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Circulate on Fridays: A busy week for the world and circular economy!

Many of the world’s most influential people were in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum meeting this week, meanwhile the Donald Trump era was officially ushered in with his inauguration – yeah it was a big few days! Hopefully, we can bring you some additional weekend positivity with a jam-packed Circulate on Fridays, including three big circular economy related launches, how impact investing can actuallyhave an impact, how Tesla covered an entire island with solar power and much more!

The Island of Ta’u in American Samoa has reportedly been burning over 100,00 gallons of fuel per year using diesel generators to provides its population of 600 with electricity, but those days are no more after Tesla and SolarCity combined to provide a new solar and battery installation, which will make the island energy independent. As always with Tesla, they’re pretty good at communicating what they do, so watch this video:

If you’re into cool visual stuff, have a look at this biomimicry animation posted by Brian Collier.

It was a big week for circular economy related launches! The New Plastics Economy initiative unveiled a new three-pronged attack/action plan on plastic packaging supported by 40+ industry leaders on Monday. Today, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation unveiled the Circular Design Guide, created with IDEO, which aims to support designers who are beginning to explore the circular economy. Finally, SystemIQ released Achieving Growth Within identifying the 10 key themes for EU circular economy investment worth €320bn, which could enable the realisation of the benefits found in the June 2015 Growth Within research.

All of that took place at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, where The Circulars were also awarded, see the full list of winners here. One of those winners was Patagonia, who also made news with the launch of a new digital platform for their Worn Wear programme aiming to give extra life to their products.

If all of that wasn’t enough, here are three more quick recommended reads to enjoy this weekend!

  1. McKinsey & co explain how impact investing can actually have impact and reach the mainstream.
  2. Will 2017 be the year of the zero-emission fuel cell vehicle?
  3. Finally, find out on Sustainable Brands why Sweden is now buying its neighbours waste!

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How the Main Street Project aims to change the food system

Our food and agriculture system is not working. Consumers are experiencing declining nutritional quality and increasing health risks, while soil quality is eroded by chemical inputs and toxic waste. A tough starting point for any initiative, but the Main Street Project has identified it as an opportunity as it aims to combine the needs of local communities with new thinking in farming, all while aiming to produce better quality food products at economically viable prices.

The founders of the Main Street Project started with the premise that an effective method of food production would not rely upon negating the negative impacts created by the current model, but rather would involve an entire redesign so that the problems did not arise in the first place.

Chickens are at the centre of the regenerative techniques that they have developed, working well with crops and providing weed-eating and bug-killing (for free), while also enhancing the soil’s nutritional content, replacing the need for chemical pesticides and fertilisers. All decisions must take the model’s entire ecosystem into account, and it is through the farm’s relationships that extra value is created. Looking beyond simply implementing poultry paddocks and cover crops, and incorporating a range of innovations into heating the chicken coops with solar power and integrating perennial crops onto their land, the whole cycle creates a variety of products – diversity that increases the overall resilience of the farm – and the model is initially targeted at empowering local Latino communities in the United States.

Since launching in 2010, and carrying out extensive testing in prototype facilities, Minnesota-based team is reportedly now ready to progress to the development of a 40-acre demonstration farm in the state, which will not only be an active farm, but will provide training facilities that enable other farmers to incorporate the practices.

Transitioning to a more regenerative farming vision can feel like a big picture, sometimes even inaccessible conversation, but an increasing number of successful first movers, including the Main Street Project, are proving the potential of practical applications. Holding these approaches together is the desire to create a better food system with favourable outcomes for the environment, economy and health, and a focus on holistic solutions, which is in opposition to the monocropping efficiency-driven practices that predominate today’s food production.

Lead image: Pixabay

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Why solar will be built into our future cities

Solar power and other renewable energy sources are increasingly affordable as technologies continues to become more efficient and effective, and the opportunities to scale solutions brings costs down even further. As much as the transition from a fossil-fuel based economy to one powered by renewables is becoming more widely recognised, what is sometimes lost is just how rapid the change has been. Furthermore, it appears the next natural step is a renewable energy source inspired transformation of the way in which we design our future buildings and cities.

