We met with Elís Benediktsson, Senior Innovation Advisor at Nordic Innovation, on a sunny spring day in Barcode – Oslo’s modern central business district, as the city is slowly beginning to open from a long-lasting Covid-19 lockdown.
Elís, who moved to Norway in the beginning of 2019 to work at Nordic Innovation, has a broad international experience within business development and economic diplomacy, but has since joining Nordic Innovation, focused on supporting cross-border sustainability collaboration and high-impact green shift projects.
What do you think the governments in the Nordics should keep in mind when developing their strategies for economic recovery?
"If there is one thing we have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic in this context, it is the importance of cooperation, whether that is local, regional or international. This challenge does not respect borders. We can solve this and other future crises in a better and more efficient way, by working on new innovative solutions together, whether the task at hand concerns health, the economy, or the climate - to name some of the pressing issues we are facing today", says Elís Benediktsson.
“It is also important to remember the existing platforms for cooperation and to strengthen these even further, in times where we must resist nationalistic forces threatening partnerships – and again, through innovation, explore new ways of applying our combined knowledge and past learnings. Back when I was working in Southern Africa, the locals used to say: «If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together». One can easily apply the same logic to co-working towards an impactful long-term change”.
Investment in the circular economy in general, as well as easier access to green finance, is critical to advance the circular transition.Elís Benediktsson, Senior Innovation Advisor
"I have followed this simple principle throughout my career, and it has always proven to be more valuable for all parties involved. The focus in my current role has therefore been on building ecosystems and partnerships, and to enable all key actors in value-chains to join forces through the financial support of Nordic Innovation."
What are the driving forces and barriers behind the circular economy transition?
"The short answer is that there are two main drivers: companies as forerunners for business competitiveness, and public-policy as an acceleration tool for necessary change. Businesses need the support of their governments, and vice-versa", states Benediktsson.
"The long answer includes private- and public driven catalysts, which all have and will play important roles. Economic uncertainties have emerged, offering subsequent opportunities for new business models. Related factors include the global supply chain fragility, reliance on virgin materials, and shipping of components. Public push from the EU Circular Economy Action Plan, the EU Taxonomy Regulation, as well as global ISO standards on material circulation through design, will also be key moving forward. I furthermore think that some of the softer drivers, such as business reputation and commercial goodwill, will continue to increase in importance – walking the sustainability talk means better performance."
"If we look into some of the barriers, we typically see that companies face challenges within areas like organisation and culture, logistics, ecosystems, access to financing, and regulations. As for regulations, we know that a common and standardized regulatory environment, as well as a facilitating legislation, is key for a faster and more successful circular transformation."
"In the last couple of years here in the Nordics, I have seen an exponential change from simple marketing exercises to transformative business strategies, where innovation tools like pilots are tested in one or more business units", explains Benediktsson.
"In order to reach our goals within a reasonable time frame, the supporting public actors must also step up, by leading and supporting the private sector in their journey towards our common goals. One of the tools that we need to place an even stronger emphasis on right now is green procurement. This will support the supply and demand of secondary materials, create new markets and business opportunities, enable the scalability of new services, and increase the profitability of circular business model solutions."
We have to continue our transition in order to reverse the negative trend relating to especially [SDG] goal number 12 on production and consumption.Elís Benediktsson, Senior Innovation Adviser
"The Nordic countries are doing very well on many of the UN sustainable development goals, but we have to continue our transition in order to reverse the negative trend relating to especially goal number 12 on production and consumption. We cannot lose the momentum and have to once and for all move away from the narrow-minded perspective on the circular economy that one sometimes still notices in the market – where it is often compared with an advanced form of recycling, into focusing heavily on real transformative innovation."
Should the work with value chains be local or international?
"I believe that they can be local, regional and international. However, having said that, even the most local value-chains are linked to the rest of the world in one or more ways via supply, sales, or financing. Financial providers are by definition international, at least dependent across borders through funds and bonds, to name two examples. In that way, the capital market drives the transition, and its important role will only become more apparent in the transition years ahead."
How can one make sure that the capital is sustainable that the capital markets themselves are guided and managed with sustainability in mind?
"This is and has been a hot topic for a while, something that both investors and companies seeking investment have been placing more and more emphasis on in the last few years."
"Firstly, traditional providers of financial services, such as banks, find it difficult to grasp the concepts and ideas behind the new business models that make up parts of the circular economy. These institutions base their business cases on the linear economy, many of the players have been quite conservative, and are only slowly and carefully moving towards offering loans for circular solutions and services. Alternatively, businesses must seek financing from other sources, such as venture capital companies, private equity funds, impact investors, and other similar actors in the market – often at a higher cost, which reflects the risk taken for the deal in question."
"The transition process and the resulting transformation can bear some initial investment costs, securing financing for the transition can be tricky, and making sure this financing is truly green is an even tougher endeavour. Green financing is becoming a necessity for many partner and customer segments, something that can quickly translate into the rise or fall of that particular company."
Looking ahead in 2021 and forward
"We have not taken several of the critical measures that we should have at this point in time. We have however taken some giant steps in 2020 and 2021, and this gives me hope that we can accomplish what has to be done."
"My dream is that we can look back in a couple of decades and see that we have taken circularity from strategy to business, created new innovative green solutions, prevented waste generation by re-design, achieved sustainable management of natural resources, and taken cities from being the problem to being part of the solution for tomorrow. As a positive realist, I have faith in us and believe we are ready to continue our fight for a better tomorrow", concludes Elís Benediktsson.