How individual circular pioneers can create a ripple effect

Thursday 23 July 2020

We sent a team of journalists and experts out to talk to Open Call project owners about their grant project. We used their findings for internal evaluation, the start of an external impact analysis, and an article series about the lessons learned. This article is the fifth in that series.

Circular Flanders’ Open Call supports experimental projects related to circular economy. We’ve launched the Open Call for the third time, and are supporting around 200 projects, the support totalling 16 million euro. The projects are diverse: from civilian initiatives, through business projects, all the way up to local government innovation projects. ‘Well that’s all very well,’ you might think, ‘but what’s the result?’ In order to answer that question, we let loose a team of journalists and experts to talk to project owners about their subsidized projects. We used their findings for an internal evaluation, the start of an external impact analysis, as well as a blog series about lessons learned. This is the fifth in this series.

Behind the Open Call projects there are people, changemakers. Often they’re pioneers who take their organisations with them, and put their necks out for the sake of achieving their vision. They mobilise people, determine the strategy, and roll out the project together with their partners. Ode to the pioneers! But what are the dynamics behind this ripple effect, and are there any risks connected to it?

Captivating story

People are storytellers, stories have bound us since the dawn of time. Stories have the power to get people to come along with you.

When a personal story is linked to entrepreneurship, it proves to be a strong engine for change. Toontjeshuizen from construction firm Durabrik, is one of the projects where this was certainly the case. Toon Callens is the son of the CEO of Durabrik, Joost Callens, and needs a home customised to the care he needs. The company now builds customised, circular homes for people with a disability, to facilitate independent living. The personal drive of the CEO truly inspired people, which Steven Vanden Brande, sustainability manager at Durabrik, can attest to: ‘We see people from the company take on this challenge purely out of goodwill. Our lawyer Charlotte works non-stop during her normal days at work, but for Toontjeshuizen, she sacrificed her evenings as well. Those hours and that work was not registered anywhere, but they’re there. It seems that people are willing to go the extra mile even in a corporate environment. I don’t think we realise just how much resonance this project has with our employees.’

A circular story that connects people can also give the extra nudge to colleagues with (additional) circular ambitions. At Fluvius, the project with digital metres definitely lit some fires within the company. Tom Rosseel tells us: ‘Being engaged with circular economy has a kind of pull factor. We wanted to tackle the metres in this project, but then colleagues started thinking: what can we do with the plastic casing? People come up with their own ideas “why don’t we tackle this as well?” We see a psychological twist here and there, and other projects pop up with a similar point of entry. Some colleagues started a group to revive second hand stuff within the company, for example.’

The sector follows

Some circular pioneers take their sector along with them. Biodigester Tim Keysers at Arbio combined techniques from abroad to cultivate a new solution in fertiliser processing. He received an innovation award which garnered a lot of attention in the agricultural press, which led to interested colleagues who want to recover their nitrogen in a similar way. ‘Occasionally we have visitors from other installations with available warmth, who show a lot of interest. I love brainstorming with them about future initiatives.’

We see the same story at Valipac, the sector federation for industrial packaging. Their call for a circular innovation project around shrink hoods initially didn’t receive a lot of response, barely enough to get the project started. But the recycling project exceeded expectations and the story went around. Now, Valipac gets questions from businesses who want to try similar or new projects in the same vein.

HNST moved boundaries in the durability of jeans. Their first collection was created by organising a collection event. In two weeks’ time, they got 6.000 pairs of old jeans. For the jeans, Tom Duhoux and his team looked for the most durable solutions for raw materials, colouring, finishing, distribution and return processes, and brought these together in a chain. This chain is aimed at reusing waste as much as possible. This remarkable story of collaboration inspires inside and outside of the sector. ‘I often get invited to speak about jeans at conferences,’ Duhoux says. ‘We were asked to join the Alliance for Responsible Denim, which large brands like MUD Jeans, Nudie Jeans, and G-Star are a part of. A true honour for a small label like ours. Recently, the BBC filmed here for a series about sustainable fashion. We notice people really want to know how we approach it. That’s what we do it for, really.’ HNST won, together with yarn producer ESH, a ‘Henry Van de Velde award’ for their concept and for the collaboration.

