Dancing in the Circular Economy

Dancing in the Circular Economy

Anne Raudaskoski is co-founder and principal consultant of Ethica, a circular economy consulting based in Finland. Previously, she used to work as a Sustainability Manager at the University of Westminster in London. She currently focuses on the development of new concepts and tools in relation to circular design, business models and customer experience. She has a past career as a professional dancer and she firmly believes that the circular economy is the best way to build the future.

Hi Anne, glad to have you here. Let me start from Ethica, the Finnish award-winning circular economy consulting you founded together with Paula Fontell in 2013. Might you tell us a bit more about the idea behind it?

The first time I met with Paula, we realised that regardless of the very different backgrounds—Paula had a strong corporate background and I had a very diverse background, coming from the arts and education and working for Westminster University—we had a very similar vision of how this type consultancy should operate. At the time, there was very little discussion about the circular economy. We included it from the beginning but we also did a lot of sustainability projects, and the key is that we wanted to focus on the business strategy itself, whereas CSR and sustainability programs are usually treated separately, and we thought this is not what we want to advocate for. Rather, we need to talk about research and development work, about branding, about business strategy, about the growth targets and other targets that the company has. Only then we can start thinking about how sustainability can enter the picture and contribute to these goals.

Our key principle has remained the same over the years. Recently, there has been a huge shift in Finland to the circular economy and we have been focusing more on that. We are really talking about businesses’ and municipalities’ strategies, their strengths and what are the unique factors and elements for them. The heart of what we do is still the same today and this is the mission that got us set-up Ethica 5 years ago.

Which projects have you been working on?

We have been doing projects with both companies and public sector entities. One of the projects we are currently working on is called Eco-Design Sprint, a training programme for companies and design agencies to harness circular economy approach to develop their business. It is a three-day workshop for companies and design agencies to familiarize with circular principles and have design agencies develop new products or services for the company. It has been working very well and all of us have realised that this is really inspirational way of working, because designers can use their design tools, thinking and competences mixed with the circular economy approach to then create something together with companies.  

We recently had a EIT Raw Materials project (European Institute of Innovation & Technology), and together with them we have been working on circular business ecosystems. One case study we developed together with the AMS institute in Amsterdam investigated how to collect the existing copper and metals from the residential buildings in Amsterdam in an economically viable way in the future. A quite revolutionary work, I would say.

Here in Finland, we did a project with the Prime Minister's’ office in their attempt to push forward the circular economy.  One way of doing this is through rapid experiments. There are 20 projects or ideas that the Prime Minister’s office wants to fund with small amounts of money, like 5,000 euros. We are basically making sure and supporting those experiments such that there would be some outcomes and perhaps new businesses growing out of these rapid experiments.

Currently we are working with the City of Espoo. We have also been working on a urban development project with the city of Tampere for the past two years. It is brilliant to have such a long-term client relationship, it is really fruitful.  Moreover, we are developing a circular narrative together with innovative biocompanies as part of the national bio-product project.

What is the philosophy behind rapid experiments?

Rapid experiment is a way to explore and test an idea in a small scale, find out how it works and what the impact and pros & cons are before scaling it up. The main goal is to create a positive change through doing and learning; risk taking is part of the process. It happens sometimes that the experiment doesn’t work out as intended, but that’s also useful information for future development.

The whole project was really successful and we got positive feedback both from the experiment makers as well as from the Minister’s Office. The whole project generated a lot of novel initiatives, which will hopefully turn into permanent ways of working and new start-ups.

Might you give us an example of one project or idea among these rapid experiments that you found particularly inspiring?

One that immediately comes to my mind is a kind of symbiosis system where you can grow fish and have a greenhouse at the same time. It works at a very small scale, anybody who lives by a lake, and we got a quite a few lakes in Finland, could set up the system. It is a very low-tech and local type of system, and I believe that when it comes to food and the need for protein sources in the future, it provides a very interesting solution and I hope it will be scaled up in the future.

Broadening the scope of my questions, what is the state of the circular economy in Finland? Which different stakeholders are pushing for the transition?

I think the great news is that there are more and more stakeholders getting involved in furthering the circular economy, so it is really a multi-stakeholder approach. In terms of private sector, we do have a couple of frontrunners, mainly in the B2B sector, which is partly due to the fact that  Finland does not have that many B2C brands compared to Sweden, for example. In the B2B sector there are great service business models, there is a lot of modular design, and these kind of thinking and approaches operate marvellously in terms of circular business models. We also got lots of wood paper companies, like UPM, a huge global company, and they have been practically circular for the past decades. Traditionally, the wood industry has been about low-value products, basically chopping the wood and exporting it, but we are now developing higher value products out of wood. There have been interesting projects in Finland regarding the creation of new products for interior design. For example, we are trying to substitute cotton and use cellulose-based fiber instead in the clothing and fashion industry.

