Jack of All Trades, Master of…

It has been a year. One full year.

Exactly one year ago I went to bed on the night before starting the first module of my master’s degree at Cranfield University. I shut off the light above the bed in my little campus bedroom and shut my eyes; full of excitement and nervousness for what the next day would bring. Orientation week was over, the team building activities completed. I had met the fellow peers who would be part of my course for the next 12 months. The hard work was about to begin.

And boy was it hard work! I’m not saying that I wasn’t expecting it, but postgraduate study is certainly no walk in the park. From the very first day we were accelerated to full speed and there was never a sign of slowing down. Split over three major phases: modules, a group project and an individual thesis, my taught master’s degree at the Centre for Design at Cranfield was a whirlwind of lectures, assignments, late nights working in the studio, long drives to company headquarters, an exam or two and, in the brief moments of respite, evenings lounging on bean bags watching Game of Thrones on the big screen. Having emerged (not entirely unscathed) on the other side it is great to look back at what a year it was.

The course itself was fantastic. MDes in Innovation and Creativity in Industry is quite a mouthful I must admit, but I thoroughly enjoyed all of the modules that make up the course (even though it may not have felt that way at 3am on a Sunday night trying to frantically complete the week’s assignment). A combination of design, engineering and management, the course covers a wide variety of subjects, from new product development and innovation management to smart materials and whole system design. Coming from an engineering background I revelled in every opportunity to get creative, throw together prototypes or develop a project management strategy for a simulated warehouse project.

Just casually testing UAV's in the studio.
Just casually testing UAV’s in the studio.

To call the group project phase of the course intense would be a rather massive understatement. It was all systems go from the minute the group met for the first time in mid-February to the final presentation day in early April. The project I was a part of involved working with industrial partners including Cisco, Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems to explore the opportunities for a product information tracking system. Over the course of the project we travelled extensively, including visits to the BAE docks in Portsmouth and Rolls-Royce facility in Derby. We also typed a lot. Like a lot a lot. As exhausting as the project was, however, it was incredibly rewarding to work on a project of such interest to the industrial partners. We felt like the work we were doing was actually going to lead to something, rather than simply end up hidden in the depths of the library.

The final phase of the course is the individual thesis project, the four-month final stretch that leads to the completion of the course (and hopefully the awarding of a degree). As I have mentioned previously, my thesis project involved developing a vision for the future of the fast-moving consumer goods industry in a circular economy. As with the group project I was lucky enough to work closely with a number of the largest consumer goods companies in the world including Coca-Cola and Unilever. It was a little strange transitioning from the frantic, team atmosphere of the group project to the solitary effort of the thesis, but the four months raced by and, on a sunny Thursday afternoon four weeks ago, we stood behind our posters and presented our work for the last time. Master’s over.

The C4D bunch at the conclusion of the poster exhibition - photo courtesy of Mr Waleed Noaman (and his 41 megapixel cameraphone... ;)
The C4D bunch at the conclusion of the poster exhibition – photo courtesy of Mr Waleed Noaman (and his 41 megapixel cameraphone… 😉

The next day it was time to leave. To say goodbye to the friends we had made over the past 12 months. The C4D team of 2013/14 could not have been better. Hailing from all corners of the globe, speaking more languages than I have toes, they are just a great bunch of people and I am happy to have spent the year with them. Now we just need to plan the annual reunion, making sure to visit everybody’s home country…!

Now, as I have moved to the Isle of Wight to continue working on the transition to the circular economy, the words of the well-travelled hobbit, Bilbo Baggins come to mind…


The Economy is Changing

Last week Friday was the final day of the second annual Schmidt-MacArthur Summer School and the occasion was marked with an afternoon exploring Oxford, punting down the river (unbelievably nobody fell in!) and enjoying a sumptuous farewell/awards dinner. After an intensive week of lectures, interactive workshops and heated discussions, all centred around the circular economy, the relaxation was hard-earned by all.

The prestigious "Leeky Flows" award received by Kevin Shahbazi for losing his mentor during the week.
The prestigious “Leeky Flows” award received by Kevin Shahbazi for losing his mentor during the week.

The week-long Summer School, held this year at Cranfield University, is an opportunity for the Schmidt-MacArthur Fellows and Mentors from all over the world to come together to share their thoughts and understanding of the circular economy. Through the intensive programme of lectures, workshops and activities it is also a chance to develop a deeper understanding of the principles and practicalities of transitioning to a circular economy. The week began with a “get to know you” session and escalated rapidly from there with the setting of the Summer School Challenge. Fellows were tasked with applying their learning to the question: “How can a city like Detroit evolve positive or regenerative cycles of development?” and were to present their solutions at the end of the week. A full run down of the week’s activities can be found here.

