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The concept of circularity is an exceptionally challenging topic for many businesses. Today, most companies push out products, and then it’s up to the consumer to figure out what happens to them at the end of their useful lives. Circularity closes the loop, to look at how waste products can become feedstocks for other processes that continue to generate value. It has the potential to completely change the role that a company plays in delivering customer value, the business model, and the product itself.
How do you introduce such a difficult topic, and how do you even begin to generate the ideas you need to develop innovative products and services with circularity at their core? In this interview with Justina Turek of Next Agents, we will dive into the concept of circularity, some examples of industries that are beginning to develop new products and services that embody circularity, and how to begin conversations about this challenging concept inside a company.
Director of Design Research
Justina is a design researcher, process facilitator, and initiator of the ideas. She creates experiences, systems, and workshops (projects/processes) that allow companies, brands, organizations, and events to communicate integral value offered to their users. Her experience comes from working with product, service, and manufacturing companies, design & culture studios in Paris, Helsinki, New York, and across Poland. She frequently travels internationally gathering inspirations and knowledge on how societies and cultures change.
She is currently Director of Design Research at Next Agents and Co-founder of Change Pilots strategic design consultancy. She is passionate about sustainable development, Human-Centered Design, and sustainability.
Katherine Radeka (00:03):
Welcome to Accelerate Net Zero, the podcast dedicated to the acceleration of the technologies we need to address climate change. My name is Katherine Radeka, and I've been accelerating innovation for a long time in a number of different industries. And nowhere is that acceleration more important today than in the renewable energy materials, food production, transportation, and other programs to limit carbon emissions so that we can stabilize our climate. So if you are working on these programs as a technologist, as a manager and investor, a public policy maker, an activist, or just a concerned citizen, then you have come to the right place to learn how we can eliminate obstacles and put more momentum into these programs so that we can begin delivering impact on carbon emissions sooner. And we can reach Net Zero faster.
Katherine Radeka (00:56):
My guest this week is Justyna Turek. She is the Director of Design Research at Next Agents, a product development consultancy based in Sweden. I invited her to join me because she's done some very interesting thinking around the idea of circularity and how to introduce sustainability into companies that don't normally think of themselves as producing a green product. Justine is a design researcher, process facilitator, and creates experiences and systems to allow companies to communicate the integral value that they offer to their users, which requires them to think more deeply about that value. This conversation turned out to be a very interesting one. We started out exploring the idea of circularity, and then we shifted to talking about how to introduce these ideas into a company in general, what it takes for sustainability to become an accepted value at a company and the role that both the desire to do public good and economics play in helping pull sustainability through an organization.
Katherine Radeka (02:00):
Justyna, How do you define circular? What does it mean to you?
Justyna Turek (02:02):
Circularity for me is this kind of a holistic approach to the whole process. So we're seeing what is there. It's not about adding or eliminating things all over, so it's not actually making a new shiny product or new shiny packages that it's more "eco". Circularity is actually seeing what we already have, how we can maybe connect it in a smarter way, maybe more innovative way. And then the most important question, and I think circularity helps us to ask this question, "Do we really need this product to produce?" Maybe actually some company. And this is sometimes that we are speaking with them and it's a hard question. Do we actually need this product to produce? Maybe better is to stop for a second and think that, Oh, maybe can actually not produce this, this one. Maybe we can decide, do a service instead. Maybe we have the ability to do this.
Katherine Radeka (03:08):
We're rethinking how we go about making products, how we design products, how we produce products, you know, to think about that.
Justyna Turek (03:15):
Yeah, exactly. As you say, it's rethinking, but also seeing this holistic approach, like how we are working with the businesses and other entrepreneurs is actually having this big view, the big picture as we call it and seeing the things, not from the details, but for me, wide perspective, and being able to look like this area, for example of your company, you're not actually exploring its potential. Maybe we can do something about it. Maybe we can think how it can actually save them money or be making more money because you need the money because you are spending the money on something else. So it's really like this broader perspective, in my opinion.
Katherine Radeka (03:59):
Can you give me an example of circularity using like an everyday product just to kind of help people get a sense of what it is?