During the last six years in the US alone, “solar power has exploded into the energy sector with the kind of industrial vigour not seen since the 1950s”, wrote David Beckham in GreenBiz earlier this month. In 2010, the US had the equivalent of one gigawatt of solar generation capabilities, for perspective on what that means in terms of power demands, Disney Land uses roughly that amount every two weeks – it’s also less than the Doc needed to get the DeLorean running again in Back to the Future! Capacity has ballooned to 30 gigawatts of solar power generation at the beginning of 2016 and is continuing to grow at a rapid pace, mostly thanks to the lowering of costs with the average solar cell now costings $0.35 per watt, compared with around $4 in 2016, all while increasing efficiency by 20%.


Throw in increased volatility in fossil fuel prices – especially oil – and diminishing efficiency gains for non-renewable based technologies, and it should come as no surprise that there is increasing investment and innovation into solar power, not to mention demand, where more panels were installed in the US during 2016 than the previous 38 years combined. Furthermore, digital advances are enabling better understanding and control of complexity and data, a huge advantage for less consistent natural sources of power like solar and wind.

The flexibility of renewables enables designers and architects to adopt a new way of thinking and there are now a growing number of examples where the potential opportunities of integrating energy production into the design of buildings and cities from the outset are being exploited.

Joining up built environment construction and design with renewable energy to create a more diverse, distributed and resilient system of power production integrated directly into cities offers the possibility of producing a holistic solution to individual challenges, the AMIE prototype, produced by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which integrates solar panels, into a connected home and electric vehicle is one great recent example.

Photovoltaic technologies designed for integration into building components produced by corporates like Californian-based Solaria, who have developed especially effective solar tech so that they can produce glass that can be used in typical window openings, is fully see through and generates electricity, are predicted to become increasingly common. Indeed, the level of development and scale of Solaria itself may surprise some.

“Architectural solar” is still in relative infancy, but if anything can be learned by the growth of solar power generation, which few would have expected to be economically viable by 2016 looking at the 2010 landscape, it is that technology with potential can and will be developed exceptionally quickly in a context where there is demand for the solutions it provides. The ORNL experiment and current solutions sold by Solaria may only be a beginning, but anticipating rapid evolution looks like a good bet.

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How OTTO Group is testing out the transition from selling to renting at scale

One of Europe’s largest international e-commerce retailers, German-based OTTO Group, unveiled a new aspect of its business over the Christmas period, now providing an option where customers can rent a range of products online. Introduced on an experimental basis initially, the rental model has started with a select, but broad range of goods, including TVs, washing machines, tablets, coffee machines, e-bikes and more, all of which will be rented through a new platform – It is ambitious, but is led by sound business fundamentals, which, if successful, could represent a significant demonstration of the benefits of leasing services, rather than selling products, at scale.

While individual renting of goods through suppliers and peer-to-peer sharing have gradually been gaining traction, an established company introducing renting across a diverse spectrum of its products represents a step forward for the introduction of service-based business models.


The new service, called OTTO NOW, is marketed as a way of accessing otherwise unaffordable large goods, or as a mechanism of staying up-to-date with the latest technologies, but the business motivation likely comes from the promise of economic opportunities like those highlighted in research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Co – Towards the circular economy vols 1-3.

With game consoles available for rent at €14.99 per month, crosstrainers at €10.99 and washing machines for less than €10, there’s a definite cost competitiveness to the one-time sale alternatives, especially considering the price includes free delivery, set-up, repair options and pick-up at the end of the renting period. All of this is delivered with an “as new” guarantee, where products are professionally cleaned, fully functional and any personal data storage is removed and reset to factory defaults.

“The idea of owning and renting products on time has reached a new level in Germany. It is now the right moment to test the willingness of consumers for rental offers”, said Marc Opelt, sales director at OTTO NOW. Transitioning to a more regenerative, circular economy in the global economy’s technical cycles implies a different relationship between businesses and their customers, a parallel transition from consumer to user. With this announcement, OTTO Group are providing a large scale test case of the models that could predominate a prosperous economy in the future.

