Event report

March 31, 2024

Relationships make the world more circular – report on the​​ ​​crQlr Summit and Exhibition 2024 TOKYO

David Willoughby

Freelance Writer

Now in their third year, the crQlr Awards recognise projects worldwide that are leading the transition to a circular economy. This year, ten crQlr judges assessed 140 projects from more than 40 different countries and picked out 28 entries for special recognition. Winning isn’t really the point of the crQlr Awards, one reason the prize-giving process is kept as discretion-based and informal as possible. The awards are really about sharing circular ideas and best practices across diverse industries and global regions. Instead of a glitzy awards ceremony, there’s the crQlr Summit: a serious meeting of minds.

The crQlr Summit in Tokyo adopted this year’s Special Prize theme of new relationship design. There won’t be a circular transition unless we can form new and unexpected relationships. For the last hundred years or more, we’ve been living in a linear economy in which producers produce and consumers consume, with various middlemen also involved. Within this linear economy, there’s always room for improvement. Consumers might become more waste-conscious and introduce small loops by recycling. But the circular economy goes further. It involves a more radical rethink of production and consumption, creating new relationships in which consumers might become producers and artists might work with scientists to change public perceptions about what’s edible and what isn’t. Today, we’ll see three examples of that in action. But first, the keynote.

When futurists make predictions – or more accurately, uncover potentialities – one method they often turn to is synthesis. This involves splicing together seemingly unrelated trends and concepts to explore what any future interaction between them might look like. Synthesis can even be accelerated by creating spaces for interaction between specialists from different disciplines. This more or less describes the work of today’s keynote speaker Cecilia MoSze Tham, founder of FabCafe Barcelona, Makers of Barcelona, and Futurity Systems.

Cecilia explains how her early career provided her with the tools to connect people and places to build new relationships. She left Hong Kong as a teenager to study biology in the US, before pivoting to architectural studies and establishing a career as an architect in Barcelona. In 2011, while still struggling with the language, she founded coworking and collaboration space Makers of Barcelona based on the insight that communication could be pursued through other means besides language. Bringing together diverse teams has remained at the core of her work.

Cecilia spoke at length on the ways her company is enabling new kinds of new relationship design in her keynote speech

Cecilia is now CEO of “future-as-a-service” company Futurity Systems, which goes beyond analysis and synthesis to actually design and prototype speculative solutions. Her current project is one that promises to completely remake the relationship between humans and nature: autonomous plants. What if a tomato plant, for example, could sell its own tomatoes and reinvest the proceeds? It sounds like science fiction, but algorithmic investment funds are already a thing. If the concept of autonomous plants were scaled, Cecilia suggests, the Amazon could act to protect itself. The bigger idea here is called the interspecies economy, which would add natural intelligence to the human and artificial. Similar thinking informs many circular practitioners, including some of the award winners today.

As crQlr Awards chairman Kelsie Stewart pointed out in her opening remarks, the dire state of our planet and its dwindling resources is all too often expressed in shocking statistics, leading to feelings of “helplessness, apathy and fear”. The three Special Prize winners joining the crQlr Summit today are changing the narrative by showing how people can form unexpected partnerships and start building something better from below. This kind of new relationship design differs from system design, a more complex undertaking that can produce feelings of learned helplessness on its own.

Guilty Flavours

Eleonora Ortolani
Multidisciplinary artist and material designer

Eleonora Ortolani (right) started her project Guilty Flavours as a radical response to a personal frustration around plastic waste recycling

Guilty Flavours was singled out by several of the crQlr judges for its radical and controversial take on the problem of plastic waste: a human-edible food ingredient derived from PET. Artist and material designer Eleonora Otolani told the crQlr Summit how the idea originated in response to the vogue for recycled plastic products. While presented as a solution, these products only serve to postpone the moment when plastic eventually ends up in landfill. Eleonora calls them “guiltless plastic” as they legitimise our plastic consumption. She began by asking what it would mean if we took actual responsibility for the plastic waste we create.

The result is a vanilla ice cream flavoured with synthetic vanillin derived from plastic bottles. Eleonora worked with a biotechnologist on a process in which PET polymers are broken down and the individual monomers digested by bacteria engineered to produce vanillin molecules. This PET-derived ingredient is not a microplastic but a molecule that’s chemically identical to the vanillin already approved for use in our food. It’s still considered a new ingredient and not yet approved for human consumption, which is why Guilty Flavours remains in a locked freezer where it poses more questions than it answers. Where do we draw the line between natural and synthetic? Should plastic even be considered part of a “new nature”?

