In celebration of the start of the Saïd Business School’s Circular Economy module this Trinity semester, students involved in the programme have interviewed key practitioners in the rapidly emerging field. This blog series aims to document key practitioner’s stories; perspectives on what skills are relevant to a successful career and what they see the future holds for the circular economy and its many players.
For this edition Edward Hornsby (MSc Environmental Change & Management, School of Geography & the Environment) sat down at the Portuguese Embassy in Brussels with the inspiring Paola Migliorini, Team Leader for Circular Economy at the European Commission, Directorate-General Environment.
If you were looking for major players in the circular economy in Europe you would probably be hard-pressed to find a more influential figure than Paola Migliorini, Team Leader of the Circular Economy Unit for the EU. Her work is focused on ensuring the European Commission’s 2015 “Closing the Loop” Circular Economy Action Plan continues to lead the way in developing innovative, zero-waste economic pathways. Much of her time therefore, is spent engaging with industry leaders, promoting landmark policy efforts – such as this January’s EU-wide “Strategy for Plastics” – and subsequently creating and implementing effective monitoring procedures for cutting edge policies.
Exciting and impressive stuff, and a position that no doubt many budding environmentalists might dream of occupying one day. However, nothing in Paola’s background necessarily suggested she’d end up leading one of Europe (if not the world’s) elite task forces concerned with developing the circular economy. “I have had a circular career” she jokes, “I started as a translator… I was always interested in translating messages… simplifying and communicating them.” Originally she wasn’t even that interested in the environment she confesses to us: “I wasn’t such an idealist. Living in the mountain, [the environment] it was a given.”
While, unsurprisingly, she is now “passionate about these issues” what set her off down this green path? Good news for those MBA students looking to make a difference in their future career; she says much of the allure in her work is down to her entrepreneurial past and general interest in business. Her personal history, particularly a combination of having a family and managing her own company, gave her the push to engage with environmental issues. It was “a fight I saw needed an explanation” – but in a manner that best allowed her to apply her business acumen.
So what specific skills does Paola feel have lent themselves to her success?
Well, she emphasizes, the circular economy can be for everyone. At the end of the day it encompasses everything we produce and consume and so there are many niches within which to apply different skills and excel. However, at its centre there is a “duality between environmental protection and the economy” and Paola is certain that her long standing interest in business, and especially her “work for 10 years in the private sector” played a major role in her journey.
Notably, much of her experience has been in fields outside the environment. As mentioned, she originally trained as a translator and her role in the commision was as a policy Généraliste. While, the company she founded and worked on for 8 years was focused on issues with big data and antibiotics treatments. This variety she feels may have worked to her advantage, providing her with an outside perspective and business focus giving her an edge in the EU Directorate-General for Environment. Everyone in her unit, Paola points out, has an interest in the environment, but not so many are as focused “on resources” as her. This “little twist” has been a key difference she feels.
She also enthuses about being a “big picture person”. While she is still interested in the gritty “technical details” of an issue, she is comfortable stepping back, taking on a management role and delegating. In the “policy arena” at least – sometimes those with “just the technical expertise, [they] don’t get the bigger picture”.
Building on this, she feels being able to communicate effectively is absolutely key. By highlighting big picture concepts, you can open other people’s eyes to new possibilities. Ultimately, when you can share ideas well you can inspire and promote the change which is central to making the circular economy grow. She highlights her recent work in Treviso, Italy as an example. This involved explaining to engineers from “fantastic frontrunner” companies – who were too engrossed in their own silos – how their solutions were scalable, and how important their contributions were to the larger system and its transformation.
Perhaps this ability to comprehend the big picture is at the heart of building a successful circular economy. To achieve a zero-waste world you have to be able to understand a vast system and see where waste can be reimagined into something new. This idea fits well with Paola’s second piece of advice that ”listening” and “asking” play equally important roles in good communication. When dealing with complex systems and looking for novel solutions you have to be able to listen, particularly to those with greater technological insight, to understand what is possible.
So as someone at the leading edge of a changing world, what does she see ahead for the circular economy?
Excitingly for budding entrepreneurs, one of the “central narratives of the circular economy is job creation” and the numbers she hears being thrown around are both large and “at a wide variety” of skill levels. This is optimal for those trying to attract support from policymakers, funders and even consumers. She says the world is crying out for “symbiotic” businesses who can take one company’s rubbish and turn it into another’s resources. The world and its businesses need to wake up to the realisation that “waste is the new resource” as it was in the “world of our grandparents”.
In this vein she feels that, from a business standpoint, when looking to make an impact both financially and environmentally it might be good to start thinking local again. From an “EU perspective, the variety of the economic situation; the cultural situation; the climate situation is such that… common objectives have to be translated into different situations”. A “consensus of objectives” with unique paths might then be the future for the European economy, with the answers from industry becoming increasingly tailored and dispersed.
“But”, she says, there is always a question of “balance and uncertainties”. “Disruptiveness is a constant” in any healthy economy and the “circular economy is a disruptive model.” Importantly though it is not the only player in the game right now; “superconnection and digitalisation… can do a lot for dematerialisation” and recycling and 3D printing almost certainly will have an “impact on job creation” she says. But in which direction is unclear. From an EU perspective will it be a positive influence, liberating the workforce and enriching populations? Or another driver of inequality and discontent?
One thing’s for sure though, the problems we face are enormous and the “world cannot go on being so inconsiderate”. Constantly “building a new garage to hold more stuff” is no longer a viable answer to the world’s problems, Paola extolls. So, as we don’t “want to build a world of constraints” and restrict each and everyone’s fundamental freedoms, it is up to us to get imaginative and start bringing new solutions to the table. This reality lies at the heart of both Paola’s work for the EU and what we are hoping to do with the start of the new Circular Economy module: to foster imaginative new solutions for complex global issues involving waste and resource use. Perhaps then, one final succinct but powerful piece of advice from Paola may be useful for those taking part in this semester’s module and beyond: “Explain, listen … and make it happen”.