together to aid action and understanding was eloquently introduced by The Storytellers at the CE100 event.

Our goal at Provenance is to build an open registry for products, their attributes and ownership – and the tools to communicate that data in an elegant manner. Why? To inform purchasing decisions at any stage of a material’s life, but also to start changing the way we see and understand our material things by giving them a documented past.

Some good information system books that could inspire the data flow part of the circular economy system: Everyware by Adam Greenfield. Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling. Blockchain by Melanie Swan.

We at Provenance have focused a huge amount of our attention on the creation phase of products – particularly in food – and we will continue to do so. However, we also recognise that our system for tracking individual products through their life cycle could house data to inform resale, re-manufacture, longer use, rent, and lease.

How can businesses engage with our tools now?

You can join Provenance today and share information about your business and products for free and embed that information neatly into any e-commerce site. Using our Saas tools you can use our system to validate key information (working with third parties) and track the ownership of unique incidences of products – either as a simple marked batch or using NFC or security tags if instantly proven authenticity is critical.

Beyond our work in food, we are already working with an adventure sports brand to track unique technical products through their use and journey into the future – enabling a physical thing to become a journal storing memories and enabling a system for those technical materials to gain a second life.

An open system into the future

Provenance is at the beginning of establishing an open registry for material products and their individual incidences or masses on a public blockchain, with a linked open data stored off-chain. We think there is a clear need for a system everyone can trust, that isn’t “guardianed” or owned by anyone, and that’s open and inclusive by default. Blockchains afford us the public base layer to enable that and Provenance tools simply help you interact with it. If you’re interested in helping us further our work or use our tools, drop us a line!

Slides from our presentation at the CE100 event in Berlin:

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