See the full Guilty Flavours award entry with comments by crQlr judges >

Sea Vegetable Circulation Project

Yuichi Tomohiro
Co-CEO of Sea Vegetable LLC

Tomohiro is one of the lead researchers at Sea Vegetable, which aims to create a new seaweed culture in Japan

Sea Vegetable Circulation Project was praised by the crQlr judges for its holistic and relationship-based approach to creating a new ecosystem around seaweed. Japan, with its long and rocky coastline, is home to around 1500 species of seaweed, all of them edible. The sheer diversity of seaweeds makes them the vegetables of the sea. But only a few dozen species are found in the human diet, with many of us consuming little or no seaweed at all. This is despite the fact that nori and aonori, two of the more common varieties in Japan, contain similar amounts of protein to soybeans, which are a major driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Sea Vegetable began when a group of researchers set out to create a new seaweed culture in Japan. One of the lead researchers, Yuichi Tomohiro, told the crQlr Summit how his team introduced new methods of seaweed cultivation on land and on the sea surface in order to protect underwater seaweed populations, which are already threatened. This meant changing hearts and minds among local fishing communities. But the team went further to build new relationships at every step of the value chain, from traditional producers to food manufacturers and individual recipe-creators. Because harvesting and preparing seaweed is labour-intensive, the project offered jobs to retirees and other groups outside of the traditional workforce, making Sea Vegetable an exemplary study in new relationship design.

See the full Sea Vegetable award entry with comments by crQlr judges >

Rewood Forest Cycle

Hsieh Huiting
Charcoal Pot Artist, Rewood Forest Cycle

Rewood project member and artist Hsieh Huiting (left) told the audience about how they are trying to build a new economy for waste wood in Taiwan

Rewood Forest Cycle was the final recipient of this year’s Special Prize in recognition of its ten-year history of cooperative action towards a more circular forestry industry in Taiwan. More than ten million tons of waste wood – most of it pruned or fallen tree branches – is sent to incineration in Taiwan each year. In response, Rewood has been building a new economy for all this waste wood, from furniture to charcoal potted plants to essential oils and natural cleaning products. There’s a strong educational aspect as well. Rewood leverages its relationships with schools to hold workshops for students and ensure the craft of woodworking is passed onto future generations. 

One of the project members, artist Hsieh Huiting, told the crQlr Summit how Rewood began without a fixed goal or roadmap. Instead, it proceeded one step at a time to tackle issues in cooperation with local schools and later with government agencies. Many social businesses want to change the world on their own terms, but Rewood shows the long-term benefits of partnering with existing institutions and taking a more flexible, cooperative approach. As institutions can have deep social roots, there’s a greater chance that any new values will become permanently embedded in culture.

See the full Rewood award entry with comments by crQlr judges >

The crQlr Summit Tokyo included 60 minutes of discussion among the three Special Prize winners and three of this year’s crQlr Awards judges. Aining Ouyang is CEO of REnato lab, a Taipei-based consulting firm that advises clients on circularity and carbon-reduction initiatives. Anni Korkman is Programme Director of Luovi Productions, the Finnish design agency which oversees Helsinki Design Week. The final judge Kosuke Kinoshita is Brand Manager of MTRL and FabCafe Kyoto.

Eleonora Ortolani (Guilty Flavours) answers a question posed by crQlr Awards chairman Kelsie Stewart

Kelsie (moderator): Maybe the judges could begin by telling us what inspired them most about these projects?

 Aining: I’ve seen many projects fail in the past because they don’t create a value chain. Sea Vegetable is an example of how to create that chain to ensure a market for the product. Rewood combines regional revitalization and the circular economy, while bringing in the younger generation. In my own experience as a consultant, I believe it’s time to welcome more people into the circularity movement.

 Anni: I’m inspired most by the common denominators. All three projects tell a story. They involve research and development, but also the use of the imagination to create an original idea. The power of design is to make extremely complicated subjects approachable. Not by simplifying, but by telling a story. And good stories are inclusive: they invite us to listen, then tell our own stories.

 Kosuke: Going back to the theme of new relationship design, the winning projects have all thought about how to bring others into the process. It’s not just a design process. These projects are not rigid, they leave room for participation. Even Guilty Flavours is participatory, because who doesn’t want to taste ice cream?

Kelsie: Turning to the winners, what was the learning curve for working with such diverse partners in your projects?

