Ideas on Upcycling

What are the best things happening in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio? If you ask most people, they’d probably say the return of LeBron or the first place Cleveland Browns. Although the Cavs are off to a bit of a rocky start, the last time the Browns were in first place was 1994. As a lifelong Cleveland fan, I get excited about the rebirth of our city spirit and sports franchises. Though these are the best-known recent developments in Cleveland, they may not be the most important developments happening here – with impacts that transcend the seasons and region.

Recently, I took a three-day break to attend a conference at Case Western Reserve University on the future of sustainability, business as an agent of world benefit, innovation and management education. One thousand people came together from more than 20 countries to explore “how cutting-edge innovators and forward-thinking leaders are moving beyond traditional notions of social responsibility and sustainability to full-spectrum flourishing and profitability.” The conference goal was to “inspire organizations and individuals to explore and embrace mindful management practices that will drive bold thinking, creative problem-solving and profitability—for the benefit of all.” It was an exciting space to be in – a high-energy conference with a lot of creative people and ideas.

The conference attendees were an interesting mix of CEOs, entrepreneurs, business educators, and eager students – all with a wide range of experience. The sustainability-related presentations were on a very high level by global business and academic leaders. Two quick examples:

  • Mark Mykleby, a former advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked about his work at the Department of Defense on the strategic importance of sustainability.
  • A workshop I attended explored how sustainable approaches to innovation can fuel growth and profitability.

I gained valuable information about how a growing number of industries use upcycling to prevent materials from entering the waste stream and convert them to new materials and products, which enhances their economic and environmental value. The example everyone can relate to is aluminum that can, and is, recycled without loss of properties. All glass and glazing related companies have multiple waste outputs and material flows that can be evaluated to minimize waste and associated costs, capture and create value, and reduce environmental impact.

Technoform companies have scored some big wins regarding sustainable product development: bio-based plastics for Bautec insulating strips and TGI spacer for IG. We have had successful projects in packaging dematerialization, waste reduction, capture of materials for recycling and upcycling, and reduction of energy use. These projects have the added benefit of team collaboration and education on objectives – both sustainable and profitable – which are essential parts of Technoform’s vision, principles and philosophies.

Cities like Palo Alto in California and Cleveland in Ohio are doing amazing things to help their communities and regions become more sustainable. Of course, it’s a long way from Silicon Valley to Cleveland (rocks!), but there are some important similarities. Both seek to:

  • Increase place-based design practices into management
  • See leadership as an active design practice
  • Think more on a level of networked neighborhoods than on a single scale for the whole city
  • Reduce layers of administration and complexity, thus flattening their command and control systems, bringing them closer to their citizens (customers)
  • Use less energy and generate less waste. (I was surprised to learn that California residents use half of the U.S. average electricity per capita.)

When President Kennedy declared in 1962 that, “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth,” NASA didn’t know how to do the mission. The only path to success was to design from the future backwards, starting with the goal. Only by turning impossibilities into design specifications could they solve the thermal cladding issue, and 3,000 other design challenges, that were previously thought unsolvable. What are our goals for sustainability? What should they be? Are they defined, measured, agreed upon? What are the risks and consequences of our lack of clarity and consensus?

My time at this conference was a good investment to reframe my thought process during a period when we’re all up to our eyeballs in planning and spreadsheets. I saw the why of balancing people, planet and profit more dynamically, and gained a fresh perspective on how to translate it into our daily actions and processes. And it reminded me of a saying by Peter Drucker that resonates with these themes:

“Every single social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise.”


Sources and Links:
LeBron James,
Cleveland Browns,
Cleveland Cavaliers,
Case Western Reserve University,
New America Foundation,
U.S. Department of Defense,
The Aluminum Association,
Technoform Group,
Silicon Valley,
Drucker Institute,