Event report

February 14, 2022

crQlr Summit Report 4: System Design and Natural Resources

David Willoughby

Freelance Writer

The crQlr Summit is where circularity practitioners gain from global perspectives. Too many of those on the frontlines of circular design are trying to solve local problems in isolation. The crQlr Summit, the showpiece of the crQlr Awards, brings them together with the goal of knowledge exchange and open feedback.

This report brings you highlights of the session hosted by FabCafe Barcelona, with the theme of system design and natural resources in the circular economy. The linear model of mass production and consumption has long been the default system in most countries. As access to natural resources risks collapse, how might we design new systems from below? Let’s hear the thoughts of judges and winners working in countries as far afield as Japan, Germany, Mexico and Taiwan.

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

Cecilia Tham

A serial entrepreneur, Cecilia is the founder of FabCafe Barcelona and MOB, the largest co-working community in Barcelona. She is also a Future Synthesist and Principal at Futurity Studio, where she helps companies to ideate and prototype futures.

Enrique Lomnitz

Enrique is an industrial designer by trade. He is also Founding Director of Isla Urbana, a project that is developing a model to harvest rainwater as a viable water source for Mexico City, promoting sustainability and raising living standards for water-scarce communities.

Guillaume Charny-Brunet

Guillaume is Co-founder & Director of Strategy at SPACE10, a Copenhagen research and design lab on a mission to create a better everyday life for people and planet. He has spent 15 years helping large organizations to anticipate change and develop new solutions.

Mariko McTier

Mariko is Co-founder and Director of Social Innovation Japan and Co-founder of mymizu, Japan’s first free water refill app. A former journalist, she has planned, managed and delivered international, multi-stakeholder projects for government, corporations and social ventures.

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 saw a total of 63 prize-winning projects from over 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 Barcelona session were:

Impossible Materials is a deep-tech spinoff company from the Chemistry Department at the University of Cambridge, UK. The company’s mission is to enable businesses to work towards a circular economy by providing plant-based formulation ingredients. Its first product is a 100% cellulose-based white pigment to replace the controversial market leader titanium dioxide (TiO2) for use in paints, inks, cosmetics, pharma, and food. Impossible Materials was awarded the NEUMATERIALS Prize by judge Cecilia Tham, who commented:

I really like the premise of this project, to use plant-based materials over highly processed and toxic chemical ingredients that are hard to break down. As we are understanding more and more about what nature offers, and as we have more and more data on how to best match our needs to biomaterials, we can start creating far more sustainable consumption models. Furthermore, material innovation can impact a great deal because they are the building blocks of our production and consumption. I am hopeful that this project can carry beyond TiO2 replacement and expand to other chemicals as well.

Bagasse UPCYCLE of Okinawa, Japan is a circular project that uses Bagasse, a waste product of Okinawan sugarcane, to manufacture the island’s signature “Kariyushi” shirts. Popular with tourists, these shirts are offered through a sharing model and each shirt is IC-tagged to track its lifecycle. After multiple uses, the shirts are finally transformed into a soil enhancer for sugarcane fields. Bagasse UPCYCLE was awarded the Design a Product’s Lifecycle Prize by judge Mariko McTier, who commented:

I like how thorough and thoughtful this project is in designing out waste at all stages of the product’s lifecycle. Though it could be at risk of becoming overly complicated by focusing on doing too many things at once, this is a great example of how it is possible to design a product and the systems around it to minimise its environmental impact.

ZenZhou Water-Storing Seedling Pot is a tree-planting technology developed to counter erosion of the Taiwanese coastline. The low-cost, recyclable pot stores rainwater and protects saplings for one year, improving their survival rate by up to 70% and increasing growth rate by 2 to 3 times. The pot is finally broken down by microorganisms, fertilizing the soil and nurturing the grown-up saplings. ZenZhou received the Regeneration Award from judge Guillaume Charny-Brunet, who commented:

A low-cost coastal protection idea that goes beyond circularity to regeneration. Applications for such low-tech/low-cost products are broad and highly replicable. Cardboard and paper being the most recycled material, we could imagine developing tools for fighting desertification around the world. For this project, the vertical integration of the supply chain and existing sales pipeline shows there must be a business case.