The Summer School experience was possibly the closest I have (and hopefully will ever) come to being caught in a whirlwind. I was swept up on Sunday evening, when I met some of the other Fellows for the first time, into the world of the circular economy and only came back down to earth on Friday afternoon in Oxford. I’m not even sure I have fully recovered yet! After five days of listening to and interacting with business leaders, thought leaders, designers, academics, subject experts and incredibly bright students I feel overwhelmingly that the momentum of the circular economy is building at a rapid pace. I am very excited to be a part of that momentum.

Fellows getting the chance to pose questions to Ellen MacArthur.
Fellows getting the chance to pose questions to Ellen MacArthur.

One of the highlights of the week was attending the CE100 Summit held at the Royal Institution in London. The annual gathering of companies that make up the CE100 as well as a selection of academic and business leaders, the summit was nothing short of inspiring. Hearing businesses present their successes in the circular economy, often achieved in the short year since the inaugural summit, demonstrated that the circular economy is not simply a dream, but can be made into reality. If the buzz on Twitter is anything to go by, then simply the engagement and debate provoked by the summit speak to its success.

A tiny selection of the Tweets flying around during the CE100 Summit.
A tiny selection of the Tweets flying around during the CE100 Summit.

With the presentations of the Fellows’ solutions to the challenge set at the start of the week and the relaxing afternoon spent in Oxford, the second annual Summer School came to a close. Those Fellows who travelled from distant lands have now returned and work will begin in earnest on all of our Circular Economy Innovation Projects. I am well on the way to creating a vision for fast-moving consumer goods in the circular economy, in the hope that sharing provocative, compelling stories about the possibilities of the future can spur the innovation and commitment needed to get us there.

The week may be over, but the Fellowship most certainly is not. As with the Fellowship that set off for Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, the road before us is a long one. But it is an incredibly exciting one, supported by people who are committed to turning the idea of a circular economy, an economy that is regenerative by design, into a reality.

PS: If you are interested in getting involved in this exciting space, take a look at the video below!

A Fellowship Without a Ring

I wish I could tell you that I was recently involved in the forming of a fellowship of brave people, about to set off on a perilous journey across thousands of miles of rugged terrain to deliver an incredibly powerful and dangerous object to a fiery volcano deep within the heart of enemy territory…but I can’t. The fellowship I am a part of is slightly different and noticeably less hazardous.

Not the destination of this Fellowship thankfully...!
Not the destination of this Fellowship thankfully…!

The Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship was formed not to destroy the One Ring, but to accelerate the transition to the Circular Economy. It brings together students and academics from around the world to create and share knowledge and research across business, engineering and design, all within the context of the Circular Economy. We are a fellowship of 17, instead of 9, and come from top universities around the world including MIT and Stanford in the US, Tongji University in China, The National Institute of Design in India and my own Cranfield University.

This week we will be coming together at C4D, Cranfield for the annual Summer School, an intense week of workshops, lectures and challenges aimed at developing the systems thinking perspective necessary to tackle the challenges of the Circular Economy. During the week we will be attending the CE100 Summit, taking place at the Royal Institution in London, where we will have the opportunity to network with businesses and academics leading the charge towards circularity. It promises to be whirlwind experience and I will be sharing my thoughts and photos on Twitter if you’re interested in what we are getting up to.

The video above formed part of my application to the Fellowship and as it highlights, my particular interest is in collaborative consumption. My research project is taking a slightly different, but no less interesting, direction. Titled “Fast-Moving Circular Goods 2025″, my project involves developing a vision for the future of the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) industry in a circular economy. I will be working with global FMCG companies to develop provocative stories aimed at inspiring action to realise that vision.

Frodo, Sam, Gandalf and their companions set out to destroy a ring and save their world. In a sense (and with considerable dramatic license) the Schmidt-MacArthur Fellowship is not too dissimilar. We are setting out to save our world from the perils of our current linear system in the hopes of improving our world. We won’t be fighting orcs or riding eagles, but that’s not going to stop me thinking of myself as Frodo…

Let’s Do It Together

In my last post I mentioned that I am currently working on a group project conducting research into the Circular Economy. Now, I suppose I’d better explain what the circular economy actually is. Before I was exposed to it here at Cranfield I had never heard of it, so I can hardly expect you to know what I was talking about (if you do, I am thrilled because it means the idea is on its way to becoming mainstream).

