Episode 57 Helen Burdett – World Economic Forum

Circular Economy Podcast Ep 57 Helen Burdett – World Economic Forum

Catherine Weetman talks to Helen Burdett, who leads the World Economic Forum’s work on circular economy innovation, including its flagship initiative, Scale360°, and its work on Circular Trailblazers.

The Scale360° program 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.

Circular Trailblazers are the subject of a new report from the World Economic Forum and impact organization ScaleUpNation. The special study was conducted to better understand innovators within the circular economy given the major opportunities they offer, for both job creation and economic development.

Podcast host Catherine Weetman is a circular economy business advisor, workshop facilitator, speaker and writer.  Her award-winning book: A Circular Economy Handbook: How to Build a More Resilient, Competitive and Sustainable Business includes lots of practical examples and tips on getting started.  Catherine founded Rethink Global in 2013, to help businesses use circular, sustainable approaches to build a better business (and a better world).

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About Helen Burdett

Circular Economy Podcast Ep 57 Helen Burdett – World Economic ForumMs. Helen Burdett 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. Prior to joining the Forum, she was a Director at Globality, a SoftBank-funded scale-up bringing digital transformation and artificial intelligence to the procurement industry.

Interview Transcript

Provided by AI – add ~4:15 mins for the finished episode

Catherine Weetman  02:03

Hello and welcome to the Circular Economy Podcast!

Helen Burdett  02:07

Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Catherine Weetman  02:09

And people probably have heard of the World Economic Forum with its high profile in circular economy circles. And it’s seen as an important supporter of the need to go circular kind of raising the bar over time with with businesses large and small. Maybe you could start by giving us a bit of background on the various World Economic Forum circular economy programmes and explain while why the circular economy is seen as so important by the WEF?

Helen Burdett  02:36

Absolutely, the forum was an early adopter and continues to be a big supporter of the circular agenda, if you will, if it’s well within our platform as a public and private platform for global public goods, and really the mission of the forum of improving the state of the world. And there’s a lot that makes sense there. And our programmes range from, as you said, raising the bar with public sector leaders, from ministers and presidents and government leaders to CEOs, C suite executives that can drive this change in large businesses and small vendors, civil society leaders with which we engage. So kind of that raising the bar and improving and increasing the ambition. And then we also have value chain initiatives that are focused on specific materials and specific value chains across plastics and cars and batteries and electronics and more. And cross cutting initiatives where we work with circular and trade challenges and how circular economy can drive the netzero transition with climate initiatives. And one that I’m particularly close to, which is our innovation and technology and circular.

Catherine Weetman  03:51

Oh, great. Sounds like lots lots is going on. And I think you’re right, those cross cutting initiatives are going to be more and more important. It seems only quite recent, that circular economy and zero carbon, you know, became tied together in in more papers. And I think there’s there’s a lot that businesses could use in terms of sector economy approaches to hit their target ambitions as well. So I’m curious to know more about your role, and some of the programmes you’re involved with.

Helen Burdett  04:26

Yeah, that’s one to add to your previous comment about that tie with with climate and circular. Those are two of our most asked after topics by our partners, in terms of how to engage with the forum. And not only are they tied together, but I think they’re then being number one and two respectively. Is is worth noting This is something that is raising in importance to businesses. You see it more and more that though sustainability by many, many terminologies is being a mainstream agenda. And you’d asked me a little bit about kind of my role and how I did. So I co lead our circular economy portfolio, thinking about how that ties in across the forum, as well as a programme called Scale 360. And Scale 360 is our ircular economy innovation initiative. It’s a global programme that’s focused on deriving local action. So we have partners in cities and nationwide initiatives around the world that are applying methodologies and design thinking, for how to prioritise specific challenges in circular at an ecosystem level, whether that’s access to finance, or policy, or what’s keeping circular innovations from scaling and from thriving and from really changing the marketplace. But thinking of it from a macro lens within a specific geography, and then really taking concrete action against those. So we, as the forum provide kind of a global host for that where we can provide the methodologies, share learnings, build the community, scale that programme to more geographies really showcase some of those efforts.