Justyna Turek (04:04):
So there's a really simple example that I think help us to understand what is circularity. So for example, there is this Philips "Pay for Lux." That's the name of the service. So actually Philips is providing you the light service and everything, what is around it, it's like Netflix for the light. So you are paying for the light, but actually don't care about the bulbs, the changing the bills and et cetera. Philips needs to make it happen. And they're actually made the innovation through it because they discover like, okay, we need to make our light bulbs more efficient. So we don't need to change them all the time because we are taking care of that. So this is actually how to change a product into the service and changing the ownership of the product to the company because in the end, the company is responsible for what they're producing. And as you know, and as everyone knows, our users, clients are getting more and more aware of the ethical changes, of the climate changes and like how the things are produced. So this is something that I'm sure everyone should rethink as a company.
Katherine Radeka (05:18):
From a circularity perspective, you know, in that example, what is it about that example that illustrates circularity.
Justyna Turek (05:25):
In this particular example is to asking the right question about the product. Do we really need the product? Do the people really need the light bulb? No, they need the light and we can actually deliver light from so many different angles. There can be so many solutions more and more efficient or maybe more circular or ecological and et cetera. So it just really the mindset that we don't need to produce. We can think how we can make it service, how we can make it more whatever. I think this is the key to circularity that is giving us so much potential to actually innovate.
Katherine Radeka (06:06):
I'm taking away from that, is that the thing that makes it circular is the fact that it is the company is taking responsibility for it so that instead of me buying, you know, a product to buy for me, instead of me buying a light bulb in this case, you know what I'm actually buying is light.
Justyna Turek (06:24):
Katherine Radeka (06:25):
And that gives Philips the opportunity to really think about, all right, well, if you look at this thing across the entire life cycle, what is the best way to deliver Katherine, the light that she needs? And maybe it doesn't look like me going down to the hardware store to buy a light bulb every so often, even though with LED bulbs and things that, you don't have to go as often, right. Maybe there's a different way to do that. Is that kind of what you're saying about circularity?
Justyna Turek (06:53):
Yes, yes. It's actually seeing that actually the users, they don't need to do the hard, dirty job because we need to actually take the light bulb. We need to throw it away. We need to think where to throw it away first and then, you know, all the decisions that are on us and we are feeling guilty on buying and buying and buying, but actually the company, they should take the responsibility and service, the potential solutions that they think. And we, we believe they are better.
Justyna Turek (07:23):
And the other example of the light that I think is really romantic example of the light is the one of the company that are actually, they're not producing the light bulb, but they're producing — it is just like the screen that actually, shows you the light and how the light is changing during the day. Because it's not about the constant light, but it's about the feeling if you're in an office or if you're in hospital, because now they're doing that in hospital that actually daylight changes during the day too. You want to be in the rhythm of the day. So they're selling the light that changes a lot, along the day, even though that you don't have the actual window. So you see, as you are deciding that this is the value that light that is delivering to you, but they also deliver you the feeling that you're close to the nature, even though that your hospital or et cetera. So this is actually really innovative, but also in my opinion, a circular product.
Katherine Radeka (08:25):
Well, what I find very interesting about that example is that when you start thinking about the things that we buy, instead of as a product, but instead of as a service, then it opens up opportunities like that to say, okay, well, so if they're buying light, what kind of light do they want to buy, or what do they need? And an office worker working in an interior office, or a patient working in a hospital, being able to feel more connected to what's going outside because the light source is reflecting the fact that it's early morning or late in the evening and versus mid day when light's very strong and bright, right. And that's the kind of thinking that kind of gets opened up when you begin thinking like this and another kind of example that I just want to run by you to see if this is kind of also what you have in mind is like the electric cars, right?
Katherine Radeka (09:17):
Because in the United States, at least one of the new models is car sharing and car sharing in the U S is a big deal because we love our cars. We our cars are part of our identity in the United States, right? And so the idea of instead transportation being a service and that how I purchase that service is by purchasing access to this fleet of cars, which means that the company is taking on responsibility for insurance and maintenance and figuring out how long a car can run before it's at the end of its life. Taking care of the car, all of that. So that whole end-to-end thing that I don't have to go to the dealer and buy the car, which means that I also don't have to figure out what to do with the car when it's at the end of its life. So is that another example of what you're thinking of here?
