Sustainable Innovation

On Monday 7 November, I went to the Sustainable Innovation conference at the Centre for Sustainable Design in Epsom. The theme of the conference was “Circular Economy” which ties in very nicely with my teaching and research on #itmbath.

My attendance was somewhat serendipitous as I had let slip the invitation to submit a paper, and was reminded of the conference while clearing my task list backlog last week. I am rather glad I attended, it was  a great conference, just the right size and with an inspiring mix of speakers and attendees. Fuller notes follow but here I will summarise a few reflections:

  • While ‘Circular Economy’ as a term attracts some criticism (eg vague term, nothing new, misleading branding etc), it does appear to have continuing traction at various levels
  • Hot topics include marine plastics and food waste. 3D printing is obviously an area of much technical research (especially looking at recycling and other environmental impacts). Business models are also getting more attention.
  • Quite a lot about communicating CE both at a consumer level (branding, involvement, value) and at a corporate level (organisational change theories and tools useful here)

Fuller Conference Notes

Martin Charter gave a very interesting introduction tying Circular Economy to the Sustainable Development Goals (2015). He briefly summarized his paper which categorizes circular economy business models. He noted a few case studies, including Philips who have recently amended their ‘focal areas’ to include circularity. Marine plastic appears to be a hot topic at the moment with a slew of initiatives and projects. ICA recently held a ‘net hacking’ event which had nothing to do with the internet and everything to do with design of products from fishing nets

Another theme was ‘Industry 4.0’, an ambiguous (the unkind might say meaningless) term which was dissected by various speakers. Some themes explored included decentralisation, maker communities, technology push, crowdfunding, open sourcing, business models (again), motivations etc.

Hugo Schally, (European Commission) provided a background to the EU work on Circular Economy.  He stressed the challenge of creating a common vision covering: environmental imperatives (particularly climate change); jobs and growth; and democracy/governance. He also pointed out that the EU vision needed to align with other initiatives: 2030 EU targets, Paris accord, G7 alliance. And outside EU too (particularly China). There are a variety of legislative proposals in the EU paper, many covering waste minimisation. Plastics and food waste are among the priority areas. There are some contentious areas (for example: is biodegradability of plastics always good? Should a ‘Product Environmental Footprint’ (PEF) be enforced? How do we track products through their lifetime? ) There are a number of specific proposals – one assertion I found interesting was that sometimes it is the absence of regulation that is a problem.

In any case, there appears to be EU political support – and funding – for research and entrepreneurship in the CE space.

Mark Dempsey presented HPs activities in the CE space. I was interested by this, HP is my old stomping ground and I wanted to see what had happened since I left. Of course, HP has now split so Mark was talking about the non enterprise HP  (particularly printers and personal computing). HP has made the ‘subscription’ model for printing more explicit (Instant Ink) and has partnered with iFixit (maybe not officially) on making its tablets (HP ELITE 1012) easy to disassemble/fix.  


iFixit disassembles a tablet

When I joined HP in 2000, one of my colleagues was urging HP to get into 3D printing, so I was glad to see they have now done so , they appear to be tackling the market from the high end. They are also part of the EMF Circular 100. None of this of course makes HP the pinnacle of sustainable business, but it does make them an interesting case study.

More case studies followed. Kyle Wien talked about iFixit, a self help forum for fixers and makers. He made the point that the Galaxy Note 7 battery issue would have been less of an issue had the batteries not been glued in – and indeed adhesives appear to be the bane of the fixer community. He made the point that a successful repair builds brand loyalty. Interestingly, the vision is not necessarily for every user to be a fixer, they envisage a network of small repair shops with as part of the ecosystem. iFixit is keen to partner with manufacturers (as above, HP appears to be first on board).

Ben Knepper talked about Bureo Inc, taking ocean plastic (8M tonnes p.a. entering the oceans!) and upcycling into high end products. They tie their work into economic resilience: empowering local communities to create their own micro businesses.

There were a couple of panel discussions which were quite wide ranging. A very selective series of thoughts and observations:

  • Education:
  • Systems:
    • CE Loops involve suppliers and therefore not just the CE100
    • Since CE is systemic, It involves global supply chains hence different political and philosophical attitudes to CE need to be considered.
    • Not everyone is a ‘maker’ or ‘fixer’ and we need to develop an ecosystem.
  • Political and Economic:
    • There are government issues in ‘importing waste’ (as raw material)
    • Interesting observation on GDP: GDP can go up as a result of an undesirable condition eg national health crisis (disease)
      • Can we measure GDP differently (there is work in EU and UN on this)
    • Communication
      • Remanufacturing – old products are often difficult to get hold of – therefore need good communication with customers.
      • ‘end of the world’ is not imminent – circular economy must therefore be a positive message
      • Can we ‘brand’ sustainability as a luxury ‘must have’ ? (I have mixed feelings about this!)
        • Or emphasis something about meaning rather than brand.
      • Plus some emotional (irrational) responses eg: ‘my car will smell’ if I have a mat made from fish nets in it.
      • Later, Martin Hunt (forum the future) emphasised the importance of the ‘opportunity agenda’ – successes need to be celebrated.
    • Technical:
      • Various technical CE challenges – eg recycling red plastic into yellow ?
      • Should we recycle all old products – this may be dangerous (cf asbestos)
      • Fishing net problematic – cannot separate ropes and nylon.
        • Perhaps design them better?

A series of Pecha Kucha style talks (Martin relaxed the rules on this a bit). Lots of interesting case studies.

I was taken by the ‘Circularity Canvas’ model proposed by Fenna Blomsma which got quite a lot of interest by the assembled participants. It could be a useful strategic tool, but is currently at the stage where is needs validation, application and refinement.


Circularity Canvas (Blomsma) #susin16

And the observation by Cindy Kohtala about makerspaces today being like the internet cafes of the 1990s – “These people are the lead users – they are exploring meanings and values”

Ichin Cheng, made some insightful comments about the difference between Asian and European philosophies re CE. Of course, and CE model must include Asian companies as they will inevitably at least be part of the supply chain. Ichin referenced the 12R model:


12R model presented by Ichin Cheng at #susin16

There was some pre-dinner excitement at the launch of BS8001: “a Framework for implementing the principles of the circular economy in organisations”

This is currently a draft ‘open for comments’ (including by non UK interested parties)

It builds on various CE principles: Systems Thinking; Innovation; Stewardship; Collaboration; Value optimisation (includes a lot of technical outcomes); Transparency

Interestingly, the language is different to other waste directives to encourage thinking about waste as a resource rather than an unfortunate by product to be minimised.

Martin Hunt (from Forum for the Future) made the point that CE challenges current assumptions, mind sets and cultures. CE initiatives therefore need to employ the tools of Organisational change.

A few take home points from Martin Charter:

  • Obviously, CE is a somewhat slippery term, it can mean many things (or nothing at all). CE is also not only game I town (cf cCO2 as a single metric)
  • CE require a fundamental re-examination of business assumptions. This is somewhat easier for start ups
  • A few technical issues particularly wrt recycling: old products may have hazardous materials; biodegradable is not always better; fishing nets are hard to recycle (and generally design is key)
  • Consumer engagement: a few potentially competing approaches here.
  • Need for positive visions (not all doom and gloom).
  • New tools and techniques – 3D printing was covered in some depth. It now takes just over 10 seconds to disassemble an iPhone!
  • Also manufacturing 4.0 was examined, including decentralisation, DIY, open source.

I could not attend for the second day but having chatted to many of the presenters I am sure it will be another inspiring session.

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