Catherine Weetman  06:16

And I guess sharing the learnings is going to be critically important, isn’t it to help different regions either learn from what works or doesn’t work in other regions, and also start to understand some of the things that might occur for them later in their development, progress, you know, for thinking about the some of the lower cost economies, there’s talk about how they can leapfrog all the problems, or at least some of the problems of the linear economy and go straight from where they are now. You know, or I suppose rather than saying, Go from straight from from where they are now, most of them are already doing things in a more circular way. So it’s how to help them accelerate developments and improve wellbeing and business prosperity without going down the take make waste route, and avoid all those issues. So the Circular Trail Blazers white paper that came out in January of this year, January 2021. That’s a really interesting programme. Perhaps you could tell us a bit more about that.

Helen Burdett  07:25

Yeah, I could kind of take that way back. We, when we were conducting the consultations around how to design Scale 360. With leaders in fourth industrial revolution technologies, leaders in the innovation space leaders in the circular economy space to understand what’s really needed here, I was connected with metal VanDyke of Scale Up Nation, which is an organisation in the Netherlands that really focuses on how to help scale-ups. So scale-ups are kind of your next generation where you’re kind of a little bit more grown up startups, they’ve they’re no longer in the garage, they have their from three to 10 years old, they employ between 10 to 100. With the cut offs that we use, I think you can define them in a few ways. But we’re looking at really high growth companies that have ambition for even more growth and are no longer at that early stage. And thinking about what makes them successful scaling is hard. Only point 4% of startups scale to become the large businesses that they aspire to be at that startup stage. And so

Catherine Weetman  08:31

was that nought point 4% or 4%?

Helen Burdett  08:31

Nought point four [0.4%]

Catherine Weetman  08:35

nought point four, wow,

Helen Burdett  08:36

nought point 4%. So it’s a really small number. And that’s from the startups all the way through. So we’re really focusing on the ones that already graduated from that first bar, and are becoming real businesses, and are on their on their journey to having an impact on a broader market.

Catherine Weetman  08:56

And so what kind of characteristics do they have besides being at that stage of growth?

Helen Burdett  09:04

So I started to describe what a scale-up is. But the circular trailblazers report that you mentioned segments that even further, so we look at scale-ups, then we look at impact scale ups, which is where Scale Up Nation is focused. So these are scale-ups that are having with every unit of sale for their business, a profit and a societal impact. And then we take that a step further, and look at the ones that are trailblazing and then you kind of think maybe what is trailblazing. And so this is having an impact. It’s beyond the lockstep impact of each unit of their product. So they may have societal impact with each unit sold, but they can also undertake tactics to unlock the market for other businesses that can have some of that same positive impact in a number of ways. And then for the white paper then you mentioned we applied the circular lens, so This is where we kind of got together with Scale Up Nation where they have all of these interviews in this research on impact scale ups. And we brought many circular economy experts to say, what makes circular trailblazers different? What makes it harder for them. What are they able to do? And how can they help us transition from the linear economy to the circular economy?

Catherine Weetman  10:24

Hmm, yeah, so it sounds like the bar just keeps getting higher and higher, doesn’t it in terms of what kind of companies can actually make it into into the circular trailblazers category. And so thinking about their ability to impact the market, I guess that could be in a way that helps other companies become more circular by maybe creating a new material or finding a way of recycling something really difficult. That then starts to, you know, reduce the barriers to entry for other companies to do something with that material. But I guess also, those companies could be disrupting the existing marketplace, in a similar way to how in the way we saw smartphones, disrupt films, you know, now hardly anybody’s got got a camera. nobody buys well, professional photographers, I suppose, by photographic film, but nobody else does. And all the kind of digital innovations that, you know, disrupted businesses massively. So I guess there’s a potential for both of those things, isn’t that to do do things in a way that helps everybody else or do things in a way that makes it very challenging for those companies that are stuck on the business as usual path and haven’t kind of, you know, worked out a circular way forward?

Helen Burdett  11:49

Yeah, we think of that sometimes as the linear lock in that it is harder to operate outside of this system that we’ve optimised for the past 200 years that is linear, that some of the tactics that we think about for trailblazers taking on and these are kind of identified as the top five in the report around storytelling for impact. So how to get out there and tell a story that is not only valuable for your business as a impact scale up, but also can unlock the market for others, and have unlocked hearts and minds to be thinking in a more circular way. Now there’s setting that higher standard. So you mentioned that kind of raising the bar, that continues to come up, sharing insights, not being so competitive, that you refuse to share anything that might help others become more circular. Yes, you need to be competitive as a as a for profit business. And we aren’t saying that to be an impact scale-up or a Circular Trailblazer, you need to put your business second, these are all tactics that should be undertaken, while putting your business first initiating that collaboration and then influencing public policy. So it may be changing policies so that your business can be successful, but that also enables other businesses to take on similar models.