Justyna Turek (10:05):
Yeah. We call this what you described that we are taking of the problem from the user, from their head. So actually they don't need to think about all these things that you need to take care of when you're buying a car, when you want to rent a car and et cetera. And there are more and more such services around it. Like for example, in Norway, one of my friends, they live in a building where all of the families, they share one car and the building owner takes care of the scheduling, takes care of the fuel. Actually there is no fuel. There is eco gas and et cetera. And what they need to do is actually of course, clean the car after, because this is the responsibility of sharing the car and et cetera. But when they're signing the lease or when they're buying an apartment, they buying bthe access to the scooter, to the bicycle, to the cars for sharing.
Justyna Turek (11:03):
Because to be honest, if you're having kids, how many bicycles are you going to buy for your kids? This is not sustainable. Like you're going to buy a couple of bicycles, like the clothes for the kids. But there is a service also in Austria that we are doing some research. There is this a service that actually rent you your cars as a member, as a Netflix also kind of service, you can rent for your kid, a bicycle. And every couple of months, of course your kid is growing. So you can change the bicycles, but you are not buying a bicycle that is actually standing in your garage. So this is one of the things that taking the problem of the user is actually helping them to use the service. And it gives, as you said, a lot of potential for new and more innovative solutions as the electrical cars, for example.
Katherine Radeka (11:58):
So it sounds like a key dimension of circularity is this idea that we're going to maintain responsibility for this thing that we're giving you from beginning to end, which means especially the end of life, that we're going to take responsibility for it at the end of its life, as well as, so it's not just about, okay, I'm running a factory, I'm pushing a product out, and I'm going to distribute that product. You're going to pick it up somewhere or it have a shift to you. And then you have to figure out what to do with it, right? It's really more about what is the customer value and delivering that customer value in a way that is throughout the entire life of the product.
Justyna Turek (12:35):
I totally agree what you said. And I will add also a point to that because I grew up as a designer, I was trained as a product designer, and then I transformed into more of a scientist, with all the process behind the design, because I get to the point that I'm designing things, but I don't know anything about the users. I don't know why my product is needed and what I wanted to say that actually right now, what I'm seeing as a responsibility of designers in circularity is a prolonging the life of the product, not just waiting for the, okay, so what is the company going to do after the death of the product, but actually let's think through this product to the end, like how we actually replace it, compost, how we can, like, you know, like do a lot of things before it's actually gonna go away. So this is actually a new thinking as a designer that I'm seeing that we are approaching really prolonging the life of the products.
Katherine Radeka (13:35):
So I want you to explain then how does these principles help a company deliver a product in a more sustainable way? How does this impact products, the carbon footprint and impact on other environmental things. How does this help with that?
Justyna Turek (13:53):
Okay. So this is really a complex question, and I will try to answer from my knowledge, how I'm working with the business and entrepreneurs. So it's really maybe because working in Europe, because I'm working mostly in Poland, but also in Europe, we need to get to know the culture first, when we are proposing things for them, because every culture is different. Every circular, sustainable solution is different from the others because they have a history. a cultural background and they have a different way of making decisions.
Justyna Turek (14:27):
So this is the first step. When we are talking with the business, we need to find out how they actually, what are the surroundings and how we can talk about it. And then we can see what actually we can propose to them. Because with some, we can start talking about circularity as a side topic, because the first one we are talking about a new product or innovation, because this is something that they know.
Justyna Turek (14:50):
But because we, I mean, we at the company that I'm representing, but also me, myself, I really deeply believe in circularity and sustainability. I'm like the small activist. And also I'm talking about "But from the other hand, did you hear about this one, maybe there's this and this that you can do." So that's most often what's happening because companies, this is a big trend. Yeah. People are thinking like, this is big, something's going on, everyone should do something about it. Every company should have a sustainability report, but actually this is a big deal because it can frighten some companies. It can say like, okay, why do we need to change everything from the beginning? Only, not only the product is spelled out, but maybe the production and manufacturing side. So this is actually, I would say is it should be a really delicate topic with the business because they might get afraid and I'm totally understand them.
Justyna Turek (15:45):
This is like, and there was so much legislation, and there are so many documents and so many requirements and they need to hurry up and change it because of the all those agreements and et cetera. So what I believe is taking small steps with this company, delivering to them what they need, hear them, of course, but try to deliver the circular or the sustainable approach. Step-By-Step because they might be afraid. And they may say like, okay, this is not for us. And most of the time when I work with the companies, when I'm trying to explain, I see that the CEO of the manager, they're like, okay, we understand that we are going to talk to our team and we're going to tell them that this is what we are doing. That this is the decision. And this is really risky because this is something that is going from above and the people who are in the company, they might get afraid.