Source: OTTO NOW – rent instead of buy

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Circulate on Fridays: graphene gets stronger and BMW start self-driving tests

A quick-fire Circulate on Fridays for you this week, rounding up some of our favourite circular economy reading from the past 7 days.

MIT researchers claim to have developed one of the strongest, lightest materials around. It’s made of the much-hyped graphene, but it’s not so much the material that’s the star of this story. The amazing material properties – a density of just 5 percent with a strength 10 times that of steel – were actually created by manipulating shape and structure.

Photo: Melanie Gonick/MIT

The research notes that “the crucial aspect of the new 3-D forms has more to do with their unusual geometrical configuration than with the material itself”, and that “similar strong, lightweight materials could be made from a variety of materials by creating similar geometric features.”

3D printing is enabling designers and manufacturers to unlock new material possibilities that could mean big things for the shift to a circular economy. If that’s news to you, then check out Alysia Garmulewicz’s recent and essential Circulate series on the subject.

Another auto player will be joining the self-driving car race in 2017: BMW. The company has built up a bit of a reputation for being ahead of the curve as far as mobility changes go, with its Drive Now service being one of the most well-known car sharing schemes. Now, BMW aim to have 40 self-driving cars on the road in 2017 , a test developed in partnership with Intel and Mobileye. Think you’ve heard it all before? Well the unique aspect of this initiative could be the “scalable architecture” that aims to make open up autonomous driving to other carmakers and developers working in the automotive space. First Renault open source one of their cars, and now this – could we be seeing the start of a new wave of collaboration in the automotive industry?

For the design and architecture junkies, check out this elegant four story house built in Taiwan.  It’s a nice-looking building inside and out, but the most interesting aspect is almost invisible, as the architects have taken into account the flows of air and light patterns to create natural ventilation for Taiwan’s subtropical climes:

A pool on the south side of the building and an open space in the center helps generate a stack effect of wind, creating a flow of cooler air around the building in the warmer months. This creates natural lighting and ventilation in the central void for the surrounding rooms.

It’s a subtle change and there’s no mention of energy or cost savings, but it’s a reminder that even functional urban housing can stand to benefit taking inspiration from the wider system in which they sit.

One to add to the reading list, Cory Doctorow reviews Four Futures: life after capitalism by Peter Frase, in which the author “asks us to think through four different ways things could go” in terms of the future economy. Frase looks at communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism, so while the circular economy isn’t directly one of the four futures discussed, the work piqued our interest for the reason that Doctorow notes:

He’s trying to convince us that we should try for the future we want, to use [science fiction] to give us a taste of what it might feel to live in those futures, and to hazard some guesses at how we might arrive at those futures.

If the future we want is based on circular economy principles, then perhaps there’s something we can learn from Peter Frase. We’ll need to make the future circular economy so appealing, that taking action today becomes irresistible.

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Why open source seeds could be vital for the future of food

Open source, a movement most commonly associated with tech, coding and hacking, is now becoming an increasingly important issue for food according to a recent article published on Ensia and GreenBiz. It might be somewhat surprising, for example, to learn that more than one-third of all carrot growing material has been patented and is protected by intellectual property rights (IPs). This raises a host of new challenges for small scale, independent breeders, who are responding by endorsing an “open source movement for seeds”, and could become a critical topic for those advocating a vision for a regenerative, more distributed food system with greater resilience designed in.

As well as patents on crops grown using a specific methodology, there are IPs applied to various traits including those that result in a particular taste, colour, resistance to environmental factors, pests and diseases, all of which reduces the pool of plant material available in an unpredictable climate context, where arguably the need for genetic diversity is greater than ever.

Born in the grassroots coding and tech community as a response to the increasing patents being applied to software, open source has enjoyed marked success, most notably with the Linux operating system, which outcompeted Microsoft to dominate servers, supercomputers, mobile and embedded devices during the 90s and early 2000s.


