How the circular economy is driving sustainable change
The notion of a circular economy is becoming mainstream as pressure mounts for fast solutions to the challenges posed by waste, pollution and climate change.
We spoke to business and innovation leader Rosario Di Dio to learn more about how his projects are part of a vanguard of initiatives using circular economy principles to drive change – and a new initiative that accelerates time to market for vital early stage technologies.
Why has the circular economy become such a sustainability hot topic?
It is increasingly clear that most natural resources such as petrol and minerals are finite. Even clean water, air or fertile soil to grow food are becoming scarce. It’s time to become smarter in how we use natural resources if we want to ensure future prosperity.
A circular economy tackles scarcity in two ways. First, all products are designed in a way that eliminates waste, so that the materials they are made of remain in use for as long as possible. Secondly, and as a result, natural systems are no longer overexploited.
The post-war era saw mass production and consumption grow exponentially due to factors such as globalisation and the expansion of a wealthy and leisured middle class.
Toothpaste, blue jeans, and cigarettes for example, were popularised in Italy by US soldiers at the end of WWII. Suddenly 45 million Italians wanted those symbols of affluence as the country was being rebuilt.
It is only recently that we have reached a tipping point in public awareness that waste and overexploitation risks destroying our own ecosystem.
What is the potential of a circular economy?
If we started to design everything to be reused and recycled for as long as possible, that would create a massive wave of investments, innovation, new skills, new value chains. We would also see faster return of investment because the design and the materials keep going back into production, sometimes very quickly.
It becomes a fantastic way to bring together economy and ecology, capitalism and growth with nature and its laws.
How are you currently applying the circular economy?
I run two initiatives that operate closely together, through research and consulting.
RDD Ventures is a consulting company that supports early-stage start-ups in climate tech and circular economy. I help founders validate their business idea, build their business model, and accelerate their time to market, finding corporate partners and investors.
I mentor two organisations in Cambridge: Carbon 13, a specialised venture builder and the Circular Disruptors Accelerator at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.
Tell us about your new project
I call it the Research, Development and Delivery task force, after the name of my consulting company, RDD Ventures.
It was based on research into new and more agile collaboration models between universities, corporates, and investors in sectors such as energy, manufacturing, and land use. These three areas drive more than 96% of CO2 emissions.
However, the Boston Consulting Group estimates that 65% of the technologies that will drive Net Zero are early stage, typically university projects, that often struggle to get commercial and investor attention, especially in the UK.
After research with academics, corporate executives, investors, and founders, I identified a new model which overcomes many challenges in the current innovation space to accelerate time to market.
This model is based on a “task force” organisation with a single management point across stakeholders, early market validation, execution of a development and delivery schedule, and a radically new financing model.
There is an exciting potential for accelerating the time to market and de-risking any early-stage climate tech ventures.
At macro-level, the opportunity creates a steady deal flow of industrial projects with high commercial potential, high investor returns and beneficial Net Zero impact.
How did you become involved in the circular economy?
I come from a family of teachers and scientists. My brother is a director of a nature reserve in Sicily. When we were children, we had to watch Jacques Cousteau and David Attenborough on TV, as well as our favourite cartoons!
But that is how I learnt that ecology and economy have the same root – ‘eco’ which is derived from “oikos”, the Greek word for “home” or “household”. The rules for managing the household, i.e. the economy, depend on how our household is built and functions, i.e. the ecology.
Sadly, we have treated these two concepts as separate, manufacturing, selling, and consuming as if economic growth was not constrained by the finite resources of our “home”.
How can polluting industries embed the principles of circular economy and net zero innovation to create positive impact?
First, we must avoid finger pointing and scaremongering, as well as dishonest reassurance.
I have come across many competent and pragmatic experts and leaders in oil and gas, manufacturing and agrochemicals who are genuinely trying to make a difference within their remit and within the constraints they operate with.
We must all recognise that there are no easy and quick solutions. There are massive investments and assets that can’t be written off overnight given the energy demand for example. The only way is a long and complex transition process which is happening and could be accelerated if more circular economy principles were grafted to what is already taking place.
The best approach is to start small, almost artisanal. The Lean Start Up approach of “fail fast and cheap”, correct failures, then repeat and scale up successes, has it place in the corporate world too. Sandbox trials of a new “climate tech” or circular solution are an effective way for people to implement and accept change in those organisations.
Once a case study can be produced about a specific success on a discrete problem, everybody will jump on board and more case studies will follow and will create synergies and systemic change.