Justyna Turek (16:48):
And this is why we are always saying to invite everyone in the table to discuss that actually, if this is really needed at this point, because maybe in one year or two years, we are not able to change. For example, packages to be more sustainable, maybe we need more time. And it's actually, for us, it's really important to have this meeting, to talk with everyone, to hear every person's opinion, because maybe there was something else that they can do in the first year that it's small steps through color. It's just a little bit more simple. Maybe it's not that big, but then it will bring them more to do the big changes in three, five, so many other years. So this is how I'm seeing this.
Katherine Radeka (17:33):
So this did not go in anywhere in the direction that I thought it was going to go, but I actually really glad that you did it. I just don't think you took it in that direction because here's the thing: You're right. I think that you see companies like Amazon and Apple and Ikea setting these very ambitious carbon targets for themselves and they are coming from the top, right. It is coming from this awareness that, wow, if we want to survive as a company, we have to show that we're making progress on this. Right. And yet I think that some of the that strong push from the top can actually be threatening to people who are designing the current products or manufacturing the current products, especially if you're working in an industry like plastic bottles, where the product itself, the consumer perception is that we should not have plastic bottles.
Katherine Radeka (18:23):
When the reality is we have plastic bottles, we will continue to have plastic bottles for quite some time. We have major challenges if we're going to replace those bottles. And also a lot that could be done to make those products inherently more sustainable. That is not being done around improving recycling and improving the recovery of material from the recycled bottles and things like that. So a company establishing a sustainability goal can actually be really threatening to the people below. And so it sounds like what you're recommending is that people come in and say, well, what's the small step that we can take towards this. Right, exactly. Yeah. And then looking and working with the people then sounds to identify these opportunities, to introduce a little bit of it into their group: 10 years from now, we've got to solve this problem, or we won't exist. Maybe consumers will move on from us, but we're not there yet. How can we build a bridge from here to there? And that seems like that has to happen down at the engineer, scientists, product developer, operations level, instead of at the top.
Justyna Turek (19:30):
I think we're already doing a lot in a way that we're educating ourselves how to talk about this topic, because I really deeply believe when we are making changes, we need some ground before the changes that are, they actually can happen and it's happened. Like other topics we really need to first to talk to understand the same, I think was with design thinking couple of years ago, everyone was like, what is this? Let's learn it. Let's do it. And everyone now knows about it. And there was not even the question. Should we do this? Should we use it? And I think with circularity and sustainability it is the same. We are talking right now, discussing doing some projects, showing the company's good practices and et cetera, et cetera. And soon in couple of years, it won't be even a question. Should we use this? Or should we do this?
Justyna Turek (20:19):
Should the company, for example, have a sustainable report? Or like, should we actually, maybe not only we do green-washing or actually should the company make some really big changes? So I think that this is actually happening and I'm seeing that I'm really glad, but of course we don't have that much time and we are speeding up, but I'm seeing that, that this is not from my perspective, a consultant and designer, this is not the push approach to business. It's really like, it's, people's work, people's money people's company. This should be really addressed in the, in this movement to understand them and help them to change. Because if we're going to come to them and say like, okay, you have five years to change, that's it. They, of course, they're going to fight. Like I would fight, like if somebody would come to my company, say like you have five years, it's totally normal.
Justyna Turek (21:16):
So when we are talking with businesses it's just really the listening, communicating, and finding the solution together, showing that we are not opposite to them. We are just next to them, like shoulders to shoulders. And this will take time, and I think that this is happening a lot lately. There's so many events, so many discussions, and even though the, on the company or like the entrepreneurship level, but from the people's personal lives happen a lot. There are zero waste movements, the recycling movement and the recycling for me is just a justification to produce more. But I still believe that, okay, if people are understanding the recycling, they can move on. And if people from personal perspective, they already start changing their lives. This is easy for us because the seed is already there in their brains. It's just going to take maybe two, three years, in my opinion, when it's going to be like, really like distributed equally that everyone can understand this is happening, let's do this.
