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Interview #7 : The new face of ecoinnovation in Italy

Posted on: 12.12.2018
by The EREK team

Ecoinnovazione srl is a research spin-off of ENEA, the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development established in 2012. Sustainable finance, resource efficiency, circular and sustainable economic strategies, methods and tools are at the heart of Ecoinnovazione’s research and innovation activities. Tools typically offered to large and small enterprises include environmental footprint and social life-cycle analysis (LCA), life-cycle costing, self-assessment templates and benchmarking cases, energy/material audits and calculators, environmental certification support, and more. Active in agriculture, industry and the service sector, Ecoinnovazione projects cover engineering, environmental science, architecture, economics and management, and other fields involving complex sustainability and environmental assessment.

Ecoinnovazione’s core value proposition to the EREK community is a set of  customised services and solutions in energy, materials, water, waste and carbon emissions. Its growing team of researchers and analysts apply the most advanced scientific methods in line with national and European policy and regulatory developments.

 

EREK News asked Ecoinnovazione’s President Paolo Masoni to paint a picture of resource efficiency in Italy today and how his firm supports especially smaller companies making the transition to a circular economy and eco-design thinking.

  • What are the most pressing challenges related to resource efficiency faced in Italy today?

Italy is quite low in natural resources, so Italian firms are instinctively quite efficient in the use of resources and energy compared to other countries, to keep costs down. The main challenge Italian firms are facing is how to get value from co-products, residues and waste. In that respect, they have to tackle not only technical but also regulatory, organisational and market-related issues.

  • What is Ecoinnovaziones approach to working with SMEs in particular?

We take advantage of our team’s vast experience in research, innovation and technology transfer projects, which has matured into our own method based on a step-wise approach: awareness, scenario analysis, measurements, improvement actions and communication. For example, we recently helped a small business identify the best strategy, from an environmental and socio-economic perspective, for the industrial scale-up of its innovative process creating high-value products from agro-food residues. In other ways, we show firms how they can leverage knowledge on efficient resource use in their value chain and environmental certification to gain a competitive market advantage. 

  • Which services/tools that you offer work best for SMEs and why?

We develop and apply life-cycle-based methods and tools for quantifying the environmental and socio-economic benefits of eco- and sustainable innovation interventions. In addition to providing sound scientific evidence/data, these methods help to avoid the risk of ‘problem shifting’ associated with using a single indicator analysis. They are the very basis of quality certification schemes for products on the market and for increasing brand reputation. Thanks to our strong links with the research community and policy-makers, we are able to offer the most advanced solutions with a clear view of future technology and policy developments.

  • Have you learned any tricks from your research origins that help your clients tackle more complex resource efficiency tasks?

Yes, a clear message is that the problems the firms are facing cannot be addressed with a simplistic approach. Certainty, the solutions have to be simple, applicable and clearly understood by the firms, but the problems have to be dealt with considering their complexities. Another important message is that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution for the problems they face. For example, bio-based resources are not always environmentally preferable to mineral or fossil ones, as it depends on the context of use and on the problem that is going to be addressed. There could be issues of burden shifting (i.e. we decrease the impact on climate change, but we increase eutrophication), and firms must be aware of this complexity to make well-informed decisions, and they have to know the leverage points they can work on for further improving their performance. We strongly recommend our customers to perform at least a screening LCA of the possible alternatives at the earliest stage of the development, in order to identify possible trade-offs (that are very common) from the start and to develop strategies for optimising the approach. The earlier the better: that way more options and less expensive solutions can be identified!

  • Are there any special skills or traits that your experts/analysts must possess or develop to help businesses (large and small) think more in terms circular economy?

Our personnel are very qualified and experienced, even though they are young. All of them have a PhD or equivalent experience, and actively participate in research networks and activities at international level. Moreover, they are convinced of the need to shift towards more sustainable patterns, starting from the urgent need to mitigate climate change and increase the efficiency of our economy. They are all used to thinking from a system perspective: robust and simple solutions are possible only after deep analysis of the complex variables, to avoid heading in the wrong direction. Another very important characteristic is the ability to work in multidisciplinary teams: we are experts in eco- and sustainable innovation processes and methods, but we need to work together with technology experts (both internal and external partners) to provide the best results for our clients.

  • How aware is Italian industry of eco-design and circular economy principles? (What do you recommend needs to be done to change this? How can EREK help?)

While they are already quite efficient in the use of resources, Italian firms are not always aware of the potential of eco-design and how they can exploit the possibilities offered by the circular economy. Unfortunately, for most people, the circular economy is understood as limited to recycling waste. For that reason, awareness campaigns are vital, and indeed, this is almost always our first exchange with customers (showing them the opportunities offered by eco-innovation processes). A platform such as EREK plays a fundamental role, disseminating examples, best practices and acting as a contact point with experts.

  • Anything else you want to share with EREK readers?

Ecoinnovazione is investing a significant part of its internal resources in developing the Social Life Cycle Analysis (S-LCA). This year, we jointly organised the 6th world conference on that subject in Pescara, bringing together not only delegates from academia but, for the first time, also industry players and policy-makers. There is an increasing need to integrate social aspects into business operations and product development, but we are missing a robust metric for accurately quantifying benefits, risks and burdens. S-LCA, developed by the UN Environment, is already capable of closing this gap, even though it is still at a pre-standardisation stage, which means strong expertise is now needed to develop it in real-world settings. Ecoinnovazione is applying S-LCA in several projects after having contributed to the internalisation of the process in a leading multinational company.

Lastly, I would like to mention that presently, in a personal capacity, I am working for the European Commission as a member of its Technical Expert Group on Sustainable Finance, helping to define a ‘taxonomy’ or reliable classification system of when and under which conditions an economic activity may be considered as ‘green’. I am confident that this and other European initiatives can mobilise much more private capital and sources of finance for sustainable enterprises and projects that are passionate about sustainable production and growth.

 

“The main challenge Italian firms are facing is how to get value from co-products, residues and waste. In that respect, they have to tackle not only technical but also regulatory, organisational and market-related issues.”