Collaborate to save the planet

News - 01 December 2020

Taking on the global environmental sustainability crisis will require new ways of thinking when it comes to the way that products and services are produced and consumed. In the context of the circular economy, Phil Brown’s PhD research explores how companies, through collaborative circular oriented innovation, can become part of the solution.

Support for companies

Prior to his PhD, while working for a sustainability organisation, Brown encountered many companies that wanted to collaborate and wanted to take on systemic innovation challenges, yet didn’t know how to do it. “At the moment, companies are very good at collaborating in maybe one or two sections of the supply chain,” he says. “But to have a circular economy where a product goes out into the market, goes through multiple recovery stages like reuse or refurbishment, that requires a much wider system of collaboration.” 

This experience posed a question for him: What would it take to support companies in trying to achieve more systemic collaboration? To find out, Brown set out to research and understand why, how and what collaborative processes take place between companies while conducting circular oriented innovation. The insights gained inspired him to develop a tool to help companies turn their ideas into action. But along the way, the idea multiplied.

Read Phil Brown's thesis:

One tool makes three

During his research, Brown and two other PhD candidates at the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering discovered they were all working on similar things. So, they decided to find a way to package it together and the result was Circular Strategies, offering strategies, principles and a set of three tools designed to help organisations in the transition to a circular economy. 

The first tool, developed by Jan Konietzko, is a set of cards intended to help create a common understanding and language for circular economy strategies. Brown created the second tool, the Circular Collaboration Canvas, which helps companies identify the relevant and critical partners to develop a circular oriented innovation project.  The last tool, created by Brian Baldassarre, aims to facilitate the implementation of circular busines model ideas. Using these tools, the trio has conducted a number of workshops training students and entrepreneurs, helping them put their ideas into action.

It takes vision and belief

When it comes to companies, Brown asserts that they need to take a longer-term vision for the economic part of the circular business model to add up. Expecting an innovation to pay itself back within a few years doesn’t consider externalities like material and production costs so it’s always going to look like a bad deal on a spreadsheet, he says. But by factoring in a longer timeline, and the recovery and reuse of materials with minimal cost in production, then the circular business model makes a lot more sense.

From his research Brown highlights one finding that stands out. Regardless of all the tools and methods that you can put into place, it really comes down to motivation. “If the organisation or at least an actor within the organisation is not convinced that it fits with their values, it fits with their internal motivation, then unless it triggers them individually, none of these wider systemic solutions are going to go forward,” he says. “If you want to solve plastics in the ocean, if you want to solve critical material problems, if you want to solve renewable energy problems you’ve got to believe that you want to solve them.”

Ideas + collaborative actions = change

For Brown, putting ideas into action is a critical part of enabling collaboration and change. He notes that at the end of the PhD there is a thesis, a body of knowledge and people can use the freely available tools that were created. “But I hope that the contribution will be that I supervised six master’s students through their programmes, they go off and do their thing, and it’s the multiplier effect,” he said. And as for the those who now have a better understanding of the circular economy because of the tools Brown helped develop, he says, “Who knows where they will go or what they will do, but that’s the impact from my perspective.”