The idea of a circular economy is based on the premise that our world currently functions in a linear fashion. We dig resources out of the ground, we transform them into things that people can use, and when we are done with them we throw them away, primarily to landfills. A circular economy, as the name suggests, would involve circulating our resources through the system for as long as possible. We would make things using, as resource material, the waste of other products. We would do this as much as possible, reducing our reliance on ever scarcer resources in the ground, and maximising the value of the resources we have already brought into the system. The idea is largely borrowed from nature, the perfect example of a circular system. One organism’s waste is valuable to another and biological material is constantly returned back to the earth where the cycle begins all over again.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, started by Dame Ellen MacArthur (a British sailor famous for her record breaking solo non-stop circumnavigation of the globe in 2005), is championing the shift away from our wasteful linear system to the circular economy. Through a series of reports they have highlighted the enormous potential economic benefits of the system as well as the positive impact it would have for the sustainability of the planet.

My own involvement in assisting in the shift to the circular economy began a few weeks ago with the start of my group project, which forms part of my masters degree at Cranfield University. The basis of the project is an investigation into a method of improving the efficiency of our use of resources and how we might make it easier to return materials back into the system when products reach the end of their life. The project is three months long and could, potentially, be the starting point of a radical shift in the way we handle our resources.

A particular aspect of the concept of a circular economy that interests me is what’s known as collaborative consumption. The idea here is that we can leverage the power of collaboration and sharing to enjoy the use of products or services, without the need to actually own the product. It is easiest to explain with an example:

You are a student in London. You don’t own a car because you cannot afford to buy one and you really don’t want all the hassle of having to deal with insurance,  tax or even simply finding a place to park it every evening. However, you find that for one of your projects you need to travel for the next moth to somewhere that is not accessible to public transport so you really need a car. You could take a taxi or rent a car, but those would quickly become expensive. Or, you could use Liftshare, a car sharing service that would match you with someone who owns a car and is going the same way you are. You pay far less than you would for a taxi, the owner of the car makes a little bit of money out of the extra space in their car, and you both get to where you need to be; everybody wins!

This is the power of collaborative consumption. A fundamental idea behind the concept is that a lot of the products we own, sit around doing nothing (known as idling capacity). When you think properly about it, you don’t actually want the product, you want the benefit it brings you. Not many people want to own a power drill, they just want to be able to make a hole in the wall when they need to put up shelves. We can use the power of community and collaboration to meet our needs without having to own a million and one different products.

This idea is not new, it simply came close to extinction in the age of mass-consumerism, when we measured our success and happiness by the number of things we owned. It is slowly coming back to life, however, as people realise that owning more things does not bring happiness at all. The power of technology and connectivity is now making it far easier to find people who might have what we need and is happy to share it with us. Collaborative consumption is about using our humanity and our desire to be part of a community to meet our needs without having to buy more things. In terms of the circular economy, it is a means of reducing our reliance on digging more and more resources out of the ground. All it requires of you, to make a world of difference, is to get involved.

The Adventure Continues

It has been a year since I left South Africa. Since I set out on a journey that would take me around the world; from South Africa to Australia, New Zealand (or Middle Earth rather), the USA and, ultimately, The UK. I have now been in the UK for 7 Months and am 5 months into my masters degree at Cranfield University.


I am here studying an MDes in Innovation and Creativity in Industry at the Centre for Competitive Creative Design (C4D) at Cranfield University. It has been a roller coaster ride thus far and I have worked harder than I ever have before, but I have learned more than I could have dreamed of. Not necessarily in terms of academic knowledge (I can hardly claim to be learning more than any other masters students around the world), but so much more than that.

I am part of a cohort of around thirty students who come from no less than 15 countries, including China, Mexico and Poland. Just having the chance to learn and work with such a diverse group of people has been an experience in itself. When you spend an entire weekend in the studio attempting to finish a piece of work with your team, you learn things about cultural differences that are impossible to learn while on holiday! We have, however, developed a great tradition: on Friday evenings, when the weeks work is done, we have an international dinner where people endeavour to share food that is traditional to their country. It always turns into an night of sharing stories of life at home and usually ends up on the Student Association dance floor.

C4D 2013/14

On the academic side we have been exposed to ideas and concepts at the cutting edge. We have been lectured by industry leaders, formula 1 engineers and world-renowned researchers. We had 8 week-long taught modules on topics such as innovation management, consumer trends and behaviours, and whole system design. We are now into the next phase of the program, a three month group project conducted in collaboration with industry. My own project, which involves research into the Circular Economy, is running full-steam ahead.

Following the completion of the group project at the end of April we will immediately begin our individual thesis projects. This will make up the final stretch of the one year masters degree that concludes in September. Once all that is done it will be time for me to start thinking about the next adventure.