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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

26 April 2022 - CISL supported the UKRI Circular Economy Hub (CE-Hub) as it hosted its first annual Circular Economy Showcase. CISL’s Emma Fromberg and Jie Zhou review the biggest takeaways from the key speakers, and the wealth of sustainable innovations shared by startups and entrepreneurs.

Supported by Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), CE-Hub hosted its first annual Circular Economy Showcase. This event featured high-profile expert speakers, as well as circular startups showcasing innovative circular actions and solutions through a series of short talks and panel discussions, with audience Q&A.  Three key topics were thread through the day: 

  • Circular design 
  • Circular innovation  
  • Circular industrial 

Missed the event? Don’t worry, in this blog, we aim to share with you the key takeaways from the day and quotes from our excellent speakers. At the event, the CE-Hub launched their second round of funding for Feasibility studies to accelerate CE research, innovation and implementation. For more information, visit the CE-Hub website.   

If you are a startup and would like to get involved, CISL is running an in-person Circular Disruptor Accelerator delivered through a two-day immersive workshop and facilitated networking sessions, followed by 1-2-1 tailored mentorship. Places are limited and recruitment on a rolling basis, so apply today and secure your place. 

Key takeaways from the Circular Economy Showcase: 

The fundamental and instrumental role of design in shifting to the circular economy.

Professor Sharon Baurley, kicked off the first session on the role of design and importance of it: “Design is the architect of the circular economy”. Designers have many great skills. Since the 1960s-70s, they have been so good at making people want things, so next can designers make people want the right things? 

“Everything is designed, and we are surrounded by stuff that is designed by someone. I am interested in how to turn the design of food into a positive force for biodiversity.” Gaelle Le Gelard, a designer at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation focuses on food systems - designing food for nature. She explores questions such as “how can your breakfast cereals help address biodiversity or your coffee tackle climate change?” 

Beyond product and service, design through a systems lens.

There was an emphasis on the holistic view on design: it is not merely about the product, but the focus on the system. The supply chain is catalytic when it comes to driving systemic change. The consensus was that more collaboration is needed between practitioners and policy makers and ownership and accountability needs to be established of supply chains.  

As Philip Mossop at Pentatonic said “the challenge is the infrastructure to support it, not just the product, but how to transport it, how it is used and disposed of ''. This opens the opportunity of redesigning everything, not just design for the aesthetic and appearance, but also design within a circular economy. 

Gaelle Le Gelard at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said: “if you have a leakage in a room, do you start by mopping the floor or turning off the tap?” Referring to upstream intervention: change at the early stages in the design process is much more impactful than later on in the process when you already deal with waste. A whole life cycle approach that includes service design will allow the prevention of waste. “You can have a great circular product, beautifully designed, but they still end up in the bin if you don’t think through the service component.” 

The most powerful tool is changing our mindsets.

Dan Dicker at Circular&Co. emphasised the importance of changing our mindsets. He mentioned: “When you are dealing with big corporations, you are up against old-school and established mindsets. They can be barriers, since these influence the systems structures that are put in place and these mindsets also impact what change looks like.” To achieve a real circular economy, it requires a system-level and paradigm shift from business –as usual linear economy which is acknowledged by many speakers.

CE also spurs innovation and a wealth of entrepreneurial opportunities in certain geographic areas.

Entrepreneurship has been recognised as a major conduit for sustainable products and processes, and new ventures are being held up as an answer to many social and environmental concerns. In the session we heard from a wide range of startups and SMEs in different sectors, including fashion, technology, built environment and the food sector.  

  • Tara Button presented her Buy-Me-Once SME advocating product longevity and long-term sustainable buying.  

  • Greg Lavery from Rype Offices emphasised that 30 per cent of the environmental footprint of built environment is furniture. Through refurbishment and remanufacturing they keep value high as long as possible.  

  • Jake Arney from Tech-Takeback focuses on redistribution of electrical items. Creating value with what is there: providing electronics to children that are schooling from home or refugees for example.  

“We are part of a generation in transition towards purpose”. Thami Schweichler at Makers Unite reiterated these social dimensions and referred to a cultural wave. Social inclusion is a fundamental element of any circular economy and therefore requires us to look at society in a broader way than merely a group of consumers. Mark Miodownick at UCL challenged the word “consumer” which is problematic. People in a circular economy are citizens, makers, recyclists, repearist etc with purpose - not merely consumers. Kresse Wesling from Elvis & Kresse is clear about the role of fair pricing. She said, “When I see a bag and it is priced cheaply, I know it is because of exploitation and environmental degradation.” The panel also raised that governments should act as a convener and facilitate the connection between different stakeholders in the economy.  

Hugo Spowers at Riversimple reflected on what the real innovation challenge is for them, saying: “the real challenge is not technical, but inertia in the politics, the people and the commercialisation of advanced technologies.” His SME tries to do things different from the established industry - driven by what he calls “stubbornness”. There is also a need for a longer-term view on business and it is key to keep balance of the interest of all stakeholders in mind. This ultimately also affects how decisions are being made within the company and what is valued. 

Toast Ale rounded up perfectly the importance of a positive approach to circularity. Louisa Ziane said: “If you want to change the world, you need to throw a better party than those destroying it.”  

What’s next? 

If you are a researcher: 

For more information and to keep up to date with NICER Programme and CE-Hub events, news and more, visit the CE-hub website and subscribe to their eNewsletter.  

If you are a startup: 

As part of Circular Economy Week 2022, CISL is running a two-day programme which brings together a select cohort of early to growth stage startups seeking to scale their circular solutions. Delivered by cross-industry leaders and circular experts the programme aims to strengthen your circular value proposition and support business development. Applications close Wednesday 11 May. 

Apply for the Circular Disruptors Accelerator

About the authors


Jie Zhou joined in 2021 as Programme Manager for CISL’s Accelerator. With more than ten years’ work experience in both UK and China, Jie is passionate about bringing together leading businesses, governments, investors and emerging innovators to accelerate sustainability innovations.



Emma is the Course Director of the Postgraduate Certificate and Diploma in Sustainable Business at CISL. She has a background in design engineering, with expertise in learning design and circular economy. As a Course Director, she is interested in how business professionals can deliver system-level change to support the transition to a more regenerative, accessible and abundant economy. Besides her work at CISL, she is a doctoral candidate at Delft University of Technology. In her research, she explores how, through higher education, mindsets could and should shift to grasp the systemic nature of circular economy challenges.

Circular Disruptors Accelerator


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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