Interviewing Sitra’s Industrial Ecology Expert Lilli Linkola @OSCEDays in Helsinki

The Open Source Circular Economy Days is a global event arranged between June 11 and June 15 in 25 countries around the world. In Finland the OSCEDays culminated in Kiertotalouden kansalaispäivä (circular economy citizen day), where speakers, entrepreneurs, hackers and hippies gathered to talk about circular economy at a very practical level.

The event agenda consisted of various workshops and presentations, with an opening speech from Sitra’s leading circular economy expert Kari Herlevi. Among the different possible activities, attendees had the chance to make their own eco-soap, eat bugs, cook trash-food, make a lamp out of trash and have their clothes repaired in a workshop.

Mealworms being prepared.

Mealworms being prepared.

Ying-Ju Lin selling her eco-friendly soap.

Ying-Ju Lin selling her eco-friendly soap.

I was of course there buying eco-friendly soap, eating mealworms, and letting my inner hippie come alive, but I also got a chance to interview one of the organizers of the event, Sitra’s Lilli Linkola. You can listen to the interview below (in Finnish).

Linkola has a background in industrial ecology and civil engineering, and is currently working as an industrial ecologist at Sitra and as a creative engineer at LesCousines&Osk. She is also actively involved in Open Knowledge Finland, which is a non-profit association promoting the use of open knowledge and advancing the development of open society in Finland.


Industrial ecologist Lilli Linkola.

Could you tell more about yourself, who you are and why are you organizing this event?

My name is Lilli Linkola, I am an industrial ecologist from Sitra, but that’s not the only thing I do. I have studied to become a sustainability engineer, and after completing my industrial ecology degree in Holland, I came back to Finland to gather a group of like-minded people to advance sustainable development in Finland. I am also actively involved in the Open Knowledge Finland association

Please tell us what circular economy is about.

Circular economy is about using resources in a sustainable way, so that materials could be used as long as possible and without depleting them. It means that the materials we use circle within society and economy. It’s also about how we use energy. Energy is basically abundant, because we have the sun pouring energy constantly at us, but we humans are a very peculiar species because we are the only beings on this planet that don’t use sun directly as their primary energy source. I guess we could say that circular economy is about using resources and energy in a more natural way.

When was the idea of a circular economy born?

The idea originated from the scientific study of industrial ecology. Industrial ecology has its roots in the 1980s, while the idea of a circular economy emerged in the 1990s. Later the term became more widely used when William McDonough and Michael Braungart coined the term cradle to cradle in the 2000s, and especially after Ellen MacArthur Foundation demonstrated the economic potential behind the concept.

What is Kiertotalouden kansalaispäivä and OSCEDays about?

These events are about demonstrating how our world and society works, and how we use energy and resources. Circular economy is a very abstract idea and creating the required systemic changes can feel quite overwhelming at first. We want to show people that making concrete changes and influencing the material flows of every day life is possible. Behind the OSCEDays is the ideology of the Maker Movement, which is about doing things yourself and not being solely dependent on technology made by others. OSCEDays is also about networking with other like-minded people and creating change together.

3 Picks of the Week on Circular Economy

Don’t know what circular economy is? Check it out here!


1. Company pick: Purewaste Textiles

Purewaste Textiles is another Finnish company that has taken up to advance a more sustainable society. Purewaste Textiles collects cotton that is left over from traditional cotton manufacturing processes and would normally go to waste. The company sorts the leftover cotton by colour, refiber it and spin it into yarns. This enables the company to produce clothes without using fresh cotton and without dyeing the fabrics. Purewaste Textiles is a good example of the type of businesses that can help us make the transition from completely unsustainable production to a circular economy.

I also found this thing of beauty on the company website: “Wasting such a precious material (cotton) isn’t just intolerable from ecological point of view, but also freaking dumbass from economical point of view.”







2. Book pick: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Michael Braungart and William McDonough.

Originally published in 2002, this book has already become a classic and is a must-read for those interested in sustainable product and system design. Braungart – a chemist – and McDonough – an architect – introduce the idea of cradle to cradle design, which is a holistic approach to designing products and systems. One of the key ideas behind cradle to cradle is that products and systems need to be designed with end use in mind, and that toxins and negative externalities need to be designed out from the bottom up. In essence, the book states that waste, emissions and toxins are a result of bad design, and that we can get rid of them by rethinking the way we design things. 



