The current momentum around circular economy monitoring and the evolving role of port managers (PMBs) in sustainability reporting is an excellent opportunity to clarify the direction in which this should be integrated into port performance systems. This is the time to establish the right framework and context to take incremental steps towards a mature circular economy monitoring system in port areas. This topic focuses not only on exploring and clarifying the challenge or simply gaining insights, but also on making these insights actionable.
How insights and first set of indicators were generated
The conceptualisation of circularity in ports (step 1) provided a first framework on which to build the research. Next, the development of the LONGLIST of indicators based on a review of resources and a cross-case analysis of port objectives (Step 2) provided the necessary inputs for the gap analyses (Step 3). Expert feedback cycles (step 4) resulted in the INTERIM SHORTLIST of indicators to be used in a try-out in a real port context (step 5), where the feasibility of the indicators was tested. After the roll-out, a FINAL SHORTLIST of 12 indicators was delivered, each of which was extensively tested for its relevance to the circular economy and ports, its link to port objectives and its feasibility.
Setting the scene
Review of sources
Try-out in real port context
1. Setting the scene
(November – December 2021)
Given the complex challenge, exploratory research was chosen as the method of use. First and foremost, it was necessary to know the context well enough and provide a robust framework to help guide the exploratory steps and the choices to be made.
From the beginning of the exploration, the Research Team tried to find the balance between building on and improving already existing knowledge, concepts and experience (lean) on the one hand, and working adaptively on actionable insights (agile) during the process (November 2021 – June 2022) on the other.
Although the use of literature on circular indicators was global, the gap-analysis with port objectives was based on the evolving circular port ambition of Belgian ports, to ensure a necessary match of objectives with indicators. The Belgian Ports are diverse in typology and some could be considered as circular frontrunners, at least in terms of media attention and growth of the number of circular projects. These cases were then assumed to serve well as best practices to ultimately provide a generic set of indicators that could serve more ports to monitor their circular activity. But it can also limit the use of the entire set of indicators in each port’s context, and it is possible because of this approach that certain indicators are not (yet) relevant for certain ports in the world. The idea is that when measuring some of the indicators from this set, at least on an identical measurement basis and with consistent data, the indicator becomes relevant to compare on a larger scale.
2. Review of sources
(January – February 2022)
A systematic approach was taken to reach a long list of CE indicators for ports. The starting point was the collection of available and accessible CE indicators from state-of-the-art CE sources. These were indicators which were not deliberately developed for ports or port activities in particular but rather for the circular economy in general (a top-down approach).
Next, existing CE indicators, which are already being monitored by ports, were considered in a bottom-up way, along with reports issued by port policy-oriented organisations. A longlist of 308 CE indicators was structured into CE and value chain themes. Based on reflections of the Research Team, as well as port and CE experts of a Reflection Group, similar indicators were then bundled where possible and remaining indicators were checked upon or translated towards port relevance. This resulted in a longlist of 32 CE indicators.
3. Gap analysis
(February – April 2022)
Circular economy objectives of Belgian PMBs were analysed extensively through their available policy and strategy documents, such as masterplans and strategic vision reports. Given that indicators should match with objectives, a gap analysis was performed at three levels.
Gap analysis 1: studied which CE indicators from the LONGLIST are already being reported by ports, and therefore already pass the feasibility test.
Gap analysis 2: identified which LONGLIST indicators have a matching CE objective, on which ports have agreed upon with stakeholders and external organisations.
Gap analysis 3: studied the matches between the LONGLIST indicators and the Belgian ports’ own objectives. These objectives are those which the port imposes on itself and communicates through its strategic documents.
Gap analyses 2and 3 together allow for the categorization of the longlist of indicators, while the gap analysis 1 strengthens the value of those indicators in their practical use.
4. Feedback cycles
(April – May 2022)
The expert feedback cycles were not really separate steps, but rather moments woven through the exploration. Still, there was an important moment for the Reflection Group to help focus the step from the indicator SHORTLIST 1.0 to 2.0 in preparation of the feasibility test (Step 5).
Throughout the exploration, the Circular Port Monitor theme was also continuously highlighted at regional and international conferences and workshops, aiming to reach academic and industry professionals. The exploration was also regularly aligned with the development of KPIs for the implementation of the Flemish port strategy.
This open approach contributed to the visibility and awareness of the need and value of CE monitoring in ports, which is vital for the next steps.
5. Try-out in real port context
(May – June 2022)
After developing the LONG LIST of indicators (Step 2), linking the indicators to the ambitions and strategic goals of the ports by means of a gap analysis (Step 3), and analyzing each indicator again by means of an expert focus groups (Step 5), as a last step in the exploratory research, the INTERIM SHORTLIST of 15 suggested indicators (2.0) was tested for their feasibility and measurability in a real frontrunning port context.
During this first try-out, only those indicators relevant in the short term were tested and the focus was on understanding the challenges each indicator would pose when implemented. For 12 out of 15 indicators from the INTERIM SHORTLIST 2.0, it was expected that the necessary data could be sought from the PMB, while the data for the remaining 3 indicators required individual companies (with a circular activity or project) to be contacted. The roll-out revealed that 12 shortlisted circularity indicators passed the feasibility test. This includes 7 highly feasible indicators and 5 indicators with a moderate feasibility.
to guide the exploratory research
of suggested CE indicators
of suggested CE indicators
of suggested CE indicators
of suggested CE indicators
The outcome of this exploratory research is not the end
Alert to new developments
First, the exploration sets the scene and provides a solid basis for initial monitoring of the circular economy in port areas. New developments, as inherent in any transition, will need to be incorporated at a later stage, including: new or higher ambitions of ports / stakeholders with respect to circular economy and thus indicators capturing these new ambitions, as well as new policy efforts, regional drivers and/or resources available to make this happen.
Solving problems on the ground
Second, the exploratory rollout, as presented as an example of a seaport in this study, revealed several challenges in terms of surveillance applications. These practical implications will be explored and recognized, and follow-up research will be needed to solve issues on the ground, and to make a monitoring system or set of indicators widely accepted and implemented.
Feedback loops and learning
Third, the research process may lead to necessary feedback loops. Some findings from later stages may impact choices made in earlier stages of the research process, and require potential adaptations through learning. This initial exploratory research will not cover any dynamic circular ambitions, solutions to implementation issues or feedback loops, but it will express the need to folllow up on these insights in the (near) future.
Selected key avenues as a next step
During the exploratory process, as a result of the research and many interactions, a number of interesting new paths were identified.
Two key avenues were selected in function of the further development of a Circular Port Monitor, mainly because they are currently seen by Circular Flanders and the Research Team as the most relevant and immediate opportunities to promote and accelerate the circular ambitions of ports.
1. Building stakeholder support for the Circular Port Monitor in Flemish (and European) ports
2. Analysing the social dimension of the circular transition in ports
Interested in the exploratory research?
The exploration is recorded in the form of a research notebook in which all the steps and findings of the exploration are carefully documented.
As such, it reads differently than a publication for a wide audience. Still, we want to be as transparent as possible in sharing this information. Therefore everything is open access under the CC BY-NC-ND license. You can request both the final report and the appendices by leaving your personal information.