Creating The Right Conditions For Innovation

Sophie-ThomasThe latest in our series of articles from the RWM ambassadors – ahead of tis year’s event –  sees Sophie Thomas, director of circular economy at the RSA, address the issues of “innovation”, “design” and, of course, the “circular economy”


lightbulbs-on-wall-man-illustrationInnovation is a word we seem to be hearing an awful lot. It conveys a multitude of meanings to many people. As a designer it conjures up images of “ideation” workshops and “out of the box” thinking: timetabled sessions where assembled groups sit around flip charts trying to come up with amazing ideas out of thin air. The thing that all designers know, however, is that you cannot force a good idea. What you can do is set the right creative conditions that can kick off the right conversations and spark the beginnings of something great.

We know that businesses spend a lot of time seeking the right conditions and resources to spark innovation. It is this creative thinking leading to innovation that keeps a business dynamic and ahead of the game, and ultimately will also help them to shift from a linear “take-make-waste” system to one that re-moulds in the shape of something more circular.

Over the past three years the RSA with Innovate UK has helped many businesses start that journey from linear to circular. The Great Recovery project took up the positions of creative broker and network builder, which were hungrily picked up by those that were looking for help to unlock opportunity.

Our first phase of work signalled to us that design was the creative stimuli needed to kick old business models and managers stuck in established pathways back into the innovation light. Yet our programme of works has always started at the end-of-life. We focused on exposing those that design and manufacture and sell products to the insight of those that have the role of disposal, once that piece has lost its use value. Not only does this scenario show up the design flaws of the system and the process but also allows dialogue to flow and questions to be asked and answered from both ends of a product’s life. More importantly innovation happens without a flip chart in sight.

Deep Diving Into Product Streams

Designers and the waste industry need to talk

A successful example is our design residency series, run in partnership with members of the waste industry and local authorities. These focus on specific designed products with tricky waste streams, most recently bulky waste, in order to allow participants to “deep dive” into the complexity around material and product streams.

We want the waste managers and designers to interact and learn about each other’s processes and challenges in order to consider how design can reduce waste. The recommendations that came out reflect this, ranging from new furniture leasing systems, to alternative ways to stamp in fire labels. And all the innovation happens at places where you wouldn’t expect it: looking over the edge of a mattress skip talking to a community recycling centre employee or whilst taking apart a sofa with an expert upholsterer.

It is becoming more apparent, as the concept of the circular economy becomes further embedded into business and economics, that these roles of enabler, creative facilitator and network broker are absolutely fundamental if we want to seriously consider a shift towards a circular economy. And who should take on these responsibilities? They are macro, cross-cutting roles needing proper investment and long-term road maps. They require generosity in knowledge sharing and a creative “test, fail and learn” spirit. They need to be able to work in the right kind of scale that can really affect change. These roles are not to be taken on lightly, and I suspect the answers lie in the massing and mobilising of those that are currently working in the circular economy So I look to these roles coming from cities and governments

A city could take on the role of incubator, enabling the right conditions for innovation to spark, both physically and digitally, and take it to a scale that really tests the concepts of circularity. Imagine the circular business boom in London if we focused the powerhouse of the city’s finance sector with its creative excellence and digital centres on designing new circular systems.

Local and national government could play a major role in brokering new collaborations across sectors. Business cannot lead all the time and often external sticks and carrots are needed to kickstart change. Focused legislation like the landfill ban in The Netherlands played a fundamental role in stimulating innovation through necessity, whilst Innovate UK’s successful circular economy competitions bring investment where it is needed; lowering risks from the disruptive but highly innovative stages of R&D.

Finally, organisations like the RSA can help to facilitate change through creative spaces such as our Fab Lab hub, and satellites set up in waste or resource facilities around the world. Here, businesses are supported by the global circular network, and all types of experts are on hand when testing and prototyping. Large and small businesses mix with disrupters and entrepreneurs. And sure enough, without a box to get out of, innovation begins to happen and we all take one step closer to a more circular economy.

Sophie Thomas is an ambassador for RWM in Partnership with CIWM and will be speaking at the Scottish Resources Conference 2015 (for more information CLICK HERE)


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