In terms of the public advocates, the current government has the circular economy and bio-economy as one of the flagships programmes. They have 5 focus areas and the circular economy is one of those. We got lots of forests and lakes in Finland, so the bio-economy and blue-economy are really important sectors to further. We got different Ministries involved; it’s not just the Ministry of the Environment, but also the Ministry of Employment and Economy and Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Moreover, one of the most recent initiatives is the creation of circular economy hubs across the country. There are 6 across Finland, and they all have a different focus, based on regional economic needs and strengths. Under this umbrella of circular economy hubs, they bring together companies, universities and public organizations to advance the circular economy agenda locally.

Then, we have Sitra, which is the Finnish Innovation Fund, they have been heading the Circular RoadMap last year and have launched different initiatives. Among these, one of the most interesting, or of the most needed certainly, is that they provide funding for different schools and universities to include the circular economy in their curriculum. I think it is fundamental to start teaching elementary school children the principles of the circular economy. I always say that our biggest obstacle is our own thinking which is based on linear models, so teaching elementary school children is the way to go.

In your activity, you put a clear focus on customer experience. Do you believe that our current consumption mode, e.g. the big role played by ownership, might represent a barrier in the transition towards a circular economy? Which benefits can we market to consumers when it comes to circular consumption?

It is an important but also very big question. When I conducted interviews with consumers for a fashion project, more than 2 years ago, it became clear that people were far more interested about the recycling phase of the garment rather than the after-use phase. This highlights the feeling of powerlessness about how the piece of clothing was made, who made it and under what circumstances. One of the conclusions of that project was that people are willing to be part of the loop, rather than just being an endpoint, when they buy something and that’s the only interaction they have with the manufacturer. But they cannot do everything alone, they need a platform allowing them to see the complete cycle of the clothes or products they are using.

Regarding the debate ownership vs. using as a service, I think there might be a sort of barrier there, like ‘I want to own something rather than just using it’. The point is that we have been used to own things since we are young, so there might be a level of ownership required also in the future. However, I also see people becoming increasingly familiar with car sharing and opening up to different consumption patterns.  Washing machine as a service is one of the most well-known examples in the field of the circular economy Why would someone want the hustle to repair or recycle an object at the end of its life-cycle? I think there are huge opportunities for the service business model, because it can really become more compelling than the current consumption model. The service design thinking needs to be there, it is not enough that we announce on the website that this is a circular product. We need to carefully design the whole customer journey in such a way that the experience is far better than the current buying experience.

Design is a central word in your works. In one of your public talks,  you delineate a conceptual distinction between eco-design and circular design. Might you further elaborate on this?

I know people and companies have different terms for these things. For me the key distinction between eco-designing  a product and designing according to the circular principles is that with the latter you are designing systems, you understand the basic principles of how the ecosystem works.  To design out waste is not a simple task but it can be achieved. We have been used to focus so much on aesthetics, functionality and durability, designing quality products, but how does the product really work as part of the natural ecosystem? Of course, this question takes us to the end of the life-cycle of a product, the way we separate materials, the way they cycle in technical and biological loops, whether the materials are safe to start with. Eco-design is still mostly based on linear thinking and recyclability and linear business model: sell more and sell faster. It is a good start, but it is not enough. Are the materials safe? Are chemicals involved? How do you design it in such a way that it can be separated and reused over and over again?

You are pointing towards the need for a new narrative, in this case in the business sphere. Have you any thought regarding which elements of this new narrative might be conductive towards transmitting this systemic change?

When we are talking about a circular narrative, it refers to harnessing the life-cycle model of the product with the focus on customer experience. The prerequisite for creating a circular narrative is that the company understands the key principles of the circular economy, bio and techno cycles, material health as well as how to go beyond sustainability and design products that have regenerative and restorative impact on the planet. I believe that first and foremost we need a compelling offering of a certain service of product. Nothing should ever be spearheaded like ‘this is a circular product, hence you should buy it’.

The same debate has been going on in the field of sustainability, with some proponents arguing that it should be said that this is a sustainable product. And my honest opinion is no, it doesn’t matter whether your product is sustainable, for instance food doesn’t matter if it is circular food because it needs to taste good. Every object that we want to buy needs to function and be best in class in what they are meant to do.

At the beginning of our talk, you mentioned your work with the city of Tampere. Redesigning cities is one of our priorities, and circular principles might be an important guide to create more sustainable and liveable cities. Might you tell us something more about your work in Tampere and other inspiring examples among Finnish cities?

I think that there are quite a few interesting examples and at the same time I think we still are at very early stages, with cities having come to realize only in the past two years that the circular economy provides a very compelling framework for their own activities and goals. Of course, the city of Tampere and Hiedanranta development is a great example. We started by creating a circular vision & concept, moved on to developing the business ecosystem, and some of the most recent projects are evaluating the master plan of the area from the circular perspective and creating circular construction principles for the Hiedanranta area.