Diaper Cycle is a Berlin-based social enterprise which offers 100% bio-based and compostable diaper inlays to parents. As part of a circular system, it also takes back used diapers for transformation into soil substrate. Its key innovation is the inlay, which uses only non-chemically treated raw fibers and can be used in combination with washable outer pants. Diaper Cycle’s long-term vision is to empower female entrepreneurs worldwide to establish decentralized local production of its inlays. The project received the Full Loop Potential Award from judge Guillaume Charny-Brunet, who commented:

This is a very interesting and inspiring example of circular business, and a unique alternative in an undervalued opportunity space. I love the idea of using carbon offsets to eventually offer this as a free service in the right policy environment.

In the first half of the 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:

Guillaume: First of all, I’d like to thank everyone for the great pitches and the energy they’re sharing with us today and with their communities. I have a question for Ayumi of Diaper Cycle. I’d like to better understand the distribution model for shipping out the diapers and for collecting them. I’m wondering whether your customers find it convenient enough, or if you’re also thinking about another service layer that might increase the level of convenience.

Ayumi: Yes, this is a good question. Actually, parents really like to meet each other, so they like to bring the diapers back to the family center or kindergarten. If they meet other parents, they can find a babysitter, or exchange clothes, toys, books. We were very surprised by this. Of course, we can deliver the product to make it easier. However, this also increases the cost. If parents like to meet each other, then why not do that? Let’s have them meet and support each other in a neighborhood community.

Enrique: Congratulations to all of you – these are really inspiring and beautiful projects. I had a question for Lukas of Impossible Materials. Going from a metal to a plant-based pigment is a really wonderful thing, but I was curious about the durability of it. I understand this is a structural pigment. How long does it last?

Lukas: Very good question indeed. We’ve made some lifetime tests, which are going over several years. The stability in terms of radiation or outdoor conditions has been tested and there seems to be no problem. Also, the pigment is within the formulation, so it’s not only the pigment that is applied: there is stability through other ingredients. On top of that, we are focusing at the moment on health-sensitive sectors which make fast-moving consumer goods. Toothpaste or food has a very different lifetime to a paint.

Mariko: Shinji, I really loved your whole system at Bagasse UPCYCLE and how thoughtful you were about looking at different parts of the lifecycle of the product. I feel like one of the biggest challenges might be getting your customers to accept a very different way of selling a product as a subscription or service. I wonder what reactions you’ve gotten so far, and whether there’s anything you’re doing to encourage people to adopt a new way of consuming.

Shinji: Thank you very much for your question and also a very good point. We just started our company this March. Okinawa is a tourist island and the number of tourists is 10-20 percent of what it was before Covid-19, so this is quite a hard moment for us to start marketing our service. We’re thinking this award will give us a great opportunity to gain awareness of our service and our philosophy or concepts. Sharing is quite simple and easy to start, but we’re securing our competitiveness with our authentic, bagasse-based textile.

Cecilia: Complexity is one of the issues we’re dealing with in wanting to tackle systemic problems. We’re talking about everything from consumer behavior to supply chain, production and regulations. These are multi-layered complexities that are beyond individual solutions. So everyone, what are your thoughts about how we can align?

Mariko: At the risk of oversimplifying – because, as you said, it is super complex – I think one super critical factor is just having a vision for what we’re going for. I think too often we end up talking about a solution or product, and no-one is aligned in terms of what we’re trying to achieve or the world that we’re trying to create. Having that strong vision that is shared between all the stakeholders and that you can all work towards is the fundamental basis for moving.

Ayumi: It’s also important for each entrepreneur to focus on what we can do, to work with what we have. To change the whole system or production line is really a lot of work, but each of us has opportunities to move even one millimeter forward – and this will of course affect others. I guess it’s very important for each of us to focus on what we could do at this moment, maybe with our network and communities.

