‘Upcycling’ business: honouring nature while meeting society’s needs

A new fellowship seeks to bring young designers and engineers together to reinvent the economy with a sustainable philosophy
by William McDonough, published in the Guardian December 6, 2013

In a watershed event in the emergence of the circular economy, hundreds of business leaders, educators and entrepreneurs joined to celebrate the launch of The Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship.

The fellowship is an international postgraduate programme on the circular economy, pairing students and academics from leading universities in Europe, India and the US for year-long research and design projects. Its co-founder, Wendy Schmidt, said it was established “to promote a revolution in education and equip the next generation of designers, engineers and inventors with the skills and innovative instincts they need to create a regenerative global economy”.

Along with Walter Stahel, The Performance Economy; Janine Benyus,Biomimcry 3.8; and Fellowship co-founder Ellen MacArthur, The Circular Economy 100, I was there with Michael Braungart, representing our concept, Cradle to Cradle.

In the inaugural address, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman and former CEO of Google, noted that education and innovation have always been the solution to the world’s problems. He imagined a generation of young designers and engineers, led by the fellows, figuring out “subtle strategies” to create a productive, regenerative economy, unleashing a wave of “business opportunities, investment, creativity and dynamism” comparable in scale to the tech revolution in Silicon Valley.

We need that kind of creativity and dynamism, now more than ever, to generate ecologically intelligent economic growth that meets the needs of all the world’s citizens while honouring the laws of nature. The fellows’ “subtle strategies” will produce good growth – long-term, meaningful, regenerative growth – because their strategies will be built on principled innovation.

The academics mentoring the fellows, along with other thought leaders working on the circular economy, are building the frameworks for principled innovation. They are values-based frameworks, purpose-oriented and attentive to social and ecological concerns, and they yield profitable, restorative products and services because they are modeled on the structures and cycles of living systems. Like Cradle to Cradle, they have nature’s principles in their DNA.

From a design perspective, Cradle to Cradle’s principles most often associated with the circular economy – the continuous re-use of safe products and materials in biological and technical cycles – provide a platform for upcycling economic growth. When Braungart and I first used the term “upcycling”, we were referring to the improvement of product quality from one cycle of use to the next.

But as we observed how a company’s commitment to Cradle to Cradle standards – to material health, renewable energy, clean water, reusability and social fairness – generated productive synergies and a wide spectrum of economic, ecological and social value, we began to see upcycling as a vital, life-affirming pursuit of quality at every scale.

As Francis Crick pointed out in Molecules and Men, life likes to grow, take advantage of the free energy of the sun, and operate in an open metabolism of chemicals for the benefit of organisms and their reproduction. Life seeks more of itself, wastes nothing and engages fruitfully with its surroundings. Flows and metabolisms create recurrent wealth from solar income: oxygen-rich air, fertile soil, clean water, photosynthetic growth, food and energy. Recurrency. By design, we can seed, support, and widely share these nutrient and energy flows that animate Earth’s natural cycles of regeneration.

In economic terms, upcycling transforms conventional notions of growth and productivity, generating recurrent energy and material capital formation and flow. The most powerful enterprises, seeking continuous improvement and regenerative, beneficial interactions with the world, create economic growth through principled innovations that support the lives of future generations and species other than our own.

They keep valuable materials in continuous use and reuse cycles, harvest more clean energy than they consume, build factories with rooftop gardens that feed their employees, and design landscapes that capture rainfall, slow and filter stormwater, restore soil health and provide habitat for native species. Good growth.

Innovations such as these upcycle the economy. Ecological and social benefits accrue. Some of these benefits are measurable by standard economic metrics – if an innovation fails as a business concept, then it fails, period – but many quite valuable benefits are not.

And so the big design question, the transformational design question, is not old-school capitalism’s refrain – “How much can I get for how little I give?” – but rather: “How much can we give for all we get?” How can I design an enterprise, or a strategy, that provides more recurrency, more multi-dimensional value? More clean water, more fresh air, more connectivity, more health, more jobs, more energy, more fun.

“How much can we give for all we get?” That’s one of the questions I know the Schmidt-MacArthur fellows will be asking as they rethink economic growth and set about inventing the future. As Eric Schmidt told the fellows: “In addition to working on something important, get ready for a really powerful ride.”

William McDonough is an adviser, designer, thought leader and co-author of books including Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, and The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance. He tweets @billmcdonough