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Vanilla, blockchain and the circular economy – one year on the Oxford MBA

Skoll Scholar and circular economy entrepreneur, Nikhil Dugal, highlights the best part of his year at Oxford on the MBA programme. 

The Oxford MBA is quite a unique experience in the world of business education. The extent to which our class discussions and interests differ from other business schools is apparent when I travel to London to meet friends enrolled in other MBAs.

Over the course of the past year, the MBA has helped me keep pace with many issues of recent development, including emerging technologies, climate change mitigation and the circular economy, all while keeping one foot firmly in the business world.

Sustainable Vanilla

Another opportunity to undertake learning was the entrepreneurship project (EP) in Trinity term. In addition to encouraging novel business ideas, Oxford Saïd also invites external collaborators to come pitch live projects to the MBAs for the EP. This offers individuals in Oxford the opportunity to work with MBAs on their project for a semester, while the students get the opportunity to work on a live project and contribute to real-world impact.

My team used the opportunity to work with an agro-ecologist from Oxford who is working on preventing deforestation in Indonesia by encouraging local farmers to grow Vanilla in the rainforests. Vanilla is the second-most expensive cash crop in the world. However, only 1% of the world’s supply comes from natural sources, while the majority comes from synthetic vanilla manufactured from petrochemicals. Natural vanilla grows as an orchid and can be planted in degraded rainforests to help restore the natural ecosystem in a polyculture system. Establishing a larger market for forest-grown organic Vanilla from Indonesia can help restore degraded rainforests and provide smallholder farmers a more lucrative alternative to engaging in unsustainable palm oil farming. We spent a semester working on their business models, financial projections and market entry strategy. Meanwhile, they have started a pilot in Kalimantan and planted 18000 saplings on 500 hectares of land leased from the government. Moving forward, their team will be using our research and projections to scale the project, raise funding and enter the market.

Nikhil debating at the Responsible Business Forum.

Nikhil debating at the Responsible Business Forum.

Circular Economy

Before joining Oxford Saïd, I was working on a circular business in India, making eco-friendly infrastructure for development sector organizations. The circular economy elective in Trinity term gave me the opportunity to interact with a diverse set of stakeholders working to establish the circular economy in the UK. This included entrepreneurs from companies such as Toast Ale and Elvis & Kresse, investors such as LWARB and Circularity Capital as well as practitioners from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This gave us a broader view of how the ecosystem works in the UK and provided opportunities to network with people working on the front-lines of the problem.

Blockchain for Impact

Over the course of  ‘Strategy and Innovation’, we were given the chance to apply concepts learned in class to an emerging field. I took the opportunity to research the use of blockchain technology for sustainable supply chain tracking. After learning more about this topic for my final coursework, I was given the opportunity to interact with two practitioners working on applying the technology on the ground and hear their perspective on it as well. Hugh Locke, the president and co-founder of the Smallholder Farmers Alliance in Haiti visited to speak at the Responsible Business Forum 2018. Their partnership with Timberland is using blockchain technology, built from the ground up with beneficiaries in mind, to help source sustainably grown cotton and revive the Haitian Cotton Industry. At the same forum, we were also visited by David Davies, the founder of AgUnity, which is using blockchain to increase the transparency of financial transactions in farmer cooperatives and increase farmer’s trust in the institution.  During Trinity Term, our Tech for Impact class hosted one of the founders of Alice, which is using blockchain technology to undertake social impact tracking to help create a new type of cryptocurrency based social impact bonds. At Saïd Business School, what I’ve appreciated about the learning style is the ability to balance both theory and practice.

Nikhil and his peers in traditional Oxford exam attire.

Nikhil and his study group on the MBA.

Systems Change

The issues social entrepreneurs work on are extremely complex and involve many stakeholders with diver interests. Tackling complex problems like climate change can seem overwhelming because of the complexity of the problem itself. Systems change constitutes studying how systems work, identifying stakeholders that are part of a system, understanding their preferences and identifying inflection points in the system where an intervention can lead to a significant impact. At the Skoll World Forum, I had the opportunity to also meet system entrepreneurs who are working in the field of systems change, in organizations such as Participatory Cities and Forum for the Future.

Moving forward, I will be spending the summer researching systems change and meeting practitioners to undertake landscaping research with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship.

This past year has given me the opportunity to step back, reconsider the impact of my work, and inform my opinion by giving me a broad exposure to topics that are interrelated to my work. Although the year has gone by unbelievably fast, it has also reformed my perception of the world. There are an uncountable number of people of all ages and professions, who are working to help realize the world of the future. It’s a world that includes autonomous electric vehicles, distributed ledger technology and a global shift towards renewable energy.

The opportunity for me to be at the center of this transition has been made possible with a Skoll Scholarship and it will continue to shape my thinking as I transition out of Oxford, back into the world.