Shinji: I personally think that the power of the community is key. The circular economy is only just emerging in Japan. It’s quite a new momentum and we’ve introduced the concept of the product passport, which lets users connect with other users by looking at the value chain of the data. So if you are doing sustainable fashion, you can connect to other users of our service. I think it’s very important to encourage people to make a little effort towards circularity or sustainability, and collectively those efforts could make a big change.

Guillaume: I think the complexity also comes from the fact that a lot of traditional businesses are based on infrastructure that makes their business easy to plug on top of. None of your businesses is actually built on capacities that already exist. All of you have to figure out the whole value chain from sourcing to logistics. All of you also have the opportunity of creating value way beyond your own businesses, which is the thing that I absolutely love about circular and regenerative businesses.

Cecilia: System thinking forces us to think about the consequences of things. Not the immediate consequences, but the subsequent ones as well. So, this is a question for the winners: have you thought about unintended consequences that your design might have?

Enting: I’d like to share a quote from a zero-waste chef in Australia who said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero-waste perfectly; we need millions of people doing zero-waste imperfectly.” We might want to replace single-use plastic, but it’s inevitable that some part of our product needs a little bit of plastic so that it can be used many times over. If we use that 10g or maybe 100g of plastic, we can save perhaps one million kilograms of plastic. I think consequences are inevitable, but the action still has worth.

Lukas: For us, it’s a very important topic. Using plant-based materials sounds amazing, but you also need to think about the scale of cellulose you use, which at the end of day is trees and plants. We’re improving that by using more bio-waste products than actual trees. It is super important to think through the whole cycle of the product, because otherwise you implement a whole new industry that can then cause other problems like a large-scale harvesting of some bio ecosystems.

Shinji: We’re focusing on the sugarcane industry and bagasse, which is a byproduct, so it has an advantage over bamboo or some other plants. But we currently face another problem: they’re using pesticides on the farmland. We’re thinking about how to change to a more organic-based, non-harmful agriculture – and that is extending our concept of how we can make a better ecosystem or better initiatives.

Ayumi: We don’t see any negatives so far. We strictly follow the principle of the blue economy: how can we learn from nature. And in nature, there are no bad microorganisms or good microorganisms. Everything is connected, and we should work with all other species of plants and fungi. All of these are existing around us – and if we work with them, we can benefit them. So for us, we do not fix one problem. It’s actually the opposite: we solve more than one problem.

Cecilia: I wonder how we can scale up some of these solutions, not just to other locations, but even transport them across different industries?

Ayumi: It is very important for us to have a business model that is decentralized. If somebody in Thailand, for example, would like to start the same business, what we’d like to do is share this business model so they can produce the diaper by themselves with their own natural resources. Our recipe and their recipe might be different, so we need learning networks. We need to learn from each other and help each other improve.

Guillaume: A lot of things are relevant locally and cannot scale exactly the same way, but here we have other ways to think about growth, maybe through the building of blueprints, franchise models like you’re doing, ways to empower people on the other side of the world to be part of your business – not benefiting from your local infrastructure, but from all the knowledge that you’ve created. There’s so much value in everything you’re doing, way beyond what we all can see today.

Enrique: I really like what Mariko said about what needs to happen in order for circularity concepts to take hold: it begins with intention. It begins with the intention of doing – but as people start to make a conscious intention to do things this way, it also starts creating a kind of normalization and pressure so that other people start being drawn to it. Our intentions often go far beyond what we do ourselves – they start creating culture and norms that then start actually moving the needle on bigger systems.

Mariko: I really hope that these awards and the session today will inspire more people to have that intention and to think: what problem do they care about and what role can they play in solving it. It’s about finding your role in this. I appreciate everyone who applied for the awards because they’ve taken the action and they’re actually putting that into practice and starting on that path towards realizing a vision.

Watch the entire session hosted by FabCafe Barcelona, 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.


  • 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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