A similar reaction is evolving with smallholder farmers and plant breeders launching the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) in 2014, created to ensure that there are plant varieties and genes that remain free from IPs and available for breeders in the long-term. As part of OSSI, U.S. based breeders can commit their seeds to the programme to guarantee that the rights remain open source.

Diversity is a key issue and a number of stakeholders have expressed concerns about the impact of a shrinking gene pool on food security, while the efficiency, optimisation agenda that has dominated thinking in many sectors is generally inconsistent with the solutions found in nature, where diversity plays an important role in a resilient system.

Crucially, none of this means that the seeds can’t be sold as part of a business, but it does allow different open source breeders to cross different varieties of OSSI based materials ultimately leading to new varieties of product to be bred.

It is also a relevant development for the narrative around emerging regenerative agriculture techniques, which actively encourage biodiversity, aim to increase the fertility of soil, while negating the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the erosion of topsoil through tillage farming methods. Moving away from a focus on monocropping and making one process or crop ultra-efficient, the principles of the regenerative farming idea suggest that multiplicity creates a healthier ecosystem and ultimately more resilient plants.

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Why biology holds the key to the future of design and manufacturing

It is becoming increasingly apparent that transitioning towards a more restorative and regenerative economic model that decouples economic prosperity from the consumption of finite resources will necessitate the breaking down of the silos created across business, education and the broader economy, on which a linear, take-make-dispose system has thrived.

The emerging discipline of synthetic biology sits at the crux of the intersection between design, biology, computing and manufacturing. With recent breakthrough announcements like the launches of Patagonia’s spider silk jacket and Muufri’s milk grown in a lab without cows, it appears more and more probable that we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift, where biodesign is delivered at scale and biology is adopted as the next big manufacturing technology.

“Biology is the most advanced manufacturing technology on the planet. Self-assembling, self-replicating, and self-repairing, biology builds renewably – from the molecular machines inside of cells to global ecosystems”, a description taken from Ginkgo Bioworks’ website, an “organism design” company that makes the case for biology as crucial for the designers of the future, bringing an unmatched combination of “nanoscale precision” and “continent scale production”.

Credit: Pixabay

Ginkgo Bioworks’ objective is to take synthetic biology techniques to an industrial level, machine-injecting DNA sequences into baker’s yeast creating “living organism” products like perfumes, sweeteners, cosmetics and other things that are typically extracted from plants. Replicating that process by genetically engineering baker’s yeast saves space, shortens supply chains, is increasingly cost competitive and has obvious advantages for the environment. There are two main potential benefits from the technology. Replacing consumption of finite natural resources with lab-grown alternatives, and the potential to replicate actual genes to produce authentic fragrances replacing chemical synthetic scented products that currently dominate the marketplace.

Predicted to occupy 80,000 square feet by 2018, Ginkgo has grown significantly since being founded in 2008, they currently work with 20 companies on around 40 products and have raised more than $150 million of investment.

Genetic modification and DNA sequencing has traditionally been shrouded by a lack of transparency and questions around health and safety, though there is also evidence that these public perceptions are not in-line with views from the scientific community, and it is worth noting that health concerns around food and various other consumer products are not exclusive to genetically modified products. Still, clearly overcoming the attached societal stigma remains a challenge for synthetic biology startups and researchers alike.

However, just as biomimicry – a design approach that draws inspiration from nature – can point to 3.8 billion years of R&D, synthetic biologists can draw upon the fact that manufacturing in biology takes place at far greater volumes than human industry in a way that has been benign for more than three billion years.

Combining biological manufacturing with the latest coding and automation of genetic sequencing processing opportunities, which make it possible for designers to iterate multiple complex possibilities in a short space of time, may well be the recipe for creating the products and services that the future economy needs and can thrive upon.

