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Ellen MacArthur Foundation Taps Top Grad Students to Advance the Circular Economy

Innovation often comes from those who have not yet become entrenched in the status quo — they are better-positioned to recognize effective solutions that might otherwise be overlooked or seen as too as too radical by the already-initiated.

This is doubly true when it comes to innovating for the “circular economy,” which is quickly moving from the fringe to the forefront of sustainable business thought. It is the idea that today’s take-make-waste consumption patterns should be eschewed for a more restorative process, where products are designed and marketed with reuse in mind.

In January 2014, the World Economic Forum (WEF) in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), released a report that contends over US$1 trillion a year could be generated for the global economy by 2025 and 100,000 new jobs created within the next five years if companies focused on building circular supply chains to increase the rate of recycling, reuse and remanufacture.

The report also highlights a new WEF initiative, Project Mainstream, which could help businesses to shift towards a circular economy, with the potential to save US$500 million in materials and prevent 100 million tons of waste globally.

A separate report released in January by the Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and the Green Alliance concluded that the continued development of resource-efficient business activity, such as recycling, reuse and remanufacturing, could create demand for over 200,000 new jobs across Britain alone between now and 2030.

In other words: the circular economy could be big business.

But realizing the circular economy’s potential will not be easy — it will require radical new ways of thinking, and doing business.

Global Grad Students Take on Global Problems

In recognition of this reality, EMF partnered with the Schmidt Family Foundation in 2013 to launch the Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship Programme, which is designed to develop the skills and innovative thinking required to transition to a circular economy.

In March, EMF announced the three Wild Card winners who have been awarded places on the 2015 Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship programme alongside the 15 students joining them from its Partner University network. Usually offered to one individual, EMF said this year’s entries were “of such a high standard” that three students were chosen to form part of the 2015 Fellowship cohort.

This year’s winners are Susanne Mira Heinz from Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Germany; Neil Spencer from the University of Liverpool, UK; and Liudmila Kokoulina of St. Petersburg State University, Russia.

"I applied for the Wild Card competition because the circular economy and the diverse concepts it embraces (cradle to cradle, biomimicry, service economy, natural capitalism, benign by design, etc.) gave crucial direction to my academic curriculum,” Heinz said in a statement. “I am fascinated by the idea of a circular economy to use the performance of a product rather than owning it, while keeping defined materials in the manufacturers’ ownership.”

Identifying Future Circular Economy Leaders

Now in its third year, the Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship continues to grow globally. In 2015 EMF will welcome 18 students from 12 countries to build and share knowledge on the circular economy through collaboration and an extensive, yearlong learning program.

The Fellowships are open to postgraduate students from a global network of 14 partner universities in the US, UK, Mexico, France, Italy, China and India. Students and academic mentors from these universities will take part in an intensive London-based summer school program before returning to their university to focus on a postgraduate Circular Economy Innovation Project.

Last year, EMF also launched the Circular Economy 100 (CE100), a three-year program aimed at bringing together a network of 100 leading companies globally to facilitate development and commitment to new circular economy projects. The CE100 will provide executive education on key themes and emerging trends, share knowledge and new learnings, and identify and develop solutions to common challenges. The objective is that by 2015, participating companies will have triggered circular initiatives that will result in an aggregated economic benefit of $10bn for the businesses involved.

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