4 lessons learned from running an innovation competition to accelerate the transition towards a Circular Economy of plastics in ASEAN
Innovation competitions and challenges to tackle plastic pollution are not new. In fact, innovation, often conflated with technology, has emerged as a panacea to many modern ills. While new technologies can undoubtedly help tackle some of those, we posit that innovation is an element to support any system transition. This innovation shall be inclusive, defined as innovation of, by and for all as both producers/innovators and consumers/users. Unsurprisingly, the current excessive reliance on technology and traditional challenges to deal with challenge of plastics led to a patchy success record.
Hence, with the EPPIC, we decided to change the way we design and implement competitions, and test interventions to address the multifaceted nature of plastic pollution. From the onset our bet was to narrow down the scope of the problem and focus on two project sites (Ha Long Bay in Viet Nam and Koh Samui in Thailand during Phase I) in order to experiment within predefined areas, test the EPPIC solutions in these localities and develop strategies for scaling up across the wider ASEAN region.
This piece outlines four major lessons coming out of the Ending Plastic Pollution Innovation Challenge (EPPIC) in ASEAN. (Curious? We came up with 15 useful takeaways, and you can download the knowledge brief here.)
LESSON #1: CHALLENGES SHOULD BE DESIGNED AND IMPLEMENTED TO RESONATE WITH LOCAL CONTEXTS
Our initial hypothesis was that competition should aim to engage not only contestant teams (in scaling up their innovations), but also the localities (in setting up an enabling environment for the uptake of innovations). Shiny innovations won’t be sustainable if they are disconnected from the local context in which they aim to operate.
With that in mind, the competition was designed to respond first and foremost to the plastic pollution issues identified through both baseline research and inclusive consultations. This helped us challenge our working assumptions. For instance, we understood that plastic pollution in Ha Long Bay stems not only from rising tourism levels but also from intensive aquaculture development. This reframing made us focus on proposed solutions directly engaged with fishermen and the fishing industry. Another implication of was that our incubation program sought to allow the EPPIC finalists to refine and adapt their innovations or to propose tailor-made solutions fully relevant to the needs of these localities.
For example, Galaxy Biotech, which typically sells its main products (biodegradable and breathable plastic bags) to firms exporting vegetables, has tailored its products to fit the needs of the fishery industry in Ha Long. This innovation’s refinement is a strategic one, because it is not only matching technology with a need but also contributes to the Galaxy Biotech’s organizational capability to adapt its products and increase commercial potential to reach other markets. It also brings evidence behind economic opportunities in the circular economy space that can be tapped by others. This approach is not without risk due to variation faced by companies in regulatory, financial, or capacity constraints. For instance, OceanKita BBN, which attaches trawl nets to boats to collect marine plastic, cannot operate such trawls in Vietnamese waters due to strict local regulations.
LESSON #2: CHALLENGES AS LEARNING TOOLS TO SHAPE FUTURE PROGRAMING
We consider that the innovation competitions should not be looked at in isolation. Rather, they serve larger objectives, including shaping policy frameworks and CO’s strategies, as well as portfolio of interventions geared towards the circular economy of plastics. EPPIC was designed to respond to the targets of cross-country cooperation outlined in the Bangkok Declaration on Combating Marine Debris. In Viet Nam, the EPPIC is part of UNDP’s emerging circular economy portfolio and the Deep Demonstrations process, intended to understand the systems implications of a transition to a circular economy. As part of it we surfaced the bottom-up innovations and ensured that these are on the government’s radar to inform the higher-level policy objectives. Innovators’ insights are invaluable to help create and test policies resonating with the needs of industries based on responsible business practices to achieve the SDGs.
