Driving Circular Economy Innovation in Australia

January 24, 2024 / Kavita Gonsalves

Populous Australia exhibited their work and conducted a roundtable session during the Building 4.0 CRC Annual Conference in Melbourne on 11th October 2023.

Together with Professor Leonie Barner (QUT) and Lucy Carson (Bluescope), Kavita Gonsalves and Nick Fitzgerald from our Brisbane office led the roundtable discussion on “Circular Economy (CE) Methodologies: Potential, Challenges and Risks in the Australian Market” which explored the circular economy paradigm within Australia’s property and construction sector.  

Below, Kavita Gonsalves shares her thoughts on Circularity and being part of Building 4.0 CRC.

The roundtable session centred around the challenges the industry faces as it moves towards a circular economy in Australia. For those not familiar with CE: it focuses on reducing the need for raw material by utilising, and planning for utilisation, of existing material flows for the longest time possible. It facilitates the reduction of resource depletion, waste generation, and carbon emissions while preserving biodiversity.1 Four key discussion points emerged during the roundtable that have been reflected and expanded on: 

  1. Collaboration 
  2. Experimentation 
  3. Nature as Foundation & Major Stakeholder 
  4. The Will to Change 
  • Nick Fitzgerald (talking) and Kavita Gonsalves (in green) leading the Circular Economy Roundtable.

1. Collaboration

Circularity2 and/or circular design thinking requires new ways of thinking about how products, buildings and even public spaces can result in long-lasting design with meaning and attachment for their users. In addition, the design should account for reduction and efficiencies in resource input and waste, emission and energy leakage. With the built environment being a system of complex subsystems (such as façade system, MEP, transportation etc), it results in an interconnected web of organisations, stakeholders and actors that need to work together. In 2023, only 7.2% of the global economy is circular as per the Circularity Gap Report 2023.3 This raises the bar on what more needs to be done to raise the adoption of circular actions, circular design and, eventually, circular living.  

Given that Populous projects are city-building and city-shaping, there is potential to implement circular design away from conventional design processes. However, this is not possible without the collaboration of governments, designers, contractors, builders and, ultimately, the users,4 coming together in a joint effort and with a shared vision to design new futures of regenerative and resilient places. Participating in the Building 4.0 CRC can be seen as one such vehicle for leading transformation in the construction industry as it is a collaboration between universities, such as Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and project partners such as Lendlease, Bluescope and Green Building Council of Australia. 

2. Experimentation

Because circular design and construction is a shift away from linear construction and production processes, this requires new design processes and the willingness to experiment. The Building 4.0 CRC conference was filled with partners that were actively prototyping and experimenting with other design and construction techniques such as digital platform architecture i.e. where design is connected to the material supply chain and to codes, approvals and certifications (see GROPYUS and KOPE), design for manufacture and assembly (see Bryden Wood and VBC), and robots in construction processes (see Prof. Sigrid Brell-Cokcan). These emerging technologies and processes are in line with the goals of circular design and construction techniques: efficient material use, designing for reuse and ensuring recovery of materials for the future.  

While the conference drew attention to the climate crisis, it also emphasised the potential of these emerging digital platforms and construction technologies to tackle the housing crisis in Australia. As these housing developments and corresponding infrastructure materialise, let’s not forget that public places, leisure, entertainment and sports that address the “play” component are essential to the human experience. It is thus evident that there is systemic opportunity to build collaborations that test innovative technologies and processes in other building types such as stadia design, sports precincts and airports as they also offer scale, modularity, and building for the generations to come.

  • Kristina Hall (left) and Emma Berton (right) showcasing Populous' GMHBA stadium model during the conference.

    Photo by Building 4.0 CRC and Gemma Swain On Vibe Photography.

3. Nature as Foundation & Major Stakeholder

Planetary boundaries, a concept proposed in 2021, are interconnected regulatory processes of the earth that ensure human life. These include climate change, biosphere integrity, land system change, freshwater change, biogeochemical flows, ocean acidification, atmosphere aerosol loading, stratospheric ozone depletion and novel entities.5 In 2023, six out of the nine planetary boundaries, i.e. the regulatory earth processes that ensure human life had been crossed.6

Given CE is seen as an antidote to this crisis, popular CE biodiversity strategies include biomimicry, ecosystem services valuation, and renewable energy.7 However, if these strategies only serve human desire and needs and not the earth systems themselves, CE merely mimics existing economic systems with the difference of attaching economic value to waste. Circularity, however, demands a mindset shift: that nature’s role is not just as a source of building materials but also as a complex system that is responsible for earthly beings. This is where First Nations peoples  intrinsic and holistic view of nature’s role in human life can infuse the circularity paradigm with knowledges, care and respect for the land that is the reason for all life.8  

