In the early evening of Friday 14 April, one by one, a diverse group of a few dozen people – a Colombian here, a few Cameroonians there, along with a handful of Finns and a host of people from about ten other nationalities – filed into a semi-subterranean space located on a relatively quiet side-street in the city centre. Under the shadow of the University of Helsinki’s main building, the assembled group gathered to discuss how to shift global paradigms and transform the way in which the world works.
Yet this was not the secret meeting of some shadowy cabal, but the kick-off of Circulator 2.0, the 2nd edition of the University of Helsinki’s circular economy pre-incubator, and those gathered that evening were members of the latest group of Circulators – a nickname for the programme’s participants coined during its first edition. The event, a festive occasion to set the stage for an intense two-month experience which will see the Circulators work to develop meaningful solutions to sustainability issues both big and small, was a great way to get the camaraderie and exchange of ideas – so central to the success of Circulator 1.0 – going with this new batch.
As the evening’s group of attendees mingled and got to know each other, programme manager Santeri Tuovila looked on, smiling ear to ear. “This is shaping up to be a really good and motivating group,” he said of the programme’s cohort with enthusiasm.
Standing nearby, Alisa Mick, a leading figure in the Finnish circular economy startup sector as the co-founder of the MiXi Center and a member of the Circulator organising team in both editions, agreed: “It’s heart-warming to see that, despite the many challenges we face, there are so many different people who share the same values and vision of making this world a better place,” adding that she looked forward to working alongside the inspiring multi-national cohort of 31 eager circular economy innovators, entrepreneurs, and changemakers “as they strive to create positive change and shift us from a linear to a circular economy.”
Among the participants, the positive energy was palpable, with Circulators introducing each other and their ideas, looking for synergies between their respective skillsets and interests. Already, some were finding potential common ground with others, while others were looking forward to getting to learn and co-create with their newfound peers during the programme’s many workshops.
“I like working in groups,” explained Kim Yrjälä, one of the Circulator 2.0 participants and an adjunct professor in environmental microbiology at the University of Helsinki. Having joined the programme to develop easily replicated and globally scalable ways of creating valuable carbon-storing biochar through biomass pyrolysis, he explained that he felt hopeful that something great could come out of collaborating with his fellow Circulators.
Yrjälä also expressed enthusiasm about finally having resources like Circulator 2.0 at the university to help researchers like him explore how they themselves can commercialise their research: “I’ve been involved with the Biocenter in Viikki since its construction in the early 2000’s, and this whole time I’ve been waiting and hoping for this kind of chance to take research into business. I’d tried setting up my own start-up before, but since there wasn’t really much in terms of support available back then, that project ended up falling by the wayside,” Yrjälä explained. “However, with Circulator 2.0 and the community I’m feeling optimistic.”
In many cases, Circulator 2.0 was also an opportunity for participants to develop their skills and networks as well. For Justin Raj Anthony, who applied to Circulator 2.0 with an idea for using IoT devices to monitor space usage and help reduce the amount of energy that’s wasted by letting those spaces sit empty, Circulator was an opportunity to learn how to take it forward. “I think there’s still a lot for me to learn,” explained the University of Helsinki master’s student in computer science, “But looking at the long term, Circulator offers me a concrete plan to develop my idea.”
Tuovila, for his part, said that he and his organising team was “readier than ever” for this new cohort, having worked hard on developing the programme structure further based on the lessons they’d learned from Circulator 1.0 in 2022.
This improved 2nd edition of the two-month programme will see the Circulators have even more opportunities to work on developing their ideas and co-create than before. “We want to create a positive feedback loop of people actively doing things, learning from that, getting encouraged, and doing more – together.”
Another addition to the programme is its advisory board, a group of experienced circular economy professionals who join the programme to both encourage and guide the Circulators. Having already provided ample inspiration during Circulator 2.0’s call phase with challenges and opportunities, members of the advisory board joined the kick-off event for a spirited panel discussion on circular economy.
Starting off slowly with questions surrounding the present state of the field, the conversation quickly grew more passionate as each of the panellists joined in to bemoan and criticise the extent of greenwashing in the market today. The shared outpouring of frustration highlighted a major problem facing those working in circular economy: too many opportunistic and unscrupulous actors are co-opting circular economy language to pass off their non-circular products as responsible and offering easy – yet ineffective – solutions to difficult problems.
The result? Reduced credibility for those working to legitimately address those problems and shift the world towards a more circular model of consumption. Those aware of the deception will be more hesitant to accept any new circular solutions, and those who aren’t will simply wonder why the true circular solution is more expensive and less easy to adopt than the greenwashed impostor. A consensus among those on the panel seemed to be in that many cases circular simply cannot compete with linear when it comes to price or ease of use. Instead, those working to create new solutions should focus on delivering quality, personality, and demonstrable impact.
When one of the Circulators asked the panel if circular economy businesses had to partly adopt the role of an educator, Carmen Ene, one of the advisors and the CEO of 3stepIT, told the cohort that in order to succeed, they would have to train their customers to think circular. Echoing experiences from her own career, Ene explained that most clients are primarily interested in the easy solution, and that for real change to occur, it’s sometimes the role of service providers to explain why a circular option is the more responsible one.
At the same time Kimmo Rönkä, another advisor and an experienced sustainability consultant, emphasised that for circular solutions to emerge, people’s perceptions and ways of approaching things also need to shift. “Take our built environment, for example. Instead of constantly building new buildings, we ought to think more about how to nurture and care for what we’ve already got,” Rönkä said. “The same transformation which is forcing forestry into continuous cultivation is, in my opinion, what we ought to see in construction, and by approaching it creatively, we can turn our functional cities into organic ones.” For him, once we shift to thinking in this new way is when more and more solutions which support this more circular way of operating will start emerging, and their adoption will become greater.
Following the panel, the Circulators and advisors gathered for some final exchanges and impromptu sparring sessions before calling it a night – the Circulators would meet again the next day at 11 for an activity-filled Saturday, and would need all the energy they could get.
As for the advisors, all were looking forward to seeing the Circulators progress. “It’s a really great group where everyone’s already on the same page,” said Rönkä. “There’s no need to cover basic principles, and I think they’ll be ready to start imagining exciting new solutions right away.” For Terhi Johanna Vapola, another of the advisors and a Managing Partner & Founder at Greencode Ventures, the kick-off’s takeaway was that the batch showed real promise, adding that she “can’t wait to see the directions they end up going!”
Among the Circulators, the mood was equally optimistic. Soon they would properly embark on their shared journey to develop ideas for problems and turn those into meaningful solutions, and it was clear that they all felt up for the challenge.
The Circulators have already taken part in a number of workshops and started grouping up. We look forward to being able to introduce the teams their ideas in a few weeks once their make-up and goals have crystallised.
Circulator 2.0 is the University of Helsinki’s 2-month circular economy pre-incubator programme. The programme’s final will be on 9 June. For any questions related to the programme or how to join future editions, please contact Programme Manager Santeri Tuovila at firstname.lastname@example.org. Circulator is organised in collaboration with the Helsinki Think Company and the MiXi Center, and is powered by the City of Helsinki.