Ellen MacArthur Foundation: catalysing a slow-maturing field

Last week I was the inaugural Schmidt-MacArthur lecture, delivered by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. He was robust, but even more impressive was the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They have really catalysed what had been a slowly maturing field – and I think they have a big decision ahead of them. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is an independent charity focussed on the circular economy. It’s young – only founded in September 2010 – but has grown quickly in its impact. A lot of that is down to the charismatic founder, Ellen MacArthur, the former round-the-world sailor. The story goes she had an epiphany while on that trip: we can all live within the limits of what we have (as she did on the boat) as long as we have a circular economy.

From what I can see the EMF change model has three parts: a clear mission, 3 areas of intervention and star power.

  1. Clear mission that is holds well the tension between specific and ambitious (“aim of inspiring a generation to re-think, re-design & build a positive future through the vision of a circular economy”)
  2. Three areas of intervention, each of which is multi-faceted and that combine together well:
    • Education, primary, secondary and higher. Illustrative initiative: Schmidt-MacArthur fellowship, “post-graduate students and their academic tutors from a select network of some of the world’s top universities to innovate for a circular economy.”
    • Insights and analysis. Illustrative initiative: McKinsey reports on the straight business case for circular economy.
    • Business Innovation: Illustrative initiative: Circular Economy 100, a global platform bringing together leading companies, emerging innovators and regions to accelerate the transition to a circular economy over a 1000-day (3 year) period.
  3. They use Ellen MacArthur’s star power to convening leading thinkers and companies. The lecture was the climax of the Circular Economy Summit, “the largest ever gathering of thought leaders and practitioners to discuss the transition to a circular economy”.. Through the day there had been sessions from McDonough, Braungart, Stahel, Benyus, and many more. There were 250+ folk there. 

Here’s what I am impressed by:

  • The scale, pulling power and speed to having a global reach. EMF have gone from nought to sixty very fast. EMF has been a massive catalyst in a field that had been maturing slowly for decades.
  • Assembling an innovation ecosystem on circular economy: big incumbents and niche; tapping into universities; creating clusters of advisors (McKinsey were very prominent). There is potential for strong re-inforcing feedback loops between the McKinsey reports (on where the biggest opportunities are), the CE 100 (who aim for those opportunities), and the Fellows (who could do the technical innovation).
  • Top-level collaborationsThey’ve put effort into relationships with top mainstream institutions (eg global top universities and McKinsey). 

I was less impressed by the facilitation and event design – the lecture concluded with a panel of 7 prominent people. That is never going to work. But really, that is a very minor criticism of a successful event.

The interesting thing is what EMF choose to do going forward. I’ll bet a lot of their time has been taken up with making this first year of the Fellowships work, and then getting the Circular Economy Summit to be great. Now they can turn their attention to what’s next.

As I see it, they have a big decision to make about what their role is in the innovation ecosystem they have created:
(a) nurturing and growing only, and letting others to do the nitty-gritty; or
(b) nurturing and growing plus doing the nitty-gritty themselves. 

If they choose (a) then they will have a ‘cleaner’ role, holding the space for others and then bringing the best insights into neat packages (for education) and connecting people together (for innovation). The challenge here will be the value proposition can feel woolly (“I pay you to hold the space? What?”) and people in the organisation can be itching to use insights directly.

Hence why EMF might drift to (b), being an advisor as well as holding the space. The challenge there is why will people share insights if you’re going exploit them?

So far Ellen MacArthur Foundation have been a brilliant accelerator in what had been a slowly-maturing field. So, I have to presume that they will make the next call well – that’s the track record. Whatever decision they make, let’s hope they are successful. We need to push the pedal to the metal on creating a sustainable future, and a circular economy is vital to that.


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