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Renault partner with OSVehicle to create an open source mass-market electric vehicle

Renault has partnered with OSVehicle to create POM, a new electric vehicle (EV), open source and available for customisation by start-ups, independent labs, private customers and researchers. Modifications to the design of the software and driving experience will be encouraged to a vehicle, which is based on Renault’s popular Twizy model, and aims to spark innovation in the development of vehicles that meet 21st century mobility needs and appeal across a diverse range of demographics. The announcement is significant, both in terms of the application of open source by one of the world’s largest car manufacturers, and the potential innovation impact on EVs.  

Providing a modular open source car platform, OSVehicle collaborates with entrepreneurs, coders, designers and engineers through open source software, hardware and experience designs, with the objective of moving towards multiple high performance and economically viable EVs.  

Adding the experience of Renault, one of Europe’s largest automotive companies, is a significant boost to OSVehicle’s growing open ecosystem. The collaboration opens up the hardware and software of Renault’s Twizy architecture to new features and adjustments, partly through the support and inclusion of ARM, a leader in microprocessor Intellectual Property on the open-source vehicle platform, who provide design technology powering more than 80% of mobile computing devices.

Open source is a modern approach to technology, design and innovation that encourages cross-discipline collaborations and aims to create a space where designers, coders, entrepreneurs and engineers can build on each other’s work to enable disruptive and effective solutions. It has the potential to “disrupt industry significantly lowering costs and time-to-market”, according to OSVehicle founders Tin Hang and Yuki Liu, and if adopted on a large scale, it could represent a critical shift in the kinds of designing, coding and creating that enables the system-wide transformations, including the transition to a more restorative and regenerative economy.


Credit: OSVehicle

For an in-depth perspective on the links between circular economy and open source, we highly recommend reading this article by Sam Muirhead, a member of the Open Source Circular Economy days team, published on Circulate in 2016. See the extract below for a taster:

In practice, open source means publishing how things are made, such as a recipe, software code, production data, or design files so that anyone can study, use, and build upon this information. This often occurs through decentralised and distributed online collaboration: diverse groups discussing project ideas, giving feedback, fixing bugs, prototyping solutions and building useful, customisable software, hardware, tools and culture.

It’s interesting to compare the guidelines and best practices for developing a circular economy with those of the open source world, you’ll see many similarities – practical requirements for transparency, repairability, modularity, long-term perspectives, open standards…”

He goes further to describe the argument for businesses to adopt open source approaches as they develop new products and services fit for the modern economy:

“In order to develop solutions to fit a diverse range of problems and opportunities, this kind of genetic mutation is not just desired, it’s necessary. It’s evolution. In the digital world, the open source approach is now well established and successful part of business. In the server market, Microsoft has been soundly beaten by open source, thanks to multi-party collaboration and investment on the GNU/Linux operating system. Now Linux dominates not just servers, but also supercomputers, mobile and embedded devices. Every major player in tech is using open source to achieve their goals in some way – even the old holdouts seem to have come around.”

For Renault the announcement fits into a wider vision, where open innovation aids the development of mobility and the cars of the future. Once restricted to the world of coding and digital technology, this collaboration signals that the business applications of open source are beginning to expand in a bigger way into new engineering and hardware domains supported by a broader digitisation occurring throughout the global economy.

Further information, including on how to get involved can be found here.

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Circulate on Fridays: Hello 2017 and is the future of city travel called “Whim”?

Welcome to 2017! Circulate on Fridays is back and ready for another year. As the idea of a circular economy continues to gain traction in business, education, policy and media, we’re expecting to have an even larger number of great stories to share with you this, so stay tuned. Don’t forget that the best ways to stay up-to-date with everything on Circulate is to follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook and sign-up for our newsletter.

On our 2017 debut, we highlight a new app launching in Helsinki that claims to be cheaper and more convenient than owning a private car, a plant that’s turning its CO2 emissions into baking soda, and a report on what the circular economy means for toilets.

In Helsinki, it will soon be cheaper and more convenient to subscribe to a brand new mobility service, called “Whim”, rather than to own your own car. A bold claim perhaps, but besides the name, the app might just be able to back it up providing unlimited access to public transit, bikes, rental cars and taxis for a monthly fee of €249. Due to be released in full in Helsinki in 2017, future launch plans for the UK and North America have already been confirmed, get the full story from Adele Peters on Fast Company.