3. Article pick: Business Metrics to Assess Circularity Introduced by in Circulate.

This article is especially for you who are interested in sustainability and CSR metrics! The article talks about a recent introduction of material circularity indicators, which enable companies to assess their circularity both at product and company level. According to Herrmann, behind the introduced metrics is the two-year Circularity Indicators Project, which brought together European businesses, designers and academics with the aim of developing a set of business circularity indicators.

3 Picks of the Week on Circular Economy

Below are my this week’s picks on circular economy.

Don’t know what circular economy is? Check it out here!


Company pick: Sharetribe Oy

Sharetribe is a Finnish company that allows its users to create marketplaces and sharing economy communities online. Check out this example!


Book pick: Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins.

Natural Capitalism provides insights about redesigning our economic and industrial systems in order to reach sustainability. The book explores themes such as biomimicry, radical resource productivity, service-oriented economy and investing in natural capital.


Article pick: The 5 business models that put the circular economy to work by Jennifer Gerholdt.

The article beautifully summarizes Accenture’s recent report, Circular Advantage, about the five major business models of circular economy. The five business models (1. Circular supplies, 2. Resource recovery, 3. Product life extension, 4. Sharing platforms, 5. Product service systems) are explained with relevant case examples.

Frugal Innovations – Creating More for Less

Last week I had the opportunity to attend apparently the world’s first dedicated seminar on frugal innovations, right here in Helsinki Finland. The seminar was held in April 16-17, 2015 by the Nordic Frugal Innovation Society, at the General Electric Health Innovation Village.


Among the speakers at InnoFrugal 2015 was Navi Radjou, who has written two books on frugal innovations and is also known for his 2014 TED-talk about the same subject.

Before coming into contact with the idea of frugal innovations, Radjou was working as an innovation expert in Silicon Valley, where he helped large companies develop innovations. During his work at the Valley he made an important observation: western companies often use huge amounts of money on research and development without achieving major product or service innovations. A good example of this “more for more” approach is the seemingly never-ending line of new versions of the iPhone.

Navi Radjou

Navi Radjou delivering a TED talk in 2014.

Radjou’s observation about bloated R&D budgets drove him to seek ways to create more for less. He eventually went back to his home in India and started researching how Indian entrepreneurs are creating innovations with limited resources.

His research lead him to dive into the concept of jugaad – Hindi for innovative fix – innovation. Jugaad, or frugal innovation, was a very different approach to product and service development than what we’ve used to in the west. Furthermore, it is something that Indian entrepreneurs are very good at.

So, what the heck is a frugal innovation?

According to Radjou, frugal innovations are about doing more with less. Frugal innovations are products, services, business models or production processes that use significantly fewer resources, but achieve the same level of quality and usability compared to their non-frugal counterparts.

Here is a richer definition by Nesta, the British think tank:

Frugal innovation responds to limitations in resources, whether financial, material or institutional, and turns these constraints into an advantage. Through minimising the use of resources in development, production and delivery, or by leveraging them in new ways, frugal innovation results in dramatically lower–cost products and services. Successful frugal innovations are not only lower in cost, but outperform the alternative, and can be made available at large scale. Often, but not always, frugal innovations have an explicitly social mission.

Based on this definition, frugal innovations are products and services that are lower in cost, outperform the alternative and can be made available at large-scale. Therefore, frugal doesn’t imply cheap, but smarter and more resource-efficient.

Book Jugaad

“Jugaad: Hindi word meaning an innovative fix; an improved solution born from ingenuity and cleverness; resourceful. Also known as zizhu chuangxin in China, gambiarra in Brazil, D-I-Y in the United States, jua kali in Africa, and système D in France.”


One great example Radjou talked about during the seminar was MittiCool refridgerator. MittiCool is a refrigerator that was developed by an Indian entrepreneur, named Manshuk Lal Prajapati. The refrigerator is entirely made out of clay and doesn’t use any electricity, with the temperature inside the fridge 8 Celsius degrees cooler than the room temperature. It can hold vegetables fresh for four days and milk for two. The MittiCool sells for 3000 rupees in India, making refrigeration accessible for poor people (and allows tapping into a huge market).

Another example of frugal innovation Radjou mentioned and which might bring a smile to Finns’ faces is the Nokia 1100. Nokia 1100 was released in 2003 and it is remembered by being seemingly indestructible. While Nokia 1100 had no extra features, the phone was durable, reliable and came with a low-cost, which made it perfect for people in developing countries. Having sold over 200 million units, the Nokia 1100 is one of the best-selling phones of all time.