Since the challenge is not an end, it should seek to build the capabilities of the local innovation ecosystem, raise citizens’ awareness around plastic pollution, provide a blueprint for financing circular innovations — all important elements of CO’s pivot around circular economy. By co-designing the incubation programme with Viet Nam Silicon Valley Foundation (VSVF), the EPPIC has sought to spread knowledge and develop a network of experts related to the circular economy and waste/plastic management in Viet Nam. As an illustration: VSVF has expanded its capacity to designing programmes on the circular economy and will soon be rolling out another incubation programme in Ho Chi Minh City. Moreover, approaching the circular economy for plastics with an innovation lens, triggered a cascade of complementary interventions, such as the establishment of one of the first incubators dedicated to accelerating circular economy innovations, the Da Nang Circular Economy Hub (Viet Nam).
Overall, the competition resulted in a series of interconnected outcomes, generated interest from communities, contributed to new capabilities in ecosystem, and fostered a network of champions and innovators, helping set in motion mindset shift and a movement towards circular economy.
LESSON #3: CHALLENGES SHOULD BE ENVISIONED AS A PORTFOLIO OF COMPLEMENTARY INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS, EXPERTISE, AND SKILLSETS
UNDP has been promoting a ‘portfolio approach’ to tackle wicked problems, recognising that siloed interventions are an inadequate way to deal with the complex and cross-boundary challenges we face today. Thus, focus of the selection process was to catalyze a cumulated impact of all innovations as opposed to stand-alone “solutions”.
During the inception phase, we designed and planned activities with the intent to reveal the inherent yet unseen interconnections among the finalists. Beyond some obvious linkages in our portfolio of innovations, the incubation and impact acceleration programme also strove to foster cooperation at the implementation phase (during the field trips or the demo days, for instance). To support the innovators to make connections, we first selected a cohort of 14 prospective finalists who were enrolled in a three-month incubation programme and then hosted the EPPIC Final Pitching Competition to identify the four winners to be part of a nine-month impact acceleration programme.
We also actively looked for and selected a portfolio of solutions that was complementary through the services or products they bring to the market and the specific project target sites. VIFEP, which markets a plastic-compressing machine that is placed on fishery boats, has set up a collaboration with mGreen, a platform connecting waste sources and waste buyers, so that the output of the former becomes the input of the latter. The EPPIC finalists are a testimony to the rich breadth of this portfolio, which includes alternative materials, upcycling technologies, mobile apps, education campaigns, bio-fences, reuse mechanisms, plastic offsetting, marketplaces, and more.
LESSON #4: UNDP SHOULD ADOPT A “STEWARDSHIP” MENTALITY TO NURTURE AN ECOSYSTEM FOR BOTTOM-UP INNOVATIONS
One of the most common reasons innovations fail is the lack of support once competition is over and the glitz of awards ceremony has dimmed. To overcome this familiar pitfall, we looked to nurture local ecosystem to host and support the EPPIC ‘champions’, whether they were part of top four or not. As such, the EPPIC was designed to provide incremental and financial support as well as to develop new partnerships to deliver on sustainable solutions to tackle the growing issue of plastic pollution. This network of actors will thus stand beyond the competition to sustain the original intent and efforts.
EPPIC contributed to ‘de-risking’ these innovations by training, supporting, and incubating some of the most promising and innovative solutions in the region. While the EPPIC has provided US$18,000 in seed funding to each of the four winning teams, we sought to connect them with impact investors, venture capitalists, and other potential financing sources. We also targeted an unusual potential source of funding, the Government of Viet Nam, as some provincial municipalities had included ‘impact’ as a criterion for funding start-up projects. As of now, four EPPIC teams are in the final round of funding applications from that source. This means that these innovative solutions will receive more funding critical to their sustainability and gain opportunities to scale up their innovations to other Vietnamese provinces, contributing to the circular economy movement in the country.
We hope these four lessons will help us make competitions more rewarding and impactful experiences as we gear towards raising our relevance for the challenges of post-Covid world.
 The EPPIC project has been implemented in four ASEAN countries: Viet Nam, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Purposely open only to citizens from ASEAN member states, the EPPIC is an attempt to accelerate innovations from — and democratise the innovation process for — those who are the most affected by the target issues by mobilising the principles of human-centred design. It is funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad)