By Milan L. Sadhwani

Our future depends on how we use our resources; we can only progress if we keep learning. Read on to find out what Nicholas Sheum, Head of Design learned during his time at an exciting Circular Futures Lab in London.

Imagine clothes fashioned out of bacteria or furniture constructed from mushrooms. Or what about cheese made out of human bacteria? This is not science fiction, this is real life and happening in the West, as we speak. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, this is the foundation on which the concept of Circular Economy is based upon; a system that practices lengthening the life span of resources or materials by reducing, recycling and reusing.

Circular Economy is seen as a viable solution in executing sustainable development as opposed to our current economy which is more linear with a take, make and waste or dispose of model. Circular Economy or otherwise known as Circularity, effectively closes the loop by creating products that are designed in a way that save the resources we have. This means that they can be easily repaired and stay within the system for longer periods of time or disposed safely, without harming the environment. 

 Going Back to Our Circular Roots
In Malaysia, the term Circular Economy is fairly new but no doubt, gaining popularity. At a recent gathering hosted by the Circular Economy Club, a global organisation that anyone can sign up for free, a lot of the attendees were curious about how and where to start. Many felt that Malaysians were not very clued in on what circular economy is, but that we unwittingly used to practice it. Before plastic came into the picture, we were wrapping nasi lemak in banana leaves.  
 
One participant at the gathering, a practitioner of the Zero Waste Movement (ZWM) had some wise words; she said that maybe it wasn’t about policy, maybe it’s just about starting — saying ‘no’ to plastic bags, learning about food composting or buying your household items in bulk to cut down on the usage of unnecessary packaging. The ZWM in Malaysia also started out of nowhere and is now blitzing social media with 15k followers and growing. 

Inspiring Southeast Asia with European Circularity 

Just going for it is certainly what our friends in the West are doing, according to the experience of Nicholas Sheum, Head of Design at Biji-biji Initiative who was sparked by circular inspiration when he participated in the Circular Futures Lab as a Malaysian delegate alongside other SEA delegates and Circular Economy practitioners.

Nicholas works in close proximity with Me.reka Makerspace, Biji-biji Initiative’s education arm to prototype creative solutions. He also leads reading sessions to understand visual culture in relation to the politics of space with CounterCartographies and hence was the perfect candidate for the Lab that was held in London. The Circular Futures Lab was organised by the Ellen MacArthur foundation, in collaboration with British Council’s Architecture Design and Fashion (ADF) department.

While the SEA region as a whole is a little bit more ahead than Malaysia, collectively the delegates agreed that there are social issues that need tackling first, or concurrently, before we can tackle the environmental issues. If the poorer regions need to pay more to make environmentally conscious decisions, they’d much rather fall back on the old ways, like trash-burning, a practice that is very common in Indonesia and was one of the issues that Susiadi Wibowo, founder of LabTanya was trying to solve. Wibowo developed various initiatives in the form of research and experiments involving communities and the public. 

 

The other participants in the Circular Futures lab come from all over South East Asia:

Irene Agrivina represented XXLab, a collective of Indonesian female innovators who recently came up with a project that tackles water pollution and poverty – SOYA C(O)U(L)TURE. The country’s intensive soy production causes water pollution, so the collective found a way to utilise soya waste to create bio-fuel and tanned leather. Irene is also the co-founder of The House of Natural Fiber (HONF), a Yogyakarta-based new media art laboratory. 

Kamonnart Ong, a Bangkok-based fashion and textiles designer, researcher and creative strategist heads up Moreloop, an online platform that curates surplus fabric from large manufacturers and creates an ecosystem whereby local budding textile and fashion designers can purchase fabric at a reasonable price – closing a loop in the fashion industry whilst extending lifespan for fabrics to enable economic longevity. 

Carlos Delantar, an award-winning social entrepreneur co-founded Altum, a sustainable manufacturer of furniture and interiors built on circular economy principles. Altum specialises in developing sustainable design products and interior space through the use of waste, mainly from the construction industry.

Mai Nguyen, a maker at heart and a certified mechanical engineer helms INGO, a social venture that helps young Vietnamese re-discover their cultural heritage through re-imagined hands-on experiences. She is also an active supporter of Fablab Saigon – Ho Chi Minh City’s first makerspace to grow from a weekend club to a host of the 4th Fablab Asia Network Conference,  a regionally renowned meeting to boost the culture of innovation.

 

Materials of the Future

At the workshop, Nicholas, along with the other delegates deep-dove into the concepts of circular design and spent a lot of time going over circular economy strategies through role-play and system and stakeholder mapping. A circular designer is someone who designs with the whole loop in mind, and not just the product which means re-looking the entire manufacturing process along with suppliers, vendors and the lifespan of the product. 