 Eleonora: Artists use a certain type of language, so working with a scientist partner was a journey for us both. Ultimately, eating plastic isn’t a totally stupid idea, so my partner did acknowledge that the collaboration was also beneficial for them. This kind of multidisciplinary collaboration is fascinating and necessary for the circular economy. Arts and science are at opposite ends of the spectrum, with the general public somewhere in the middle. So we need to create a bridge between the two sides to make science more understandable.

 Huiting: Rewood started by making a cleaning product. The circular business began ten years ago from that small point. The cleaning business partnered with a school and realised that the school was paying a contractor a huge sum of money to prune trees and collect waste wood. So just visiting the school actually gave them an insight into a new problem. From there, they started holding workshops where students learn how to make furniture and other products.

 Tomohiro: We started out as researchers who were invited to help revitalise the seaweed industry. Our first business partner was a food company which offered a purchase guarantee for the first five years. That made everything more sustainable. But finding workers in rural areas is really hard, so we looked for opportunities to connect with local retirees and people with physical disabilities. The biggest learning moment for me was recognising that I’m basically helpless without support from others.

Judges Kosuke Kinoshita (left; FabCafe Kyoto MTRL Marketing and Production), Anni Korkman (center; Programme Director of Helsinki Design Week & Weekly, Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale, Luovi Productions Ltd), and Aining Ouyang (right; REnato lab Chief Operations Officer) came to Tokyo for the summit

Kelsie: What plans do you have for scaling these projects? Or how do you envision your project a hundred years from now?

 Eleonora: It’s never been my goal to bring a product to market. My goal was to create a discussion around plastic and food. I don’t know if you will ever find a plastic-derived ice cream in Seven-Eleven. Food is just a cultural construct. We need to find a more balanced relationship with the planet and with nature around us.

 Huiting: Human lives are very short compared to trees. Rewood is doing this for the next generation and the generation after that. We work for the circular economy but also for the local economy. We only want to scale by finding like-minded partners who prioritise the environment. I do think our model of caring for trees could be shared with other countries.

 Tomohiro: We want people to continue using seaweed in a way that benefits the ocean environment. The possibilities for seaweed are actually endless. It goes way beyond just eating.

 Kosuke: The key concept today for me was culture. None of the projects is a direct solution, but something that needs to be kept alive for a long time in order to change the world. Each project itself becomes a culture that can be passed on.

The three Special Prize winners above were featured in the crQlr Awards Exhibition TOKYO: New Relationship Design held at FabCafe Tokyo in March 2024 to coincide with the crQlr Summit. 

Winner of The Vulnerability of Innovation Prize, We are What we eat, What we throw away Award, Plastic-Free Prize, and The Future of Food Sustainability Award, Guilty Flavours is a radical proposal for how humans can harness our own bodies as machines to eliminate plastic forever – by eating it


Winner of the Seeing both the trees and the forest Prize and Black Gold Prize, REWOOD works to pass on technology to the next generation of workstations and to establish a self-sufficient and complete forest in Taiwan

Winner of the Big Blue Loop Prize, Illumination Prize,Exuberant Prize, Future Stories of People and the Sea Prize, Saved by the Sea Prize, and The Sea-rcular ecosystem award, Sea vegetable Circulation explores how to cultivate seaweed on the sea surface

In addition, the crQlr Awards Exhibition also showcased six more projects selected for a prize by the judges:

Winner of the Beautify the Town Prize, Tejiendo la calle is a community weaving project making colourful fabric shades for the streets of a small town in Extremadura, Spain. Winner of the Data-Driven Collaboration Prize, MateRe is a digital platform that helps users trace materials and calculate emissions across complex supply chains. Winner of the Uniting Factors Prize, Seaweed Dialogues is another seaweed-related project, this time aimed at generating new material uses for Icelandic kelp. 


Winner of the Shopping Without a Single-use Bag Prize, Comvey is a returnable package for ecommerce purchases that can be used up to 50 times. Winner of the Air-volutionary Award, Briiv Air Filter is an all-natural, renewable air purifier made from moss, coconut, and a specially designed nano-matrix. Winner of the Genie in a Bottle Prize, Difold is a collapsible, reusable bottle made from plant-based materials and based on origami principles.

Launched as Japan’s first award in the field of circular design, the crQlr Awards aim to broaden sustainability players’ perspectives through exposure to not only practical know-how in existing industries but also to inspiring projects from all over the world. The overarching goal of the crQlr Awards is to enable companies, artists, and various professionals to make full use of their creativity in a wide range of fields toward the implementation of circular economy systems.


  • 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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