Using what is abundant to overcome scarcity

What’s important to understand about both MittiCool and Nokia 1100 is the fact that both serve the most important needs of the customer while cutting back on other, often unnecessary features. This is a more user-centered approach to product and service development, as it focuses on the core needs and expectations of the customer.

In the west, companies are used to having access to huge amounts of resources, which often causes companies to use brute force when developing new solutions. However, sometimes limitations can be an important source of innovation. Trying to overcome limitations, most importantly resource scarcity, is the starting point of frugal innovations.

According to Navi Radjou the defining quality of frugal innovation is using what’s abundant to overcome what is scarce.

This requires thinking creatively about what we do have now, instead of fixating on what we lack, and finding ways to use existing assets in a way that creates new value. It also requires understanding what’s really important and trying to find a design that can include the most necessary features.

For example, there is a service called M-Pesa in Africa, which helps people transfer money where there is no internet access. This is possible, because M-Pesa uses good old SMS technology to send payments. While internet access is scarce in Africa, mobile phones are abundant.


The M-Pesa service being sold in a kiosk in Africa.


Another service used in Africa, called M-Kopa, is an example of how frugal innovations often allow people in developing countries to leap-frog into advanced technologies. The M-Kopa III service Solar Home System comes with a solar panel, several led lights, a solar-charged radio and a phone charging station. The M-Kopa is also priced in such a way that even the poor can afford it and gain access to electricity where there is no grid available. Thanks to this service, people have been able to leap-frog from candle light into solar light.

Some final thoughts


Frugal Innovation = Disruptive Innovation?

Frugal innovation sounds a lot like disruptive innovation, a term coined by Clayton Christensen. According to Christensen, a disruptive innovation “allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.”

As frugal innovations enable a lower price point while maintaining the most important product features, the connection between disruptive and frugal is very clear. Both terms involve tapping into new markets by enabling consumers with fewer resources to access a product or a service previously inaccessible to them.

Is more with less enough?

Okay, so frugal innovations can be a really good thing for both consumers and businesses, but what about the big picture? Can frugal innovations help us transform our current, unsustainable economic system to a sustainable one?

Based on initial observations, I think the answer in the short-term is yes, but in the long-term no.

In the short-term we need radical improvements in efficiency in order to reduce our overall resource use and emissions. Frugal innovations can help us obtain higher efficiencies effectively as they can potentially change how whole industries work.

However, in the long-term creating more value for fewer resources spent – or being less bad – is not enough. No degree of efficiency will help us become sustainable if our economies and industrial processes continue to produce harmful toxins, emissions and waste. This is especially true because our economies can grow at such a rate that gains in eco-efficiency can be overcome by the sheer speed of the growth.

Frugal innovations are a good start and certainly necessary. But what we truly need, is a circular economy.



Creative Commons Wakala providing M Pesa service by Development Planning Unit University College London is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Creative Commons Now you can fly with M-PESA ! by cesar harada is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

3 Interesting Picks on Circular Economy

Below are some interesting picks on Circular Economy I wanted to share with you.

Unfamiliar with circular economy? Check out an introduction to the concept!

Company pick: Rype Office

Rype Office is a UK-based company that sells and leases office furniture. What makes Rype Office different is that they offer a buy-back guarantee for their furniture, which makes it easy for companies to recycle Rype Office products. The company also contributes to circular economy by leasing office furniture, which allows companies to easily increase or decrease the amount of furniture.


Book pick:  A New Dynamic – Effective Business in a Circular Economy

The concept of circular economy emerged from the work of different experts working independently on similar ideas. A New Dynamic is an inspiring book that brings these different ideas together in one place, making it an essential read for anyone interested in circular economy.


Article pick: What Will Come First: The Sharing Or Circular Economy?

The article pick of the week was written by Andrew Cave, a business journalist and a contributing writer at Forbes. In the article Cave discusses and makes comparisons between two similar (yet different) concepts: the sharing economy and the circular economy.


I would love to hear some of your picks! If you have books, articles or inspiring organizations in mind, go ahead and share them in the comments section.

Creative Commons Seedlings in Peet Pots by Jackal of All Trades is licenced under CC BY-NC 2.0.