They also had a chance to experiment with agar-agar, which is made up of water and glycerol. Armed with cooking pans and stirrers, participants succeeded in making a sheet of agar bioplastic. Other interesting workshops included extracting DNA from strawberries, as an intro to biotechnology.

On the third day, the group were given an opportunity to witness Circular Economy in action through a visit to Open Cell, a hub of studios for early stage startups and designers. Open Cell offer a critical mass of infrastructure and a community of like-minded individuals to help designers and makers prototype faster without the burden of extraneous overhead costs. 

Open Cell was all the more memorable due to its unusual location; imagine going to a busy London market and encountering a collection of giant green shipping containers right in the middle of all that action! Known as the “bio-village”, the containers house airy molecular biology labs, and donated professional equipment. 

There were various startups that caught Nicholas’ eye, but the two most interesting were Chip[s] Board who were looking to solve the problem of single-use materials such as product stands that are typically made with medium density fibreboards (MDF), a type of material that is toxic and not long-lasting or sustainable, for that matter. Chip[s] Board is a new biomaterial similar in texture to MDF but is instead made out of potato waste. Hence, when it is disposed, it doesn’t harm the environment.  

The other one is known as Biohm, a startup that develops sustainable building methods, including a bio-material made from fungi. Biohm aims to make our built environment healthier and more sustainable through the development of bio-based materials and circular construction systems. The startup is experimenting with different species of mycelium to create sustainable alternatives to some of the construction industry’s most damaging materials. 

Channeling our Abundance

Nicholas and his teammates also had the opportunity of meeting with Materiom, an international research platform focused on creating and sharing open source biomaterial recipes made from locally abundant natural nutrients. Materiom shared their ideas of abundance of materials; there are actually so many different kinds of materials out there that can be made into bioplastics, such as cellulose, which is produced by plants and chitin which come from shellfish. Not only are they abundantly available, they are completely regenerative. 

This prompted Nicholas to think of what was abundantly available in Malaysia – things like pandan leaves, banana leaves, bamboo and coconut could be further explored for their potential in a circular economy. 

The entire five-day lab was focused on materials for a good reason – in the future, our economy won’t be dominated by products, instead it will be an economy of materials where abundant resources will inform the decisions of the market and manufacturers. It’s a huge shift, but it is a shift that matters and it’s about changing mindsets. 

By the end of Circular Futures Lab, Nicholas and the other delegates had been exposed to the future of materials. Nicholas realised that a lot of the British practitioners, designers and entrepreneurs were not necessarily focused on making products, but were more interested in experimenting with materials that could replace our dependency on unsustainable materials. It is possible that on this side of the world, we are just too comfortable with the abundance and availability of convenient but unsustainable materials. Largely, it has to do with perception and how we look at everyday items. 

We can only imagine plastic because that’s all we know. The issue though, is that plastics and other non-biodegradable materials are destroying the Earth. Why can’t we change the way we think of conventional materials? 

Nicholas predicts that it won’t be long before circular design becomes profitable and therein lies a clue in how to start thinking intelligently about materials. By really understanding the supply chain and value chains when it comes to our resources, anyone can discover numerous circular opportunities. One needs to see where you can intervene as an entrepreneur, designer or businessperson and create new opportunities for themselves. 

 

Truly Open Source

It is the new way of entrepreneurship, and very likely the future that we will live in. If traditional-type jobs are becoming a scarcity, it makes sense to invest in new skills and knowledge such as Circular Economy and Design. 

One great way to learn about the ins and outs of circular economy is to visit Me.reka during the Open Source Circular Economy (OSCE) event. Known as a ‘fountain of circularity,’ Me.reka’s main focus lies in education and it is through this mini-festival that you can really begin to understand the concepts of Circular Economy. The OSCE Days 2019 Mini-Festival will have a host of workshops, bicaras and film screenings to aid your journey towards circularity. 

Me.reka is all about educating youths and adults alike, and a mission that we are particularly passionate about is streamlining youth and creativity by channeling a response to industry waste. By educating the minds and hearts of our future leaders with the concepts of Circular Economy and Design, we not only ensure a better tomorrow, but a more sustainable, inclusive and efficient workforce. 

Nicholas is particularly keen about sowing the seeds of his short but significant education all the way from London and planting them here by generously sharing his knowledge.

You don’t want to miss #OSCEdays19. Click on this link: OSCE Days Minifest to book your spot 

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