There is the city of Lahti, which announced itself as circular economy hotspot sometime ago and they do a lot of work with local companies in terms of providing the support but also having Lahti as a regional frontrunner. We have also worked with the city of Espoo, which is next to Helsinki and part of the greater metropolitan area. They are really ambitious, they have been selected as the most sustainable city in Europe, and they are now really interested in exploring circular economy principles more than just having sustainability angle.

When talking about circular urban development one needs to look at the whole ecosystem that is meant to be built: the buildings, the allocation of land, which businesses to attract, what people value in their everyday life, the procurement policy of a city. Digital technologies will help a lot in the development work, but we really need to have all those different perspectives and time layers.

This holistic understanding is coming up through our work with the city of Tampere. It is the whole area that needs to be optimised according to the circular economy principles instead of just, for example, energy efficiency.

What about the scale at which loops should be closed? Can we do everything at  the city level?

Before closing the loops, you need to know what the material flows are. One key principle is that the  more of that material you have in that area, then the tighter the loop should be. So, I think waste, water, biomass, those are the loops that should be closed on a local level. Then, if we are talking about electronics, for example, it doesn’t make sense to start disassembling locally and trying to sell these materials, that’s not possible. In that case you need to have national and international collaborations. That’s also the conclusion that we reached in the urban mining project with the AMS Institute, when talking about a national market for reusing copper, the view was that in some cases it must be international. Then, of course, comes the question of logistics: is logistics using renewable bio-fuels?

Let me now shift to three more personal questions. First, which message would you send to young entrepreneurs who are thinking about starting a circular start-up?

I think that having a positive strong vision helps a lot. It is certainly something that has carried us when it was more challenging to get new projects. A strong vision, but also a wider vision of the world and surrounding society. We have lots of visions that are very apocalyptic, now we need a credible vision that would be positive and non-apocalyptic. A positive vision very easily flips into the fairy-tale type of thinking, something like ‘it would be nice, but we would be never able to get there’. These apocalyptic visions are based on statistics, such as 10 billion people living in this planet, drastic changes in our climate, no water, no food. I think we really need to try to collectively build that positive vision that this is possible also with 10 billion people, it can work in different ways, in some cases and sectors it needs slight tweaking, in some others it needs a profound shift to work and operate in a different way. When you wake up in the morning, you need to have in mind that this is the world we want to build, it is visionary but achievable.

Keeping it on the vision, what does your ‘ideal’ circular economy of the future look like?

The first word that comes to my mind is harmonious: a very harmonious society. But also a world in which the circular economy will be so profoundly embedded in our society and our thinking that we don’t even need to think about it. For the past 100 years we have fooled ourselves, trying to forget that we are part of an ecosystem. At a company level, for instance, we pretend that once we produce something and sell it, it is outside of our radar, it doesn’t exist anymore, if something happens to it someone else will sort it out. I hope this way of thinking will gradually change and when any organization starts developing new products, they will take lifecycle as a basis and circular design will guide them in their decisions.

As a final question, I wish to connect two universes that have been extremely important in your life: dancing and the circular economy. Is there any connection or analogy between the two? Or, to phrase it differently,  is there something from your life as a professional dancer that you carry in your present activities?

Actually, quite a few things. I believe that it impacts me more than one would guess. The most obvious analogy is that when we talk about contemporary dance, and those who get to know that I used to be a professional dancer still ask ‘what is it like? describe me contemporary dance” and I always say to them that everybody sees at least two different performances, you can’t put contemporary dance in a box. You still could put classical ballet in a box, you have the vocabulary, you have the movements, that creates a very clear framework. And the same goes with modern dance, which kind of precedes contemporary dance. But with contemporary dance, there are no frameworks, there are no rules saying that this is the way we dance contemporary dance.  

What I am trying to say here is that it is a framework, of course there are some sort of unwritten boundaries, but it is more about the exploration of each choreographer, who have their own view and approach in the field of contemporary dance. This is the most obvious analogy with the circular economy. Often people try to put the circular economy in a box, saying ‘ we do industrial symbiosis and that’s the circular economy!’, but I think that we should focus more on the fact that this is a way of thinking and this is a new economic model. We need adopt the right mindset and once we learn it there is an abundant horizon in front of us, in which anything can happen: new marvellous innovations, new types of growth, new type of harmonious coexistence.

That’s why I think it’s important to try not to prescribe that this is now the circular economy and that’s what we have. Some civil servants in Finland, for instance, have already said ‘oh it didn’t bring us anything, let’s just continue as we used to’. To me this lacks profound understanding of the endless opportunities that the circular mindset has to offer.

Thank you for all your time Anne, it has been an insightful conversation. And good luck with your efforts to push further the circular economy mindset and model in Finland and all over Europe!

December 2017