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INTERVIEW #5: Clusters as enablers of the circular economy and resource efficiency

Posted on: 10.10.2018
by The EREK team

Clusters are key business support organisations, and many of them now focus on resource efficiency challenges, helping SMEs to set up circular value chains and implement resource efficiency measures.

We asked Susanne Baden Jørgensen, Chair of the Thematic Group for Clusters in the Enterprise Europe Network, and International Senior Consultant in Agro Business Park (Copenhagen, Denmark) to tell us more about this new focus.

  • How have clusters and cluster organisations taken up the topic of resource efficiency?

Resource efficiency has long been a hot topic for many countries and their business communities. But with climate change now at the top of the agenda, companies must become more resource efficient, beyond the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In accordance with the UN’s Paris Agreement, governments, both local and national, have committed themselves to ambitious efforts in tackling climate change and adapting to its effects. The latest IPCC report shows that there is still a lot of work ahead: countries will launch more programmes supporting a green transition among SMEs, including those supporting cluster initiatives.

SMEs are more and more interested in learning about how to save on energy, material and water costs. They are looking for new and better ways to save resources, and are especially interested in circular business models which could turn their waste into assets.

Clusters and cluster organisations can be the drivers for increased SME resource efficiency. Acting as “matchmakers” between business and science, they create a space of collaboration in which new innovative technologies and products are allowed to develop. All over Europe – and the world – the topic of resource efficiency has been taken up by environment-oriented clusters. Many have adopted the circular economy as a specific focus area and initiate projects in which SMEs can learn about implementing tools for resource efficiency. In the European Cluster Collaboration Platform, 106 clusters are listed as having a full environmental focus.

Regarding clusters, it is now important to demonstrate how they can help SMEs become greener, more innovative, and more competitive. Having a Resource Efficiency focus helps clusters signal to stakeholders that they are in line with national and international strategies. It is also a contention of increasing importance for taking part in public programmes, including EU projects, where a green profile is required.

This emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility can be seen in many sectors. For example, agri-food clusters have worked a lot on how to turn their waste into energy, using biomass technology.

  • How can cluster management organisations support/foster resource efficient business models among their cluster members?

Clusters can foster resource efficient business models among their members by giving them the opportunity to take part in measure implementation projects. Such measures include tools, information and business opportunities that demonstrate new and better ways to be resource efficient and benefit from circular economy business models. This is very much in line with what EREK offers.

  • How can cluster management organisations help develop circular value chains?

Cluster management organisations can help develop circular value chains: a cluster often represents the entire value chain of the sector and thus cultivates links to all relevant parties. They can mobilise the network. Cluster management organisations build bridges between industry and science and thus drive the development of the value chain. In addition, in order to create more innovative solutions, international cross-sectorial collaboration is essential, as seen in the EU INNOSUP projects, where clusters play a key role.

  • What difficulties would a cluster management organisation have to face in promoting resource efficiency?

Implementing resource efficiency tools can be very time and resource consuming for companies. This is especially true for SMEs. Another difficulty has to do with consequences of the financial crisis. In most parts of Europe, companies, especially SMEs, have been reluctant to invest in new technology or to take part in wider projects. The main challenge for a cluster management organisation is to promote its message clearly and precisely. Not only should the implementation be good for the environment, but for business as well: it should stimulate growth seen on the companies’ bottom line.

  • Can you give examples of cluster organisations successfully applying RE or CE techniques/support services?

Yes, the Danish Cluster INBIOM. The purpose of INBIOM is to be a catalyst for innovation and development of new, sustainable biomass-based technologies and companies. Their idea is to create as many valuable streams as possible through existing, and new, value chains,  the main objective being the highest possible production value out of biomass. Another priority is to improve the usage and nutrient recirculation of low value biomass and waste from industry, agriculture and communities. INBIOM handles innovation in all types of biomass; green (grasses, crops), yellow (straw), brown (wood), blue (algae, seaweed), and grey (livestock manure, organic waste). The project BioValue has successfully applied the aforementioned services by targetting the entire value chain from sustainable biomass production to separation and conversion of all biomass components into value-added products: new robust biomass supply chains; new technologies for plant material refinement; new solutions for sustainable production of chemicals, polymers, feed and food ingredients.