The Circular Economy Skills and Challenges – Paola Migliorini

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.

Paola Migliorini Head shot

Paola Migliorini

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 LoopCircular 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.

Skills

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.

Challenges

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”.

Check out circulareconomycircus.com to stay updated on everything Circular Economy. 

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The Circular Economy Skills and Challenges – Karolina Kalinowska

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.

On a recent trip to Brussels, Frances Christodoulou (MSc Environmental Change & Management, School of Geography & the Environment) caught up with Karolina Kalinowska, a policy officer with the European Commission who has spent a year working on the European Union’s Circular Economy Strategy.

Head shot of karolina kalinowska

Karolina Kalinowska

Karolina is keen to tackle society’s big challenges through international policy. With an academic background in human and environmental sciences, Karolina applied to the EU Commission’s blue book traineeship. Accepted into the Directorate-General for the Environment, she was assigned to the Circular Economy unit. This unit was tasked to implement the EU’s flagship Circular Economy Package, a scheme adopted in 2015 to enable Europe’s transition to a more circular, sustainable economy.

In collaboration with colleagues from the Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry, Karolina was involved in high-level stakeholder meetings and workshops. Meeting with industry to discuss their needs and how the EU viewed the circular economy transition was central to her role.

“When you deal with any sort of transition it’s not easy, although it was surprising how much the industry was actually wanting to have this transition enabled,” Karolina explains. “Environmental protection is more and more on people’s minds. People recognise that business is a big part of environmental degradation, but also a means for safeguarding the environment. And industry themselves realise that resources are finite.”

By harnessing these ideas, the EU Commission aims to facilitate the transition to a circular economy. Building on concepts of eco-design and efficiency, the idea is to create an environment in which businesses and entrepreneurs are empowered to develop circular business models. “Closing the loop” helps businesses maximise the value of resources and wastes, while creating benefits for both the environment and economy as a whole.

Skills

As a policy officer with DG Environment, Karolina found her analytical and technical background very useful. However, her abilities to negotiate and apply “holistic thinking” were vital when it came to interacting with stakeholders and developing policies.

“For example the development of the Plastic Strategy involved months and months and months of public consultation, stakeholder meetings and really working with the sectors that would be affected,” says Karolina. “You need a balance of interests to push something through”. Having the skills to negotiate with different actors, while thinking holistically about the issues, are central to successful policy implementation.

On the job, Karolina developed the communication skills needed to deal with stakeholders pursuing different roles, purposes and ambitions. She learnt how to write “very concise briefings” to convey EU policy and key arguments, quickly and succinctly to varied audiences. She also developed stakeholder awareness, always “thinking from what angle should we approach these people; what are their interests?” Dealing with both NGOs and for-profit industry the “need to meet conflicting interests” was at the forefront of her work, making communication key.

Challenges

There are still many barriers to realising the transition to a thriving, circular economy. For businesses, Karolina identifies the challenges as “largely technical”.  Many companies have limited technical expertise to implement sustainable practices, and often “circular” solutions are not yet fully developed. Capital costs can also be a barrier, since often new technologies are “more expensive at the beginning, as…with technological transitions in general”. This is where the EU plans to act as facilitator and enabler by providing funds and financial support for research and innovation.

What are the challenges Karolina sees for policy makers pushing a circular economy agenda? At the fore is the need to manage conflicting interests and negotiate trade-offs in a political environment. In the EU, the need for 28 member states to cooperate and agree for policy to be implemented is a major challenge. The Council (comprised of the heads of member states) “aren’t willing and can be even less ambitious than…the private sector” when it comes to environmental policies, posing a massive challenge to progressing the circular economy agenda.

With enthusiasm for the circular economy growing and more business eager to get involved, Karolina worries about the possibility of “greenwashing”. Circular economy is a powerful concept with the ability to drive much needed change. However, “it can often be misunderstood; [used as] a catch-all phrase”, says Karolina, and as a concept has the potential to be hijacked by companies who wish to project a “green” image, while doing very little for the environment. But this doesn’t mean we should shy away from encouraging businesses to adopt “circular” practices.

And with all this talk of international policy and the European economy, has Karolina’s relationship with waste at a personal level been affected at all?

“Hugely,…inevitably you learn so much”, says Karolina. “And also when you realise that in Brussels the waste management is absolutely rubbish [*Ahem*], you start thinking about your own personal choices”.  Not being able to recycle most plastics, Karolina now tries to avoid single-use plastic, shops at the local, package free market and seeks out Eco-label products.

Small steps, to be sure. But even these small lifestyle choices show the potential and desire to implement a more circular economy. There is massive scope for creativity and innovation within this space and policy-makers and business alike are at the forefront of driving this change.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and interlocutor and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the European Commission.

Check out circulareconomycircus.com to stay updated on everything Circular Economy.