Thesis Opportunities “Circular economy for agri-food systems”

Thesis Opportunities “Circular economy for agri-food systems”

The following thesis opportunities are co-supervised by Dr. Vivian Valencia (Farming Systems Ecology) and Dr. Oona Morrow (Rural Sociology Group)

The circular economy is a hot topic these days, with innovations coming from the grassroots, public, and private sector. But the governance of the circular economy is lagging behind, and we lack a systemic and regional view that bridges the gap between innovation and policy, rural and urban, and the social, economic, and environmental. Taking a systems view can help us to identify where policy interventions would make the most impact, by for example focusing on producers instead of consumer waste streams. We advertise three interlinked projects on the circular economy, that will feed into a multi-stage four year project.

Our approach to the circular economy that takes a food systems perspective to map all of the flows, benefits, and burdens of our current agri-food and waste system in the Amsterdam city-region, as well as the governance structures and policy levers that keep this system in place, and have the potential to change it. Importantly, our approach proposes to capture not only environmental and economic impacts, but also social impacts in the AMA city-region, including for example quality of life, social inclusion, food security, and transitions potential.

We take a geographic, sectoral, and sustainability perspective on circularity, to ensure that not only are materials reused – but that they find their highest and best use in the local food economy. For example, surplus food is redistributed to people rather than bio-digesters, organic waste is composted or converted to animal feed rather being burned for home heating or converted to jet fuel. These re-generative loops are depicted in the diagram below by Feedback Global.  

feedback global

Furthermore, we take seriously the role of urban design in reproducing or disrupting our current agri-food-waste system through the (re)design of green space, logistics, waste, and waste water infrastructure. Approaching urban design and infrastructure as vital components of agri-food systems offers opportunities for crafting shorter and more regenerative loops at every stage in the agri-food system, including the “end of pipe” recovery of nutrients.

If you wish to pursue this as a thesis opportunity you will receive supervision in the development of a research proposal on the governance of the circular economy.  The following topics are possible:

  1. Mapping Circular Economy Innovations in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area

We seek a motivated student to conduct a scoping study and stakeholder mapping of circular food innovations in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. We take a broad view of circularity, to include traditional and emerging innovations, and social, economic, and environmental impacts.

2. Governing the Circular Economy

We week a motivated student to conduct a scoping study, media analysis, and literature review on the governance of circular urban and regional governance for the circular economy practices that are being tested and developed in city-regions across the globe, while focusing in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. We seek to learn from inspiring examples, best practices, as well as failures.

3. Methods for Visioning the Circular Economy in Place

You will research visioning and futuring methods that are well suited for stimulating creative out of the box thinking on the governance of the circular economy, develop a workshop design, and test your methods. There are already many existing participatory methodologies for visioning the future and co-creating transformation pathways for the future. Which may work best when it comes to transitioning to a circular economy?

Questions: contact



Well-working operational interfaces – PhD-thesis Wiebke Wellbrock

December 4 Wiebke Wellbrock succesfully defended her thesis (can be viewed at

Well-working operational interfaces: A key to more collaborative modes of governance

This thesis comprises five chapters that are independent scientific publications. In the first chapter, I show how the ‘learning region concept’ and ‘triple helix thesis’ can be reframed to address support for collaboration in rural areas. In the second chapter, I reflect on the experiences of using the conceptual lens as a research tool for studying the operational features of arrangements supporting joint learning and innovation in the case study area of Westerkwartier, the Netherlands. In the third and fourth chapters, I deal with the question of how to best arrange support for collaboration by comparing the operational features of arrangements across the German and European case study areas. This thesis concludes with a discussion of the lessons learnt concerning: 1) wellworking operational features of arrangements supporting collaborative modes of governance, 2) the development and refinement of the conceptual lens, based on experiences of using it as a heuristic research tool, and 3) the potential of the refined framework to effectuate more collaborative modes of governance.

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Balancing between governing styles – participatory processes in Galicia

By Marlies Meijer, graduated MSc-student

In previous blogs (see e.g. my second post on Planning realities in Galicia) I have written about my journey to Galicia and the difficulties and interesting views I came across while investigating planning and rural development practices there. In June this journey came to an end, I finished my master thesis and graduated (full thesis report ‘Balancing between governing styles: participatory practices in rural Galicia‘   is available online).

When writing my thesis I spent a lot of time on untangling the complex background of problems experienced in rural Galicia. Now I have been asked to write shortly about the conclusions to introduce the thesis. It is not an easy task, but I will try. 

One of the main problems in Galicia is land abandonment. Many people own land, but most parcels are too small and dispersed to manage. Due to many reasons most owners are not willing or able to maintain or sell their land. A great deal of these parcels have been afforested, with EU-subsidies. Unfortunately also forested parcels turned out to be ill-managed and not economically viable. With the implementation of forest management units the government of Galicia (Xunta) tried to tackle these problems. Within these units parcels are managed jointly, as one area. This makes forestry more economic viable and diverse; and forest fire safety measures or road construction more feasible. The most important precodition and goal of this project is the active involvement of citizens. Though this is the first participatory project in Galicia, many have been implemented in the EU. Galicia followed this example.

The problem with citizen involvement (or participatory processes) is that it takes two to tango, and sometimes even the ability of citizens to dance on their own. In Galicia the Xunta was a step ahead. Citizens did not show an endogenous will to participate actively, they were involved on paper and felt that maintenance was the task of Xunta. The Xunta conversely was very willing to make this policy a succes. Setting good examples and attracting as many owners as possible dominated. By overtaking responsibilities of owners (like administratory tasks and costs) and with charisma this process was streamlined. Nonetheless, as many interviewees responded, a participatory approach was also “the only way” to deal with problems like land abandonment or ill-managed forests. And it is true, inactive ownership forms the root of these problems and needs to be dealt with.

By studying this project it became clear that Galicia’s government was balancing between different style of governance. On the one hand are the old, clientalistic, ways of policy making in which the governments are in charge and take care of everything. On the other hand there is the new participatory approach that the Xunta aimed for when implementing the uxfor-policy. While looking for a balance, several areas of tensions emerged:

  • The policy-makers wanted to establish success quickly. By taking care of almost all aspects of implementation, it was possible to found uxfors in an efficient and quick way. However, creating active citizenship takes usually much more time and patience.
  • It was difficult to involve the citizen actively. The Xunta wanted to create active citizenship, but citizens expected the government to take care of common affairs. Citizens felt this was out of their responsibilities.
  • Land abandonment and depopulation are deep-rooted problems at the Galician countryside. The uxfor-policy tried to deal with these developments. But how can active citizenship be stimulated if the largest part of the population is well over 65, and most landowners live in other regions?

These conclusions hold close relations with other parts of Europe. Also here the participatory approach is gaining ground and are governments and citizens struggeling (in different ways) with its implementation. Depopulation and land abandonment also prevail in other marginal rural areas.

Despite the above mentioned comments on participatory processes in Galicia I respect the Xunta highly for their ability to ‘just’ do something, to start a project and not getting diluted by all kinds of problems (like bureaucracy) that might rise in the beginning.