Event report

February 14, 2022

crQlr Summit Report 3: Creating Scalable Impact

David Willoughby

Freelance Writer

The crQlr Awards are designed to be circular, not linear. While most other awards recognize past achievements, the crQlr Awards are all about creating positive feedback loops and, in the process, building one of the world’s largest repositories of case studies and learnings around the circular economy. The first ever crQlr Award winners joined the crQlr Summit hosted by five cities over two days in December 2021.

This report brings you highlights of the session hosted by FabCafe Bangkok, with the theme of creating scalable impact with the circular economy. Many circular businesses struggle to scale beyond their immediate local concerns and face a range of barriers to growth, from financing and logistics to competition from cheaper, mass-produced alternatives. A select panel of judges and winners grappled with the perennial issue of how and when to scale up. Let’s meet them.

The 2021 crQlr Awards were judged by a panel of 19 sustainability experts and practitioners. Several judges joined each session of the crQlr Summit to discuss the entries that caught their eye and give feedback to the winners. Judges attending the Bangkok session were:

Kalaya Kovidvisith

Kalaya is Co-founder of FabCafe Bangkok and Managing Director of FABLAB Thailand. Her research interests focus on how digital fabrication and biotechnology can transform industry and create new business models for the next generation of designers.

Mohamed Muse Hassan

Mohamed is the Founding Director of the Institute of Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship (IITE Institute) at SIMAD University, a hub for nurturing innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship education in Somalia and beyond.

Willemijn de Iongh

Willemijn is a landscape facilitator and connector at Commonland, an Amsterdam-based organization that is enabling long-term holistic landscape restoration in various parts of the world using the 4 Returns approach.

Singh Intrachooto, PhD

Singh trained as an architect and is Associate Professor of Building Innovation at Kasetsart University in Bangkok. He is also design principal of upcycling design venture OSISU and is considered Thailand’s pioneer of circular design.

Kelsie Stewart

Kelsie is Chief Community Officer of the FabCafe Global network. As well as being a judge and co-organizer of the crQlr Awards, she also served as a moderator during this session.

The 2021 crQlr Awards recognized 63 projects out of more than 200 entries. Several winners joined each session to discuss the challenges they’ve faced – and often still face – implementing and scaling their projects. Representing the winners at the Bangkok session were:

SAWADEE (Sawa Design Environment) is working to implement a circular economy model utilizing forest resources in Hida Takayama, a sparsely populated city in central Japan. Despite abundant local forests, the city imports Middle Eastern fossil fuels and foreign timber for its energy and construction needs. SAWADEE established an NPO that has created a logistics system to collect and use thinned wood from local forests, as well as a local wood-based currency. The project was awarded the Sustainable Forests Prize by judge Willemijn de longh, who commented:

What I appreciate about this initiative is that it is also taking a bigger picture approach for the region and also connects it to intergenerational solidarity and lifestyles. With globalization we have lost touch with our regional industries and we need to rebalance the import-export versus local production and consumption. This initiative does this very elegantly.

This project led by the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is implementing advanced aquaponics as part of a transition to a circular economy in Macaronesia, the island chains off the West African coast which include Spain’s Canary Islands. Financed by the European Regional Development Fund, the project is conducting research and development in aquaculture, hydroponics and microalgae to promote sustainable water use and food production. It received the Hybrid Symbiosis Prize from judge Singh Intrachooto, who commented:

Even though the aquaponic concept is not novel, the interregional cooperation and the level of execution at an industrial scale as shown by the applicant was impressive. They certainly need a lot of science, engineering and political stamina to execute this venture to a fruitful end.

SOUJI is a Spanish startup that has developed a way to transform used cooking oil into an ecological detergent in just one minute. One liter of oil can contaminate up to 1 million liters of water, and in Spain more than 60% of used oil is poured into the sewer system. SOUJI – the Japanese word for “cleaning” – uses a method based on traditional soap-making with caustic soda, but uses a different, novel ingredient to transform fatty acids into soap. It received the Liquid Gold Prize from judge Kelsie Stewart, who commented:

SOUJI’s innovative solution for used cooking oil is a win, win, win from several perspectives. It tackles the issue of what to do with used cooking oil, which otherwise blocks drainage systems and can sometimes be carcinogenic, while providing a cleaning product that otherwise must be packaged, shipped and delivered to a customer, most often in a single use plastic container. It is these kinds of scientifically innovative yet very sensible solutions which will disrupt the linear economy and provide better solutions for our earth.

In the first half of this session, judges and winners talked us through their own projects and how they’re responding to sustainability challenges in their industry or locality. Those presentations can be seen in full in the video below. The second half was given over to feedback and discussion, with some key takeaways highlighted here:

Willemijn: When you have a product or a business or a concept, the key is always to think about unintended effects. If it scales, what will be the positive and potentially negative effects on the environment? I love the SOUJI product, but what are you mixing the oil with? I imagine you don’t want to share that because it’s confidential, but is it sustainable?

Sergio: Thank you, and I’m glad to hear that you love our product. We have a sustainable formula that was developed over three years. At first, we had a formula that was not sustainable, so we took two more years to make it sustainable. We don’t test on animals and all of our compounds are vegetable and mineral in origin.

Willemijn: Fantastic! And it’s OK that your first prototype is not 100% sustainable. It’s OK to go on that journey to become 50%, 70%, 100% regenerative or sustainable, as long as you’re honest and transparent to yourself and your consumers. If we want to get it right immediately, it’s going to be really tough – especially if you’re living in an old system economy and you need to make your own market.

Mohamed: Congratulations to the teams – those were very inspiring presentations! One issue we’ve seen in Somalia is that people are always very positive about such projects, but if you approach them for funding to achieve scalability, they don’t actually get into your project. So how do you envision yourself to be in this business for a long time?

Carlos: Well, we receive money from the EU to research this area. And we work with local traders to use organic waste or to find another solution for it. We also work with hotels
to find new ideas that they can implement for a circular economy. We can’t manage all our waste because we are small islands and we receive almost 14 million tourists every year.

Mohamed: We teach about startups using the Business Model Canvas, which requires that you make money in order to sustain a business. You might depend on other social funds initially to get your business off the ground, but you cannot depend on them for everything. I like that you’re trying to evolve your business model.

Sergio: SOUJI has a prototype machine, but we need a partner to help us put a minimum number of machines on the market. That would require an amount of money we don’t have. One of the national companies in Spain is asking for exclusivity rights, and we’re thinking whether to go with this partner or take out a financial loan.

Willemijn: Between developing a business and growing a business, there’s a whole period of actually making the business work. This crunch period is where it takes a lot of time and energy to build the product, to test the product, to test the market, to create the branding. If you grow too quickly or scale too soon, you run the risk of having the adventure end too soon. I think it’s important to scale at the right moment, when you feel like you know enough.

Kalaya: Mohammed, I love the idea of circular startups to accelerate sustainability. How would you support the next generation to help them to grow and expand?

Mohamed: We work in an environment where the idea of the circular economy is almost non-existent. Innovation hubs like ours don’t normally frame things as circular. We say to people: if you want to become a social entrepreneur, these are the social challenges we have locally. Which one do you personally want to get into? And that’s how we get more young people into the circular economy. It’s the youth who decide to take things into their own hands and come up with solutions. Before we can scale up, we have to measure the impact they are already creating. We have to prepare stories of this impact and then release it to social media or television so that people show empathy for the work they are doing.

Kalaya: Willemijn, I’m a big fan of Commonland and really look forward to seeing your project in Thailand. A Commonland goal is very clear and simple, but it must be very complex to execute. You have to deal with many stakeholders with different skills and cultures. How do you align your stakeholders to work with you and implement your process?

Willemijn: Thank you, Kalaya. In terms of technology, restoration methods, aquaponics or forestry, the knowledge is there. Where it often goes wrong is when people don’t understand each other or speak a different language. Understanding each other’s world is where Commonland tries to step in. We work with the Theory U methodology, a multi-stakeholder partnership methodology, to facilitate new kinds of dialogue between people from different backgrounds. It’s about respecting each other, listening carefully, leaving your own opinion at the door, and trying to be open to what the system is trying to tell you.

Kalaya: I’ve known Singh for a long time and I know his passions in this area, from his work with universities to OSISU. I would like to ask him about his next move?

Singh: Basically, I’ve learned that circularity is all about collaboration. So my next move would be connecting the dots, whoever I can think of that can be integrated into this platform. I think the next thing you will see in Thailand will be a circular hub. And I hope after joining this event that crQlr will be that hub. After looking through these hundreds of projects, I feel I want to connect the dots. I want to connect this project with that project. Otherwise there’s no circularity, just closed loop production.

Kalaya: My next question is for all the winners. Many of you are in the process of growing your business, so what is your key challenge right now?

Hidetoshi: I’m always trying to see the grand plan from the top of the forest down to our lives. In the forestry industry, many people are each doing their own business, but everything is related. Someone, possibly an architect or designer, needs to see the whole view from the top of the forest to the final output, product or lifestyle. I’m always thinking about this.

Kalaya: Yes, I can see that because you also turn trees into currency and create a marketplace. Basically, you try to integrate forests back into our daily lives like in the past. Right now, we’ve stepped away from forests and we use them as a simple material. You’re trying to show how important forests are to us.

Carlos: Our key challenges are to collaborate with more local companies to help them be more sustainable or circular, and to reach more students and teach them how important it is to change to a circular economic model – especially on our islands, which have problems around waste, water resources, and energy efficiency. I think our key challenge is to help our small territories to be more sustainable.

Sergio: Our key challenge with SOUJI is to sell this kind of format on the market. Here in Spain, environmental awareness is growing slowly, and as a small company we have elevated prices. We are focused now on reducing the costs of our operations, logistics and marketing, to make it easier to sell our product. It’s hard because big suppliers don’t want to talk to us – they’re looking for minimum orders of 30,000 units.

In the next and final session, we’ll be joined by FabCafe Barcelona to discuss the role of system design in creating impact at scale. Read the next report here, or watch the full Bangkok session below.

Learn more about these circular projects by watching the entire Bangkok session, including presentations, feedback and discussion:

crQlr is a global consortium that supports the practitioners and future creators of a new society based on a circular economy. To enquire about our awards or to request support for your own circular project, get in touch with us here.

Author

  • David Willoughby

    Freelance Writer

    David thinks and writes about sustainability, technology and culture, and has reported on many of our hackathons, talks and other events. He also works with Japanese companies to help tell their stories to the world.

    David thinks and writes about sustainability, technology and culture, and has reported on many of our hackathons, talks and other events. He also works with Japanese companies to help tell their stories to the world.

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