This article originally was published on Circle Economy.
Arguably, the terms "business" and "collaboration" may appear contradictory — even oxymoronic — placed in the same sentence.
Traditionally, business has been based on competitive self-interest, driven by disparate purposes: "The pursuit of competitive advantage is ingrained in the managerial psyche." But while collaboration seems to work against the core principles of "doing business," the last decade has seen a revolution of sorts:
As sustainability concerns are increasingly given a platform on global corporate agendas, collaboration has emerged as both an enabler and a necessity. And in the business-to-business arena, working together is slowly becoming more prominent. Collaboration is a key factor in the transition to a resilient, just and circular economy, according to previous Circle Economy research. Yet the processes behind collaboration formation — and the factors that spur successes and failures — have not been so clear-cut. Recent research, contributed by Circle Economy colleague Caspar von Daniels, has tackled this gap, developing a process model for collaboration in circular innovation.
Their findings? Innovation isn’t born in isolation, and to maximize collaborative advantage all involved parties need to align on goals — detailing core ambitions, risks that may arise from new circular processes and other outcomes that may be desirable but not prioritized. Successful collaboration can be encouraged through shared interpretations of the problem, potential approaches and ideal solutions. This is because environmental issues are multifaceted and various stakeholders may hold different economic, ecological and social opinions and motives, which may give way to conflict — necessitating processes that facilitate discourse and deal with differences of opinion.
Heathrow Airport’s sustainability partnership, for example, brought together 15 companies from various sectors, ranging from airlines to retailers to food to construction — representing more than three-quarters of the airport’s whopping 76,000 staff members. The result? A skills academy for construction and aviation, the eventual creation of the world’s largest employee car-sharing scheme and measures to tackle airline food waste; all born out of collaboration, notes Heathrow Director of Sustainability Matt Gorman.
As mindsets for "doing business" shift away from hoarding value and towards collectively growing value — circular business models, for example, create additional value to be shared among stakeholders — collaboration plays a valuable role. So what can lead to a successful — or failed — collaboration? Strong leadership, a focus on collective gains (for all involved) and full transparency in circular ambitions and information sharing. Strong leadership and shared visions are needed to tackle early challenges, which can range from not knowing how to first formulate a proposition, involve the right people or align on issues to struggles developing circular governance or decision-making processes. Interestingly, a desire to make money that eclipsed other, more environmental motivations was flagged as a negative in partnership formation: "If they [a partner] say, 'I want to make money,' you’re out. Because the first thing you need is to want to do it."
Collaboration in practice: Insights from a circular construction project in Amsterdam
A recent collaborative construction project cited in the research tackled some common issues that can arise in circular collaboration. Initially linear in design, the project leaders decided to integrate circular principles and had to consult a range of other actors on energy efficiency, the use of secondary materials, component reuse, the use of biological materials, grey water circulation and pay-per-use services; and the collaborators chosen were those described as "forward thinkers" or "circular economy frontrunners." At one point, construction was suspended due to a lack of specific circular knowledge — highlighting the importance of actors knowing their stuff and committing to a shared vision. And as noted: money shouldn’t be the priority, but rather the right mindset:
"If the other partners don’t have that same mindset, you’re dead," the project owner quipped. "We learned a very expensive lesson by throwing away a complete design of a building … not taking the time at the starting point really introduced a chance for error."
What’s more, a focus on money alone or money as a priority can curb experimentation with circular strategies, whether they’re new technologies, designs or business models. Yet in the case illustrated above, this circular innovation is precisely what brought value to the building — making it both a magnet for visitors and what created an image boost for its owner. Circular innovation is its own new form of currency, bringing benefits beyond the financial.