With Helen Burdett, Lead of Circular Economy Innovation, World Economic Forum
What makes the world’s most successful companies successful? Sales, growth, market expansion…all contributing factors. But perhaps the most crucial determinant for a company’s success are the local players involved in getting it off the ground: its innovation ecosystem.
The World Economic Forum has been a long standing supporter of sustainable business and economic development. Their Scale 360° initiative seeks to cultivate innovation ecosystems within cities, making them new hubs for innovation. Behind the scenes, Helen Burdett is leading this initiative and ensuring both public and private support for local entrepreneurs to take their concepts from written on a napkin to the real world.
We spoke with Helen on the Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast about how innovation ecosystems are crucial for altering the status quo that we know and accept. In this post, based on our conversation with Helen, we’ll explain what an innovation ecosystem is, how innovation ecosystems are built, and provide an example of how one of our favorite environmentally friendly companies has cultivated and built their own innovation ecosystem to accommodate a world-shifting new material.
What is an Innovation Ecosystem?
Put simply by Helen, an innovation ecosystem is: “…all of the different things that will help a business succeed or fail at a local level”.
Much like our abundant natural ecosystems, an innovation ecosystem is a conglomeration of all the factors that impact any one business idea’s success. For example, local policies and government can affect what business can and can’t do via zoning regulations, advertising laws, and permit distribution. Access to critical elements like capital and transportation also play a role in the operations of any business.
An innovation ecosystem can be the environment that surrounds a business, or the conditions in a city that foster innovation activity. At the World Economic Forum, Helen Burdett helps stimulate the players within a city that encourage innovation.
Typical Actors in an Innovation Ecosystem
Just as any one person living in a community is dependent on a network of services to thrive, so are businesses or organizations seeking long term impact.
In any one innovation ecosystem, here are a few actors that could be behind the scenes encouraging innovation and informing systems change.
- Existing organizations (firms, ventures capitalists, public sector organizations, banks)
- Innovative organizations (universities, research institutions)
- Startup incubators
- Coworking spaces
- Local, state, and federal government
How Do You Build an Innovation Ecosystem?
Helen Burdett’s work on the Scale 360 initiative at the World Economic Forum has a playbook to support circular economy innovation. The Playbook helps bridge the gap between actors in an innovation ecosystem, whether it’s technologists, financers, activists, or public servants. The Playbook is a good place to start understanding the impact of an innovation ecosystem.
Many jobs lie within the players of an innovation ecosystem. If yours does, here are some ways to help lay the groundwork for an interconnected system that encourages innovation.
- Set aside some time each morning to have coffee with your colleagues individually. See what types of conversations emerge! Supporting direct reports, colleagues, and even your own manager can create a collaborative work environment that lends itself well to innovative thinking.
- Be well equipped for when creativity strikes by having access to necessary tools, like a dedicated maker space or online platform that encourages ideation.
- Make space on your calendar for professional development, like a happy hour or meetup with new people from a diverse array of backgrounds. This encourages collaboration and fosters innovative, creative thinking.
Innovation Ecosystem Examples
Helen’s work focuses predominantly on creating and supporting innovation ecosystems within cities. The World Economic Forum uses a specific framework and methodology to shape discourse among local stakeholders. Helen believes that the ground-up approach to cultivating city-wide innovation ecosystems via the framework is the most valuable approach.
Circular innovation requires giving businesses and other local stakeholders the tools, support, and freedom to drive the creation of new solutions. Says Helen: “I don’t know what should happen in Turin, the team that is working on that knows best what should happen in Turin.”
While cities are working on becoming a hub for innovation activity for businesses to develop, some businesses have already embraced and carved out their own innovation ecosystems.
Let’s use one of our favorite better-for-the-world businesses, Pela, to show a specific example of what an innovation ecosystem and its multiple working parts can look like in practice. Pela uses a circular innovation model to create phone accessories and more that keep more plastic from entering the environment, while at the same time shooting for a zero waste future.
Here, we’ll explore how Pela built their innovation ecosystem and who the essential actors are that make it all possible.
Materials & Supply Chain
Much like any product oriented business, Pela is dependent on a steady stream of raw materials. To create their signature material, Pela works with local farmers in their home country of Canada to take the unwanted flax shiv off their hands. This tough material is typically burned because it gets caught in farm equipment (hello, greenhouse gas emissions). But, founder Jeremy Lang used this exact material to create the first sample of the now iconic Pela Flaxstic™.
Supply chains and their procurement of raw materials greatly affect a company’s potential long-term sustainability. . Luckily, as long as farmers grow flax, Pela will be in the business of reducing waste, fighting greenhouse gas emissions, and moving plastic out of the phone industry. In Pela’s own innovation ecosystem, an entire network of farmers and distributors make it all happen.
Jeremy leveraged local relationships he had in the area to discover the best combination of bioplastics and find a manufacturer willing to test his concept. Kelowna Sustainability Studio creates Pela cases in Canada, but manufacturing has since scaled to Asia, where the same standards and ethics are upheld.
Without an ecosystem of innovation surrounding their early manufacturing processes, the Pela case may never have been made! Just think, manufacturing facilities and factories have to create a new process for every product they create. Every single mold, every single size, every single color. Therefore, it’s essential that these facilities and their workers have innovation oriented management and the technical ability to support circular, regenerative, or innovative products.