At a plant in India, a new way to capture and prevent CO2 emissions is being explored by re-directing it from a coal-powered boiler to a new industrial process, which creates baking soda! If this was as surprising for you to read as it was for us to write, you should head over to Grist to get the full story. The company behind the technology promises to prevent emissions from over 60,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, all as part of an economically viable process.

Want to grow your own food, but don’t know how or don’t have the time? This is solution to all your concerns!

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As part of efforts to gradually shift towards more effective plastic packaging practices, Coca-Cola European Partners (CCEP), Avery Dennison, Viridor and PET UK have announced a new collaboration designed to reduce waste and costs of “Smartwater” production in the UK.

“There’s a lot of money in people’s poop” – Ben Schiller’s words not ours! His latest piece looks at a recent report published by the Toilet Board, which highlights a significant economic opportunity to apply the circular economy to sanitation, where “resources are recycled to create self-sustaining sanitation businesses”.

What could machine intelligence mean for the global economy? Some intelligent people at Harvard Business Review have broken it down for lay people like me.

Did you enjoy these pieces? Tell us what you think in our comments section and recommend some posts for next week.

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Why better farming is vital for textile companies like Patagonia

Creating farming techniques that don’t use heavy amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides or tillage – preparation of soil for planting through mechanical agitation of various types, such as digging, stirring and overturning – is becoming increasingly regarded as crucial for an abundant and secure food supply in the future. The development and scaling of regenerative agriculture may be just as crucial for the clothing sector, where cotton, which is dependent on the same linear growing practices, is a critical material input.

There are some positive signs that clothing companies are taking notice. Patagonia CEO Rose Marcario recently wrote that regenerative organic farming, “includes any agricultural practice that increases soil organic matter from baseline levels over time, provides long-term economic stability for farmers and ranchers, and creates resilient ecosystems and communities”.

Defining regenerative agriculture, as Marcario has aimed to do, is particularly important in a context where the words restorative, regenerative and organic are used frequently, interchangeably and without attachment to a clear set of principles. Highlighting the confusion caused by these inconsistencies as one of the reasons for the slow growth of regenerative practices, she makes the case that the conversation needs to be introduced into the clothing and textiles sector.

Clothing is represents a significant part of the overall picture, around 16% of pesticides globally are used to grow conventional cotton, while “organic cotton” forms only 1% of the marketplace, a figure that has remained relatively stagnant since the first half of the 1990s.

The broader idea of regenerative agriculture has been gaining increasing traction in a context, where the limitations of intensive monocropping farming are being revealed. The “superficial success [judged by ra agricultural output] of farms has been masking underlying problems”, wrote Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins in Natural Capitalism. One third of the original topsoil in the United States has gone and a subtler soil degradation is impacting the nutrition of what remains damaging the quantity and quality of the crops that can be grown. The evidence is building that petrochemicals, inorganic fertilisers, pesticides and monocropping has created farmland that doesn’t hold nutrients, is eroded and has high salinity, and the effects are perhaps now being felt even more clearly with stagnant crop yields becoming a phenomena worldwide.

Success stories for new approaches are becoming more prevalent, none more impressive than Brazilian sugarcane farmer Leontino Balbo Jr, who radically transformed his farm to eliminate the use of chemicals and other monocropping farming techniques. Balbo Jr’s company Native is now the largest supplier of organic sugar in the world, he has cut energy and water costs, increased yields all whilst growing on land that has higher levels of biodiversity than many of Brazil’s national parks.

With mounting evidence that regenerative techniques offer economic and environmental advantages in the 21st century, the development of a narrative and conversation around the importance of better farming for clothing could be crucial, both in terms of developing an effective agricultural system, and the application of the circular economy to textiles.

Find out more

Watch an exclusive film shot with Leontino Balbo Jr. at his farm
Read Rose Marcario’s recent blog post

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