Catherine Weetman  13:09

Yeah, and I think policies is such a key thing now, isn’t it? More and more, we’re understanding just how the linear lock in as you, as you framed it, is driven by subsidies and lack of more green focus taxes. So there’s, you know, big incentive for companies to use finite resources and not recycle what they’ve made, and all that kind of, you know, linear behaviour. So in terms of influencing public policy that sounds pretty hard for scale up organisation to do in what kind of ways might they try and do that.

Helen Burdett  13:51

So they can really be about speaking out. Because of where they play in the market, they may encounter challenges that there isn’t much visibility into, you can see on I think, a previous guest of yours, the access materials exchange, they post blogs about some of the EPR schemes, the extended producer responsibility policies that could help their business to be more successful, and the challenges that they faced with long waste contracts. So there are some types of contracting. And I think we saw this as renewables started to gain traction and the old style of power contracts, making it difficult for them to gain ground, we see the same thing for those that are using waste streams and speaking up about it, so it does maybe go back to that storytelling sometimes. But the other side of those tactics is creating ecosystem support. And one of the key ecosystems of word pieces that we’ve identified as giving scallops a seat at the table, that we can’t only have big businesses and governments and talking about policy changes and making changes that work for big businesses. We need to be also listening to not only our scale-ups and startups, but also SMEs small and mid sized businesses.

Catherine Weetman  15:12

Yeah, that’s that’s a great point. And, again, it’s one of the one of the facts that doesn’t come up very often is just the sheer number of people employed by small and medium businesses. And in in the food industry. In particular, it’s, you know, most most farms are run by, you know, single farmers or that they’re small enterprises, not not big business. So it’s really important. And I guess, they just don’t generally have much of a much of a voice or if if there is a voice, thinking of the UK associations, you know, the Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses. I guess, things the message gets so homogenised, because there are just so many businesses in there that are circular trailblazers voice would be lost in a sea of other voices. So and I’m interested to know more about, you know, the stories they tell you mentioned that as the first kind of tactic for trailblazing being good at telling stories are those stories that are targeting investors or targeting customers or something else. I think all of the above, as I kind of mentioned, the big capture the imagination, so that these changes can affect not only their customers and be in relation to their products, but also maybe how customers, whether they be businesses or consumers think about the circular economy and the materials that they interact with on a day to day basis. Polymateria’s “recycle by” campaign is is a good example of this. Polymateria creates safe, biodegradable, new plastics. And they’re recyclable by certain dates. And they actually print ‘recycled b’y dates on them. So it’s important for their business, that people are thinking of it in this way. But it’s also to think about what is the next way that your coffee cup would cup would be used, or the things in your office or if you’re a materials trader, maybe the materials that you’re working with on a day to day basis, it doesn’t have to just be focused on the little things around you. So really getting people to think about the entire use cycle of the of the product and the lifecycle of the product. And so maybe you could give us a few more examples of the kinds of companies that are in circular trailblazers to bring it to life a bit for people.

Helen Burdett  17:44

So I mentioned the Excess Materials Exchange and Polymateria which are two great ones, we call it a few others in the report, encourage you to read it. So I won’t dig too many in too much into those. And I’ll highlight that these are kind of special companies in that in when we think about impact scale-ups, Scale Up Nation identified only 200,000 around the world. And we think of them from Fairphone, in the Netherlands, where they’re changing the way that we interact with with cell phones, Catherine just waved her Fairphone at the screen for me. So we’re clearly both circular consumers here. But they’re consumer companies and EMEA it’s more of a business to business company.

Catherine Weetman  18:35

Yeah, my phone makes regular appearances on podcasts and webinars, mostly mostly on webinars. And that made me think, and you know, midway through something and then I forgot about it that I could do with some other props on my desk. An orange is an example I use I use quite often but of course that would have to have a not not a recycle by date on it. But you know, eat this by date that oranges going mouldy on my desk.