Katherine Radeka (22:21):
I think you're right about that. I think that people are hearing things external to their work environments around the urgency for climate change, especially about how we have these targets. We really must hit these targets. So, and it's, it's at a point where, okay, it's like, everybody's going to have to do something. You're going to have to make a decision about it. Right. and so then providing a way for the for companies to have these conversations about what does it mean for the business that we have to do, right. And, and yet providing, just seeing that there is a path forward. If we change how we think about what we're doing and how we're delivering it, that can open up a lot of doors for us, for being part of the future, instead of being left behind and it's so important to create whenever you're trying to create a shift inside a company to create a zone of safety, a nd that's what allows that shift to happen. Right?
Justyna Turek (23:17):
Yeah. And also answering your previous question when we are talking with with the business and they understand really clearly that the numbers and data and analysis, and when we're approaching them, we're showing like, look, for example, this costs you money. Like you have this waste that actually this waste can be a fuel to somebody else's process. And this to be honest, this is the biggest argument I'm saying from the operational perspective that the data actually really helps the business to understand the value of circularity and sustainability. And then from this part, we can really move on and tackle the other opportunities that they're having. But it's so important just to understand the big picture of the company, what they're doing, where they're missing or where actually they can change something. But it really like small steps. They don't need to do big step-by-step.
Justyna Turek (24:19):
That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. And the thing is that while we would love for these businesses to make these changes, because they're altruistic and they want to do what's good for society. The reality is that the economics really speak to them. A couple of years ago, I was really like trying to be an activist on this topic. But now when I'm seeing that, I totally agree because this makes sense. This is the economy. And if they're going to do well, they're going to help because the business actually can make the changes fastest because they have people, they have money, they have the resources, the government needs some time. People need the change in the streets in mind to actually accept the product, but the company they actually make, they can make the change the fastest. So we need to understand them if they can make this, this fastest change.
Katherine Radeka (25:06):
I want to pull one thing out from Justina's interview to look out a little bit more closely, which is how can we generate, pull for sustainability. Now in my own work, I have had to think a lot about how do we generate pull for innovation? How do we make it possible for the people in an organization to become more innovative? And how do we ensure that the innovations that they deliver are the right innovations in alignment with the directors that the company wants to go. So I talk about this idea of a strategic imperative for innovation.
And I think you also need a strategic imperative for sustainability. If you want to pull sustainability through your organization. And the circularity aspects of that in particular are quite challenging. They demand different ways of thinking about your business model. They demand different ways of thinking about your relationship with your consumers is not no longer a one-way push where you're pushing products out into the market, and then a consumer just kind of has to deal with the consequences at the end of its life. Probably by putting it into a landfill.
The only way to get changes like that through an organization that I found to be effective is for the direction to be set very strongly at the top, that this is the direction we want to go. And for it to be a core part of the company's strategy, not, not a nice to have, not an add on not a pledge, but a core part of the company strategy that makes it imperative for everyone in the organization, from your scientists and engineers, developing your products to the marketing people, figuring out how to sell them to your manufacturing organization or your manufacturing partners all the way through your supply chain to help you accomplish this strategy of becoming more sustainable.
And that by setting that direction, you've basically set up a company's compass towards sustainability in a way that generates pull, that pulls everyone towards that objective. It also pulls the ideas that you need out of the organization, because when you tell people this is what's important, then that's what they start looking for. When you set a direction like that, you pull people in the direction of sustainability, but more importantly, you pull the ideas out of them that you need in order to achieve sustainability. They may, for example, be looking at two different suppliers and Supplier A is more in alignment with your sustainability goals than Supplier B. They're more likely to choose Supplier. A in fact, they'll probably have an intuitive understanding of how much more Supplier A can cost than Supplier B for it to be worthwhile for them to choose Supplier A in order to fulfill the sustainability goals.
Now, I think eventually the economics of this are going to play out so that if this is not on your radar screen, it will eventually need to be. I think the governments will demand it through regulation, but I also think consumers will be demanding it through the choices that they make and that eventually the economics will be so that the path of least resistance is to be the more sustainable product. But in order for that to be true, this is something that does need to be part of the core company strategy, because if it's not, then your people are not going to be looking for the opportunities and the ideas, and ultimately the innovations that you need throughout your business in order to achieve the sustainability, you need to survive in a NetZero world.
Katherine Radeka (28:38):
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