4. The Will to Change

CE, as a meaningful system, requires 3 key ingredients: tools such as digital platforms to track material and product flows, operational infrastructure for recovery, repair and remanufacture, and finally, policy and incentives to drive the system.9 It is encouraging to see Queensland Government’s investment into climate technology and entrepreneurs.10 Bold ideas from our global counterparts can play a role in innovative policy and initiatives that can back circularity in the construction industry, seen in the Danish Ex-Tax which taxes resources and pollution and can boost human creativity, the Dutch platform of Cirkelstadwhich connects CE entrepreneurs and policy makers, and Finnish incentives for use of secondary materials in construction.11 At the end of the day, it is going to take systemic government and organisational support to implement and lead these initiatives. 

Conclusion: Circularity in Uncertain Times

While the Building 4.0 CRC Conference considered the current housing crisis, sports architecture, megaevents and tournaments present a moment to rethink typical building processes within the building and construction industry. Populous’ work offers scale and modularity that is the perfect playground for adopting circularity to ensure an impactful response towards the climate crisis. Working in tandem with First Nations communities to develop meaningful stories and connections with Country, and adopting principles of flexibility and adaptability, are going to be key design attributes that ensure the future of our places, spaces and cities.  

Circularity offers us new possibilities and Populous is motivated to create healthy, resilient and regenerative places for all beings. 

Special thanks to Populous’ Asteria Chen (Brisbane) for writing support on this article, and Kristina Hall and Emma Berton (Melbourne) for showcasing the GMHBA stadium model during the Building 4.0 CRC exhibition. 

Featured photo by Building 4.0 CRC and Gemma Swain On Vibe Photography.



1 Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (2019). What is a circular economy? | Ellen MacArthur Foundationhttps://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/topics/circular-economy-introduction/overview 

2 For the purposes of this article, the term “Circularity” is used and not Circular Economy– to draw attention to processes and systems, and not just economic actors. 

3 Circularity Gap Reporting Initiative. (2023). CGR 2023. Circularity Gap Reporting Initiative. https://www.circularity-gap.world/2023 

4 Thomson, A. M., J. L. Perry, and T. K. Miller. 2007. “Conceptualizing and Measuring Collaboration.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory: J-PART 19 (1): 23–56. 

5 Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, Å., Chapin, F. S., Lambin, E. F., Lenton, T. M., Scheffer, M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H. J., Nykvist, B., de Wit, C. A., Hughes, T., van der Leeuw, S., Rodhe, H., Sörlin, S., Snyder, P. K., Costanza, R., Svedin, U., … Foley, J. A. (2009). A safe operating space for humanity. Nature, 461(7263), Article 7263. https://doi.org/10.1038/461472a 

6 Stockholm Resilience Centre. (2023). Planetary boundaries. Stockholm Resilience Centre. https://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/planetary-boundaries.html 

7 Buchmann-Duck, J., & Beazley, K. F. (2020). An urgent call for circular economy advocates to acknowledge its limitations in conserving biodiversity. Science of The Total Environment, 727, 138602. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138602 

8 Page, A., & Memmott, P. (2021). Design: building on country. Thames & Hudson. 

9 Cooper, G. (n.d.). Garry Cooper: How to make sure materials get reused — again and again | TED Talk. Retrieved January 5, 2024, from https://www.ted.com/talks/garry_cooper_how_to_make_sure_materials_get_reused_again_and_again 

10 Advance Queensland. (2023, November 14). Fuelling a greener future: Queensland’s climate tech sector grows stronger through collaborative events. Advance Queensland. https://advance.qld.gov.au/whats-happening/stories-about-innovation/fuelling-greener-future-queenslands-climate-tech-sector-grows-stronger-through-collaborative-events 

11 Hosseini, M. R., & Kocaturk, T. (2023, June 6). Building activity produces 18% of emissions and a shocking 40% of our landfill waste. We must move to a circular economy – here’s how. http://theconversation.com/building-activity-produces-18-of-emissions-and-a-shocking-40-of-our-landfill-waste-we-must-move-to-a-circular-economy-heres-how-206188 

Meet the author

Kavita Gonsalves

Associate Principal, Sustainability Design Lead, APAC / Brisbane


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