Helen Burdett  19:05

Yeah, I think some of the other examples are kind of harder to have the snack on your desk, maybe. Or Winnow, which I think Jimmy Butterworth may have spoken with you on on a previous podcast, where they’re using AI to think about food inventory. You talking about your orange made me think of this, but they’re really reducing food waste by being smarter about inventory. And it’s something that’s being done in many industries, and not necessarily with a sustainability lens, but it can have this and sustainability outcomes. And it’s about businesses that are working with that type of data. Also thinking circular and applying the circular lens that can be good for the bottom line, as well as good for the planet.

Catherine Weetman  19:54

Yeah, and to quote, Google, not I’m a Big fan of Google, but that it’s summing it up nicely by saying waste is a data problem. And with a lot of the new technology that’s developing around machine learning, AI, you know, better optical recognition and sensor technology and so on, then the companies have got many more tools at their disposal to recognise what’s going through the system and, you know, make sure we’re dealing with it more efficiently and effectively. And so can we talk a little bit more about the Scale 360 system, because I think influencing this public policy is something that’s going to be really critical. Over the next few years, we really need to level the playing field, otherwise, we’re just going to carry on, you know, digging ourselves into this, this big hole where we’re carrying on overusing resources. And, you know, we’re already in a climate and biodiversity crisis, and we can’t afford to get any any worse. So how, how can businesses perhaps, you know, work with other businesses, to create this innovation ecosystem around them to, you know, to help them scale up and help them identify policy problems, and so on.

Helen Burdett  21:22

So that that goes into the initiating collaboration tactic of being willing to work with businesses and be big competitors, or be they outside your own silo. One of the challenges that we see many of our Scale 360 Regional initiatives identifying is around the silos within particular industries, where they’re using the same materials across industries, maybe they have some of the similar waste streams, yet, they don’t necessarily think to talk to each other. And that’s where one of our partners a national programme in shoelace of sofa and industry prepares hosting co creation sessions, where companies are signing NDAs, bringing in data and getting together to really talk about how can we share and create a more circular economy through industrial symbiosis through working across industries and companies, and being willing to come to that table. And we’ve had great response so far, for interest in those sessions, to identify these concrete opportunities, some of which they may be able to action independently, but some of which may then become opportunities that we surface for innovators. And that we we go out and say, who can help solve these, whether through technology or through new business models, because maybe the companies don’t have that in house. So our goal there is really surfacing these actionable opportunities. And that’s one example of how a Scale 360 Regional initiative is taking a concrete action by hosting these co creation sessions. And then following through with the next steps on the core challenge that they identified the cross cross industry and industrial symbiosis. We’ve seen cocreation sessions actually come up in a few different places. Brussels is hosting some similar ones, Turin brought together a network, where within the Piedmont region, there’s a lot of circular activity, but it isn’t quite all coordinated. And so they’ve been working with the regional government there to tie more of those efforts together and sharing learnings at a local level. And these are just a few examples of our, our programmes around the world that have kind of taken on defined, you know, how might we approach this challenge with these stakeholders to reach an outcome, and then driven forward with that?

Catherine Weetman  23:47

I often say that one of the biggest barriers to you know go more circular, particularly around industrial symbiosis and, and finding markets for byproducts or finding recycled materials. It’s just you know, what’s out there. And most businesses haven’t got time to hunt on the internet, or go into the circle lab database and see if anybody’s done something with orange pillow or, you know, whatever other banana skins with whatever other waste they’ve got, and having a having a way to easily find out. What could I, you know, how could I replace this finite material with a renewable or recycled one? Or how what can I do with this problem? That at the moment is a waste problem for me. So, you know, what, what is there out there? What’s in development? And then the next question is, well, you know, where’s the nearest one to me? Who can I collaborate with? And it feels to me that that’s, you know, the the next chunk of the puzzle that we need to solve is an easy way for businesses to find out because it’s at the moment it’s all really a bit happenstance isn’t it? Oh, you know, if you if you happen to be lucky enough to be involved to one of these collaboration and co creation sessions and something pops up, then great, but there must be an awful lot of value opportunities that are just going going on noticed.

