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How Cisco connectivity and collaboration can enable the circular economy

Sponsored: Cisco adds a human element to business and technology frameworks in a collaborative takeback model for a circular economy.

This article is sponsored by Cisco.

Our planet is running out of stuff, even as it’s overrun with "trash." Companies and consumers are increasingly aware that we cannot continue with the current take-make-dispose economic model and are pushing for a transition to a new circular economy that redefines growth with a focus on society-wide benefits. This means gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources while designing waste out of the system.

Cisco is focused on accelerating our contributions to a circular economy. Our holistic approach extends from how we design, build and deliver products and solutions, to how we value recycled and reused assets. We are also applying Cisco technology to support our customers in their own circular transformations. Together with our partners, we are uniquely and ideally suited to fill a void by building the underlying technology for the takeback and refill models that are crucial to the circular economy.


Demonstrating the concept

In June, Cisco launched our Connected Goods for Circularity Showcase demonstrating how Cisco solutions can be used to create data assets, scale circular value chains and engage customers. The event applied Cisco Design Thinking methodologies to actively engage participants and collect feedback. It featured fully staged, interactive demonstrations of six phases of connection, return and "next-life" tracking.  

Our Cisco Connected Goods Showcase featured three major elements:

  • Technology: making goods uniquely identifiable, and thus trackable through their lifecycles so they can be returned for refill or brought back for their next life;
  • Business: fostering an ecosystem of partners that touches every step in a product’s lifecycle; and
  • Human: providing a kinesthetic experience for the people who interact with the products that keeps them engaged throughout that product’s lifecycle.

1. Store

At the showcase model store, a customer had the option to purchase and connect to several products:

  • a shirt with a comfortable, washable tag that combines a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag with a quick-response (QR) code;
  • a water bottle with a "smart" cap that "knows" when the customer opens and closes the bottle and how much liquid is left; and
  • a durable bottle — in this case containing lotion — that came in a reuse/refill bag, both featuring RFID and QR codes.

2. Home

Once purchased, the customer interacts with the product through a secure channel on either a push or a pull basis. For example, customers could use natural language queries with their smartphone to ask the brand questions about the product (care instructions, how to return or recycle), or they could choose to opt in to allow the brand to provide timely information (e.g., expiration date coming soon). A higher-end packaging sensor might even tell the customer when it’s time to reorder, or if they are washing at the wrong temperature.

The data generated at this stage will provide important insights for companies looking to design more durable clothing. Kevin Dooley, Chief Scientist at The Sustainability Consortium, noted that, "tracking the utilization of clothing with digital technology can create value for consumers, brands and retailers by opening up the "black box' of how often clothing is used and laundered."

The technology will also help brands stay connected with their customers. With the Cisco Connected Goods approach, brands have the opportunity via their contact centers to establish an ongoing relationship using a custom app or one built on a more standard messaging tool. (Cisco used Webex Teams for our demonstration.) Myriad applications become possible, such as monitoring for food spoilage or reminding a customer when to take medication.

When the customer has finished with the product, the app offers options on how to resell, return, repurpose or recycle it, and can even provide a map showing convenient locations for drop-off.

3. Responsible return center

Different products require different return processes. This often results in a fragmented and distributed model that is very inconvenient for consumers. Cisco showcased a "return center of the future" where people could return their donated clothing and recyclable items such as bottles or cans, as well as replenish their durable, refillable containers — all in one location. When a customer deposits a product in the appropriate bin, an RFID reader scans the tag to start the next-life process for that item. This might also initiate a coupon for the customer toward a new purchase.

The Cisco Connected Goods approach also could help to solve some major challenges in the recycling industry. For example, the proliferation of batteries in small devices (even in some new packaging) is creating a very serious potential for fires in recycling trucks and at materials recovery facilities (MRFs). This solution could incorporate an alert system that tells the return center, "I have a battery in me; handle me separately." Reverse vending machines exist today where consumers return various recyclable containers and the machine sorts them appropriately. Identifying and separating hazardous items would be a logical next step.

4. Recovery

Warehouse workers then collect goods from return centers and move them to recovery/aggregation centers. Cisco’s showcase featured waste bins with "smart" features such as fill-level sensors. At 80 percent capacity, for instance, a bin can send out a soft request for pickup, identifying nearby vehicles that could stop by without going out of their way. As it gets fuller, the bin sends more urgent requests.

These notification processes also would enable predictive analytics for brands, letting them know what’s going to show up in the next few days or weeks. In the circular economy, recovered products will be an increasing percentage of a company’s supply chain. With current processes, brands offering takeback models have no idea what’s coming their way until it arrives. Using the Cisco Connected Goods model, they have clear visibility of their next-life supply chain.

Two guys looking a computer.

5. Logistics

Under unidirectional consumption models, trucks frequently have unused capacity, presenting an excellent opportunity for "loop" mechanisms. Using route optimization programs combined with geolocation sensors and truck capacity information, partially empty vehicles also could be efficiently routed to collect recovered products from bins that have sent near-full notifications. This addresses a common problem associated with return centers: overflowing collection bins. 

The use of sensors on the products and the bins, combined with blockchain and RFID readers on the trucks, also will help address the problem of leakage from theft, which can be a frustrating problem for brands offering product takeback.

6. Sorting/processing

In the Cisco Connected Goods model, RFID tags on the products enable much more finely tuned sorting capabilities than those that exist in today’s materials recovery facilities. New technologies can enable separation of products by type, brand and even stock-keeping units, or SKUs. Cisco is testing high-end cameras combined with machine learning and artificial intelligence to provide additional separation according to a product’s condition, from "like new" to "worn out." Each step in the entire process would be captured and recorded in a blockchain, offering immutable and timely information for the downstream processors of these valuable assets.

The value of partnership

At Cisco, partnership is part of our DNA. We have a history of working with partners to deliver products and services, and we believe this collaborative approach will be crucial to accelerating circularity. At our showcase, we were proud to feature the technology and innovation of our broader ecosystem of collaborators.

After attending the showcase, Stephanie Benedetto, CEO of Queen of Raw, said, "The beautiful thing Cisco did with this showcase was to take a powerful and supportive view of companies with use cases that integrate Cisco's services. Having the power and support of a company like Cisco is a game-changer. These are the kinds of strategic partnerships we need to be able to change the world."

What’s next?

The Cisco Connected Goods concept is in prototype, and we are working to scale it. Cisco ties together critical facets of an underlying information infrastructure including networking, mobility, collaboration, Internet-of-Things, blockchain, security and more to support the circular economy. The potential for billions of products providing many trillions of data points demands a solution that is scalable, secure and robust. Cisco can do that. 

As Benedetto observed, "Cisco has shown that circularity is a business solution that makes economic sense. The Cisco Connected Goods Showcase demonstrated that there are actions companies can take quickly and easily to start today."

Cisco connects the unconnected. We have the technology, partners and expertise to facilitate the connection of the global circular economy ecosystem, and we are excited to continue to shape and pioneer solutions and services to enable circular economy value creation for our customers.

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