Learning by doing: how supporting experimentation on the field can make the difference

Thursday 2 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 third 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 third in this series.

We’ve already examined a lot of solutions in theory, but they haven’t been tested in the real, finicky world.

Which obstacles do we face on the way to circular economy? Which levers can boost it? New financial, legal, and technological insights are necessary to thoroughly understand all facets of circular economy. We’ve already examined a lot of solutions in theory, but they haven’t been tested in the real, finicky world. Successful circular innovation requires practical testing. Only then we’ll know the ‘unknown unknowns’ and perhaps also encounter some unexpected windfalls. By testing on the terrain we’ll reach applicable knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s a selection from this type of practical research questions from some projects:

  • What are the financial risks linked to renting out products instead of selling? ‘Samenlevingsopbouw West-Vlaanderen’ and Bosch put it to the test in their project Papillon, where people living in energy poverty could rent household appliances at reasonable prices. The project identified several problems with this business model: more research is needed into how to divide these financial risks.
  • Which legal context is needed to offer products as a service? The Limburg-based plastic recycling business Eco-Oh! offered city councils public seating furniture as ‘product as a service’. The city councils, however, had trouble with the calls for tender for services rather than products. They preferred to buy the furniture, and then pay a return fee.

  • How do we launch bioproduction in Flanders? Green space manager Pro Natura and bioproduction collective Glimps mapped out the opportunities and threats for biomaterials in Flanders. In the meantime, they built an ecosystem that opens doors for future biomaterial innovation.
  • Which bottlenecks exist for circular economy in construction? Two organisations found out in their Open Call: BC Architects & Studiesarchitects make construction material from soil that is dug up from building sites. The regulations around this turned out to be a hassle. At the VUB the engineering-architecture department turned an unused student room into an experimentation space ‘Circular Retrofit Lab’ where modular building and ‘product as a service’ are being put to the test.

'Through starting something, you open a path to learning, and you encounter some much desired, though sometimes undesired, side-effects.’ - Tom Rosseel, Strategic employee Fluvius

Unexpected insights

Simply going for something and doing it can lead to unexpected insights. For deconstructing their circular gasmetres, energy distribution firm Fluvius collaborated with social enterprises. Strategic employee Tom Rosseel shares the unexpected progress they made: ‘It was like a domino effect. I had a whole plan about what we were going to do with the metres, and we’d built the project around that idea. But when, at a certain point, a few new ideas popped up, we listened to them and let them happen. For example, we could immediately reuse the connective materials in our metres which had never been connected to the net. That wasn’t a huge surprise, but it was unexpected added value. Through starting something, you open a path to learning, and you encounter some much desired, though sometimes undesired, side-effects.

Steven Desair from the food waste collective Eatmosphere found out what did and didn’t work during the scale-up of food products based on leftovers. ‘Scaling up production is a challenge. By trying you notice that some products decrease in quality, or maybe that it’s just not feasible at a larger scale, or that the pricing isn’t right.’

By doing, you can reach new heights. Magda Peeters from MAAKbar in Leuven also found this out: ‘I’m not an architect who makes designs. I just do, try, fail, experiment, and take whatever works with me.’

Financial space

Experiments require space, both financial and mental. 64% of the projects who received support explicitly mentioned that the support they received via the Open Call gave them the required space to freely test their ideas, and the space to fail.

Tom Rosseel from Fluvius phrases it in the following way: ‘if you want to try new things, you should of course strategise enough in advance, but you can’t lay down all the rules, then you’ll only end up with what you already have. When there are too many instructions that leave no room for creativity, will limit people in what they can achieve. I think it is partly the task of the government to give these types of projects some room to breathe. This way, people can tell everyone ‘hey, I have a good idea, and look, it works!’ Or maybe it doesn’t work, but you’ve still learned a lot.

For diaper manufacturer Ontex, this financial leeway creates a lot of valuable opportunities, according to R&D employee Bart Jansen: ‘We’re really breaking ground here outside of our comfort zone of existing activities, more than optimising our products and processes. We’re doing something new, with a lot of uncertainties. For these types of projects we need flexibility, also from a subsidy provider.’

'I think it is partly the task of the government to give these types of projects some room to breathe.' - Tom Rosseel, Fluvius

Green space manager Pro Natura shook hands with waste management business Renewi in the project ‘From Green Waste to Raw Material’, in which they investigated useful applications for residual flows from green waste. Businesses realise that, in order to introduce organic materials and applications to the wider public, you need long term thinking.

Stephan Claes from Renewi tells us: ‘You have to give the organic value chain time to grow. The fossil chain wasn’t cost or energy efficient in the beginning either. Sometimes I fear that we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater when we’re being too strict in our processes… We know that we can’t compete with fossil materials, but don’t discount us just yet. I’d like the organic chain to get time, and the man or woman power it deserves.’ Nathalie Devriendt from Pro Natura adds to that: ‘We need investments, from governments and businesses, to free up a budget to make those steps.

Mental space

For many, the support Circular Flanders offers is a mental nudge in the right direction. The subsidy adds a quality label, and acts as a vote of confidence. It adds credibility so new partners can be convinced, which can result in more buy-in and more impactful projects. Filip Vangeel at Valipac, the organisation which takes charge of Extended Producer Responsibility in the field of industrial packaging, describes it as follows: ‘Our goal was to bring together the entire supply chain. Thanks to Circular Flanders’ subsidy, we received the ‘mandate’ so to speak, to focus on this and to bring together the right people and to align everyone’s views. For our partners, it was important that we were able to say “the government is behind us.”’

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Written by Isabelle Vanhoutte en Winnie Poncelet