Helen Burdett  25:12

I think another challenge with the circular economy is to identify even what are those materials that I should be looking for? When we talk about the circular economy, we’re talking about the whole economy. And that’s really big. And I think sometimes it’s people don’t necessarily know where to start, I don’t necessarily know where to start. And in a given geography, it’s, it’s going to be different. For any company, it’s going to be different. And so I think, taking the time to think through, okay, I’m just going to start here, and then doing it is something that would scale 360, we really encourage, and we try and create those safe spaces and those platforms. So we talked earlier about the policy platforms were in the UAE, there is now a national circular economy council that meets quarterly that has representatives from four different ministries, and each Emirate and thinks about and talks about and drags forward agendas related to their circular economy policy and on these topics. So there’s space for challenges that scale ups or trailblazing companies may have that they could be invited. They can speak to it, it can get surfaced there through Scale 360 and the government’s efforts.

Catherine Weetman  26:31

Hmm, yeah, sounds like that’s vitally important part of the puzzle as well. There’s just so many things that we’ve that we’ve got to get moving on, isn’t that but to kind of accelerate the change? And so Helen, one of the questions I always like to ask people is whether you’d recommend anybody as a future guest for the programme. And I’m guessing that there are lots of people you’re working with, who could, you know, add some value for our listeners?

Helen Burdett  27:04

Absolutely, I would recommend talking to some of these, what we call impact partners. So it’s our Scale 360 leaders around the world to hear what they’re doing directly. You know, I can share with you anecdotes from their programmes, but they can really take you through what it takes to improve an ecosystem for circular innovation. Our Young Global Shapers, our under-30 change-makers community that are driving these changes in cities and our national programme leads around the world I’m sure it’d be interested to talk with you and share some of their stories.

Catherine Weetman  27:36

That sounds great. And, but, I’m really chuffed that we’ve already interviewed one of them Excess Materials Exchange, one of the the trailblazers on the podcast, but be great to talk to some of the impact partners and find out more about the programme. So So yeah, let’s let’s follow up on that. So Helen, how can people find out more and get in touch with you and the various World Economic Forum programmes?

Helen Burdett  28:04

Okay, I’ll give you three ways to do this. One is to engage with our Scale 360 Action Group on Uplink – Uplink is an open digital platform for SDG innovation and collaboration. And we have a Scale 360 group there that is open for you to join, participate in the conversation and hear what’s happening in our programmes. Another is on July 23, there’s a “Cities Go Circular” event, which is showcasing the first four cities to undertake those scale 360 approach and deliver concrete interventions. Those are Bangkok, Brussels, Mexico City and Turin, we’ll be highlighting and showcasing their work and launching the next door to cities at that event. And then finally, if you or your organisation wants to take this kind of action, and is really ready to lead or support a programme, wherever you may be, do reach out through our Scale 360 website.

Catherine Weetman  29:03

Great, thank you. And we’ll put all those links in the show notes at Circulareconomypodcast.co, so people can find out more. And I’m really looking forward to finding out more about the programming as it progresses in the future. And definitely inviting one or more of the impact partners onto the show to hear their stories. So Helen, thank you very much for taking us through all those programmes. It sounds like there’s loads of exciting stuff happening in in your team and across the world economic forum and it’s great to see them really pushing forward on on the circular economy. Thank you very much.

Helen Burdett

Thank you.

Want to find out more about the circular economy?

If you’d like to learn more about the circular economy and how it could help your business, why not listen to Episode 1, or read our guide: What is the Circular Economy

To go deeper, you could buy Catherine’s book, A Circular Economy Handbook: How to Build a More Resilient, Competitive and Sustainable Business. This comprehensive guide uses a bottom-up, practical approach.  It includes lots of real examples from around the world, to help you really ‘get’ the circular economy.  Even better, you’ll be inspired with ideas to make your own business more competitive, resilient and sustainable. 

Please let us know what you think of the podcast – and we’d love it if you could leave us a review on iTunes, or wherever you find your podcasts.  Or send us an email

Podcast music

Thanks to Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow, otherwise known as the brilliant, inventive and generous folk duo, O’Hooley & Tidow for allowing me to use the instrumentals from the live version of Summat’s Brewin’ as music for the podcast. You can find the whole track (inspired by the Copper Family song “Oh Good Ale”) on their album, also called Summat’s Brewin’.  Or, follow them on Twitter.

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