The magic of Pela products is that they’re compostable. Simply toss your phone case in your backyard compost and in six months it’ll be converted by microorganisms into healthy, nourishing soil.
Here’s what Helen said to us on the podcast episode about the importance of circularity in business globally: “But we’re only 8.6% circular. We want our activities to move that needle. We want to see the world become more circular, and we use that as a lens for where we spend our time and how we engage with partners.”
To push that needle and become even MORE circular, Pela also has a Pela 360 program where current case users can mail back their plastic case to be upcycled into a new item by Pela.
The regenerative nature of Pela products is an example of true product innovation and circularity. The uniqueness of Pela’s designs and materials only expand the company’s opportunity for a larger innovation ecosystem that encourages sustainability and innovative thinking. In that spirit, Pela has expanded to create eyeglasses with their innovative material and they just launched a home composter system for consumers to take control of their food waste.
Social Impact Network
Pela is a part of the B Corp community, the 1% for the Planet business community, and the Climate Neutral Certified community. Each has unique opportunities for professional development and growth among members. Convenings among these groups leverage each individual social impact network and allows companies like Pela to meet other entrepreneurs and embark on new collaborative journeys.
Jeremy actually met his two partners for getting Pela off the ground at an entrepreneur event! That’s the power of networking.
Being a part of like minded certification bodies or social impact networks allows for cross-sector collaboration and the cultivation of new relationships, both of which can encourage innovation.
World Economic Forum: Fast Tracking the Fourth Industrial Revolution
The World Economic Forum was founded in 1971 as a nonprofit organization. The Forum is dedicated to making the world a better place through cross-sector collaboration, public and private cooperation, and sustainable economic development.
Among its many initiatives that catalyze innovation and facilitate impact, the World Economic Forum is well known for its work on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This revolution seeks to embrace emerging technology and blur the lines between the traditional segmented digital, physical, and biological spheres. These emerging technologies like artificial intelligence play a role in innovation ecosystems as social entrepreneurs seek to connect systems, perfect their concept, and narrow their focus.
Helen Burdett, Lead of Circular Economy Initiative at the World Economic Forum
Helen leads the World Economic Forum’s work on circular economy innovation, including its flagship circular innovation initiative, Scale360°. Scale360° advances innovation ecosystems for environmental and economic impact with scalable, locally-led innovation support delivered through private-public partnerships–all connected through a global digital community. In addition to her academic and research background at Georgetown University, Helen has 10 years of experience in strategy and operations consulting, international development, and software development.
“There is business opportunity in circular. We’ve seen more and more studies coming out demonstrating financial and resiliency benefits of circularity.”
How to Support the Circular Economy
Innovation ecosystems are critical to building a more circular economy, can contribute to the circular economy, particularly when it comes to product design like that at Pela! Circularity is increasingly important because it utilizes resources and assets that already exist instead of extracting new ones.
As Helen mentioned in our interview, with only 8.6% of our economy being circular, we all need to support its adoption and expansion. Here’s how you can help:
- Repair: Repairing your most durable items will keep them out of landfills and in your life a lot longer! Learning some simple sewing tricks can take care of normal wear and tear, but companies like Patagonia also have repair programs to help keep your gear usable.
- Recycling: By now, recycling things like yogurt containers and soda bottles is hopefully second nature. But what about textiles? Tons of companies now embrace circular fashion and accept used denim, clothing, and even underwear to upcycle into things like insulation. This post explains what to do with old clothes, no matter what you have!
- Support Sustainable Materials & Companies: Voting with your dollar is a fantastic way to support brands that embrace circularity. Girlfriend Collective makes all of their activewear from recovered plastic bottles, AND the brand even accepts your used gear if you ever need to get rid of it.
- Eat Sustainably, Too!: Yep, the circular economy applies to food too. Organic farming is like nature’s own form of circularity! If you’re able, learn more about regenerative organic farming and how it’s replenishing soil and fighting climate change, all through tasty food.
Closing: The Future is Circular
Helen’s work is showing just how important it is that we all support the circular economy. The constant use of fossil fuel emitting raw materials like petroleum based plastics are damaging our planet, and that’s something we simply cannot ignore any longer.
Entrepreneurs who have access to crucial actors in innovation ecosystems are pushing the needle for a more circular future. They’re redefining industries, like Jeremy at Pela Case. Systems change doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen more quickly when everyday innovators have access to technologies, research, and institutions that lead with a circular, innovative mindset.
Additional Resources & Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- The World Economic Forum and Scale 360°
- Helen on LinkedIn
- The Wandering Inn
- The Power of Habit
- Circular Trailblazers: Scale-ups Leading the Way Towards a More Circular Economy
Sustainable Workplaces Manager & Writer
Jackie is the Sustainable Workplaces Manager at Urban Green Lab, a sustainability education nonprofit in Nashville, Tennessee. She’s passionate about connecting people with actionable ways to make a positive impact on the environment. She graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a certificate in Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Jackie worked in the nonprofit world in Washington D.C. for Ashoka and the National Building Museum.
Jackie enjoys hiking with her rescue dog, finding craft breweries, and traveling the globe in search of plant-based eats.