Future of the Environment

We need to rethink how tech hubs  tackle new problems - here’s why

One week's worth of plastic waste, used and collected by Gaspar Antuna's family, is displayed in Madrid, Spain, May 30, 2018. "We try to buy less but better - as much second hand as possible, reusing, and finally recycling. Mostly plastic and paper, but also fabrics, clothes and objects in general," said Elena. "But we really miss more institutional information about it. We have to make more effort when consuming but it won't be as effective if we don't know how to do it properly." REUTERS/Paul Hanna - RC163CC264B0

One week's worth of plastic waste collected by just one family. Many say they reuse and recycle as much as possible but need more solutions to ensure they can be truly effective. Image: REUTERS/Paul Hanna - RC163CC264B0

Helen Burdett
Head, Technology for Earth, World Economic Forum
Antonia Gawel
Head, Climate; Deputy Head, Centre for Nature & Climate Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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Future of the Environment

  • Tech hubs famously leverage collaboration and a range of diverse expertise to create one-of-a-kind innovations.
  • Existing hubs don't always prioritize finding solutions to long-term global problems not seen as profitable, such as protecting natural resources and sustainability.
  • Hubs designed to create scalable solutions for reducing plastic waste and creating a more circular economy can prove that businesses can thrive and be sustainable.

COVID-19’s disruptions helped the world see systems change in a new light. Industries once thought slow to change have rapidly applied new solutions. Change-makers in the digital arena are forging new collaborations with new partners. We have been forced to adopt an innovation mindset and with it, found a range of special opportunities for tackling tough challenges such as reducing the strain on natural resources and keeping more goods in use through circular economy thinking.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing about the circular economy?

Rethinking the tech hub

Collaboration is innovation’s invisible ingredient. After all, many of the innovations that have reshaped our lives over the past 50 years come from a short list of tech hubs in places such as Silicon Valley, Tokyo and Tel Aviv with unique combinations of change-makers partnering with with technical expertise, entrepreneurial thinking and investment capital.

However, these areas are more than just spots on a map. They are living, breathing communities composed of collaborators across disciplines who share ideas and criticism as they tackle some of the biggest problems of our time.

Tech hubs connect business leaders, policy makers, researchers and more - and can be built anywhere. But, in recent years, a small number of hubs in a few locations have dominated capital and innovation. As a result, tech can miss an opportunity to be truly inclusive and tackle a range of issues. As COVID-19 has shown, current tech solutions don’t always solve for the long-term and don’t always maximize on all the technologies at their disposal.

As a result, if we want an equitable and distributed recovery post-COVID, we’ll need to ensure more hubs in more places are thriving and poised to take on big challenges - such as sustainability.

To create and grow more tech hubs, we need to deliberately support the strengthening of local innovation systems. These systems depend on a special combination of policies, capital and openness to global talent. They also require a certain type of culture - one that supports failure with an ability to rebuild.

"If we want an equitable and distributed recovery post-COVID, we’ll need to ensure more tech hubs in more places are thriving and poised to take on big challenges - such as the circular economy transition."

Building in circularity from the start

Tackling dispersed problems such as sustainability will take dispersed solutions. Centralizing solution making in only a few cities limits our capabilities. More locations around the world need to do more to foster innovation. Still, to spark circular innovation, more hubs will need to bake circularity into the fiber of new companies, eliminating waste from the way products are delivered into markets and finding new applications for 4IR technologies. As Alan García, Executive Director, SOFOFA Hub, a group connecting half of the top companies in Chile: "Transitioning to a circular economy requires determination, technology, and mostly collaboration between firms, innovators and authorities.”

To close the circularity gap, we’ll need new ways to build for the long term. Buzzy hackathons and one-size-fits-all innovation challenges won’t go far enough help us scale the solutions that will move us away from our current take-make-dispose model. For this, we need policies that foster markets for circular solutions, supportive financial institutions and access to major buyers and market players. In other words, we need create thriving circular economy innovation ecosystems. Circular economy innovators are otherwise stuck breaking down regulatory barriers and drumming up market demand to inch forward.

With this in mind, the World Economic Forum has created the Scale360° Playbook, an initiative developed to build lasting ecosystems for the circular economy and help solutions scale. Its unique ecosystem-based approach - launched this September - is designed to prioritize the circular economy. Additionally, emerging innovators from around the world can connect and work together in sharing ideas and solutions through UpLink, the Forum's open innovation platform.

A look at Scale360°’s core qualities reveals what’s needed to build hubs focused on thriving, sustainably-minded businesses.

  • Diverse partners: Scale360° understands the importance of insights from a range of partners. As a result, it builds distributed partnership hubs that comprise financiers, business leaders, nonprofits and policy makers and can provide the connective tissue for a range of innovators.

    "I have great expectations that the Scale360° Playbook will be utilised by the wider sustainable solutions community.” said Her Highness Sheikha Shamma bint Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, CEO of Global Alliances for Sustainability – a company that identifies, develops and invests in high performing ventures for global sustainability. The playbook, she continued, "will serve as an essential tool in reshaping our current linear model, as we work towards building an increasingly circular global economy.”
  • Proven methodologies: Tested approaches and structured sessions help hubs quickly recognize and take advantage of their capabilities. A strategic, consultative approach, as used by Scale360°, helps build consensus and develop solutions that fit an ecosystems’ specific needs.

    Tapping local decision makers from within ecosystems, as Scale360° does, also ensures solutions are backed by local influencers. This strengthens the support of new initiatives, speeds the deployment of any available resources, and helps ensure results.
  • Focus on scale: Ideas that scale have the best chance at both backing and survival. As research shows, most small businesses fail and few become sizable enterprises. Scalable businesses are the most likely to have an economic impact, contributing to jobs and value creation. Robust, growing businesses are also more likely to catch the eye of other investors and entrepreneurs, further fueling the ecosystem.

    Targeting scalable ideas can help bring circularity into businesses at their earliest stages and show that businesses can be profitable and sustainable. Hubs that keep these factors in mind can better create resilient enterprises with circularity at their core.
  • Creativity: No game-changing platform can discount creativity as it seeks new solutions. To ensure creativity, hubs must be located in a range of locales to tap the widest range of expertise and ideas. By bringing together key ingredients, such as a diverse range of stakeholders and tested-methodologies, an initiative like Scale360° can be poised to promote true innovation.

    “What I love about the Scale360° Playbook,” said William McDonough, Adjunct Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University “is the notion of play and the creativity it spurs for us to work together. People will want to use the Playbook because it opens the doors wide to new thinking, new actions, and delightful, productive, and profitable collaborations.”

    Added McDonough, a pioneer of many key circular economy concepts, “It is exciting and fun to apply tomorrow’s solutions to yesterday’s issues.”
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Looking ahead

The global economy was only 8.6% circular in 2019, according to the annual Circularity Gap report. As 2020 has made clear, change could come more quickly than we could ever imagine. Let’s bring change for the better. We know that it’s possible to build new collaborations and mobilize quickly to address tough, large-scale challenges. Solutions such as the Scale360° Playbook provide a route for communities to connect with each other and tap the willingness for change and the ingenuity that exists around the globe. Change can happen - if we find ways to work together.

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