Smarter together

Driven changemakers succeed in gathering everyone behind a cause, and coming up with projects that are greater than what they could achieve individually.

Magda Peeters organised repair cafés for eight years before she started MAAKbar, a tools library in Leuven which is run by volunteers. Peeters brought social organisations, the community, and the necessary partners together in order to direct everyone towards the same goal. In just three months, the volunteers transformed a small town house in the Tiensestraat into a vibrant meeting space, under Peeters’ management.

Identifying and engaging available knowledge with different parties is a strategy that a lot of projects in the Open Call embrace. When Durabrik started with the Toontjeshuis concept, they started talking with caregivers, and it became a co-creation project. This isn’t common in real estate development, but it’s proving to be effective. Project manager Tim Hochepied has seen as much: ‘I don’t know what that is, having a child with a disability, but I’m trying to understand. When you organise a brainwave with all the caregivers, and with parent groups, it’s nice to feel that your building becomes stronger after each of these interactions. We’ll make a lot of mistakes, undoubtedly, but if we’d started construction a year ago, then the building would have looked entirely differently.

Organising talks delivers results. When the iconic Oudaantoren in Antwerp was put up for auction, city developers at Endeavour were concerned that the building wouldn’t get an allocation that would add value to the neighbourhood. They started a Facebook group that went viral: We’re buying the Oudaan together. A neighbourhood movement arose which decided on a bottom-up use for the building. The project got people on the streets - residents, entrepreneurs, designers, real estate experts, and others. Eventually, they didn’t end up buying the building, but the project made their untapped commitment visible, and Endeavour grew into a facilitator of dialogue within the city. They’ve been working on the Open Promotor Platform, a tool which should help residents to develop projects together. ‘We don’t want to wait until the real estate sector becomes more humane or ethical - maybe it will be one day - but we’re empowering residents to say together: “If you don’t, we will.” We want to help residents by giving them the right knowledge, and to facilitate the process that is necessary to develop such a project in a meaningful way.’


Many projects are also innovating the way in which they’re sharing their knowledge and sparking movement in the community.

Scaling up generally means keeping your ideas and products private so you can grow yourself. Today, organisations want to be copied by others more and more. Being copied is a compliment for these innovators, and a sign that they have impact. Wim Hochepied of Durabrik notes: ‘Let’s hope that we’re being copied, then we can really mean something in society.’ The Papillon project aims for international roll-out. The project has strong local roots due to the target audience, the way of working and the local department of community development behind it. Bosch is committed to launch more projects together with local partners as a response to local actors’ requests.

Endeavour hopes that their Open Promotor Platform will be found by, for example, local governments to offer as a service to residents. Maarten says: ‘We’re dreaming of a franchise model in which for example tomorrow an Open Promotor Platform Berlin could be set up if they can meet certain quality standards, just like TEDx, .

GLIMPS and ReaGent wanted to start an ecosystem in Flanders around organic manufacturing (the production of products with the help of organic materials and processes): BioFab Flanders. Through organising open meetups, workshops, and educational events, they mobilised a large network of designers, architects, students, engineers and others to experiment with organic manufacturing. GLIMPS is sharing knowledge about organic materials through open source, in manuals and an online platform: the BioFab Forum.

Guarding boundaries

Pioneering - rushing into the unknown - also means climbing up on the obstacles, catching a lot of wind, and trying to hold your head high. Being at the helm of a project can be exhausting and stressful, and more time-consuming than initially planned.

For a lot of changemakers, their circular experiment is a real exercise in resilience and guarding boundaries. Magda Peeters from MAAKbar can attest to this, as the only paid employee in a volunteer-based organisation. ‘I didn’t take any time off for Christmas, or the summer. If I get the flu in a busy week, that’s a disaster, and that can’t be sustained for a long time.’

Bringing about change is about people. Driven changemakers manage to reach an increasingly large audience with their circular enthusiasm. They’re the drop that spreads out like a ripple across the pond. But that lonely pioneering phase can’t take too long. A supportive network, follow-up, and coaching can make the difference and ensure that a project is sustainable and makes it past the one (wo)man show.

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Written by Isabelle Vanhoutte en Winnie Poncelet