Kalundborg Symbiosis for the ”Win win Gothenburg Sustainability award 2018”

The article by PhD-Fellow, Sönnich Dahl Sönnichsen and Associate Professor, Jesper Clement is based on interviews with board members and other relevant stakeholders of the Kalundborg Symbiosis, conducted in the spring of 2018. An academic paper is written, but it has not yet been peer-reviewed by academic colleagues. Thus, the presented findings are not yet validated from a social-scientific perspective, but are presented in short here, to highlight the most recent research with regard to the Kalundborg Symbiosis.


– Systems make it possible, people make it happen

Cooperation among various industrial manufacturers and the municipality have in more than 50 years developed the Kalundborg area into an industrial symbiosis. The name was inspired by the world of biology where the waste by-product of one organism becomes the raw material for another. This is taken one step further in the new vision for the symbiosis, in becoming the world´s leading industrial symbiosis with a circular approach to production.

For many years the linear economic model of take-make-use-dispose has been the dominant social logic with regard to production and consumption. This way of thinking has a negative impact on the planet’s resources, and the circular economic perspective provides a new way of thinking. Being an economy that is regenerative and restorative by design, it might be able keeping the molecules/resources at highest possible value at all times. With a precondition to avoiding incineration and landfills, being powered by renewable energy, it is an economy that holds the potential to decouple economic growth from growth in virgin resource extraction. In plain words, it is central for the circular economy to restore and keep the limited resources in closed circulation (SDG12), which could be a challenge to conventional strategic business thinking.

A conventional business strategy with a sustainable transition, is built upon five Rs; reduce, reuse, repair, recycle and regulate. Although the strategy emphasizes minimal use of virgin resources, fundamentally it does not change the way of thinking design and product development, as the resources still ends their life as waste. In order to achieve eco-effectiveness it is suggested to mimic natural cycles by rethinking, reinventing, redesigning, redirecting and recovering processes in a cradle-to-cradle and closed-loop perspective. This type of business strategy has been outlined in research by Helen Borland and Adam Lindgreen in 2013, which entails that humans move from an egocentric position, in which the nature exists only for exploitation and with no intrinsic value, towards a system that values a greater respect for other species and planetary resources. In other words, this way of thinking implies a new managerial mindset with a vision that is based on a transformational strategy. Further it should encourage eco-centric leadership and collaboration, which can be seen as the fundament for circular economic thinking.

In order to become the world´s leading industrial symbiosis with a circular economic approach, the collaboration is based on the trust, confidentiality, openness, equality and cooperation. The mission will be to create sustainable development in the member companies through joint projects with the ambition to have ten circular economic projects fully implemented by year 2025. To accomplish this, is the mission accompanied by the strategic objectives; connect for full resource utilization, renew by the developing and anchoring the local symbiotic mindset through strengthened partnerships, and promote by sharing the symbiotic mindset to inspire others to be a part of a symbiosis. One significant achievement is to disseminate knowledge from the new circular symbiotic business model to a broader national and international audience.

It is fair to argue that Kalundborg Symbiosis in its previous linear approach has been driven by a wish to optimize fossil fuel production processes. Yet, the reuse of process/waste water and excess energy heat have already a circular approach utilizing residual resource streams. In the Symbiosis Triple-Bottom Line report it is documented that it accomplished annual savings of 635,000 tons of CO2, 14.1 mill € in socioeconomic savings and 24.2 mill € in business economic savings. The saving in CO2 emissions is estimated to increase further when substituting coal with biomass is implemented in the district heat production. Despite these examples on sustainable thinking, the symbiosis does not become circular. A research project was therefore initiated in spring 2018 to elucidate how adaptation and transformation towards a circular economic cluster can take place in an established industrial symbiosis.

In order to investigate opportunities and barriers in adapting the new strategy board members, facilitators of the strategy process, and other relevant stakeholder where asked to take part in a research based on interviews. The mindset anchored in the symbiotic way of thinking was scrutinized in order to obtain in-depth explorative insights one need for new ways of thinking for a possible transformation. These interviews were made on a common understanding of the strategic goals, and a common acceptance among stakeholders to move the symbiosis network in a circular direction. Trust, habits, proximity, and local impact seems to be acting both as the glue and the lubricant for the Symbiosis historically and in the current situation. Despite that the involved stakeholders have been through the same strategy development process and have agreed to the set of common values, the research project found some differences in the mindset of the symbiosis members.

Among the interviewed it was mentioned that mapping out and structuring the available residual streams could be a way to obtain the goal of becoming circular. This structured way of approaching new projects is in contrary to the previous random and unstructured way of creating symbiotic connections. This new dynamic way of getting new ideas was also seen as an option to enhance the transformation to full resource utilization. The way of getting and being inspired to ideas is to be supplemented by mutual visits at all the plants in order to detect possible utilization of unused resources.

Findings from the interviews revealed a need to replace a “here-and-now way of thinking” with a “structured circular symbiosis thinking”. Yet, the interviews revealed as well different circular symbiosis logics or mindsets among the stakeholders. The different logics range from high eco-centric identification to low eco-centric identification, or in other words it represents a continuum from “high circularity thinking” to “low circularity thinking”. This continuum can be described as the epistemological scale of perception that will affect development and anchoring of the circular approach in the symbiotic mindsets, which will be further elaborated upon in the following sections.

Karen O´Brien and Linda Sygna have in their article from 2013 argued the transformations towards sustainable outcomes will take place across three interacting spheres; a) a practical sphere, b) a political, and c) a personal sphere. Analyzing them one by one makes sense in a research perspective, whereas viewing them as a whole is fruitful to understand the transformation. Transformations in the personal sphere cannot be forced but must grow from education or voluntary changes. When transformations occur in the personal sphere they are often more powerful and consequences more significant, than transformations coming from the political or the practical sphere.

When changes occur in the personal sphere they often lead to different action logics, which again lead to new ways of understanding and interacting with the surroundings. Changes being born in the personal sphere can result in different or new values and worldviews, which later can contribute or counteract actions and strategies that are considered to be optional in the practical sphere. This way of approaching the transformations was also found among the interviewed, and their engagement in how operational activities might affect larger geophysical and biological processes, was expressed as a matter of collective concern. Yet, the engagement and interpretation of the new strategy is still closely related to the personal identification of circular economic thinking, described the individual placement on the epistemological scale.

Low circular identification can be described as a situation where the respondents is less focused on the holistic systemic synergies and more focused on individual dyadic relations. This action logic is primarily related to a transitional value set, based on instrumental, egocentric, and economic rational, which again can be described as a conventional business strategy. Among interviewed stakeholders with a low circular identification, we find actors highly focusing on moderating dynamics among partners, attracting new educations and supporting relevant actors as good as possible. They see their role as supporters more than implementers and the transformation of the symbiosis from a political perspective. Their overall interpretation of the transformation is that new ideas and projects should be initiated and driven by other involved stakeholders. This might also be the reason for this group’s more blurry view of the new Symbiosis, and their imagination of the future is related to “core production” with little circular economic thinking.

Circular economic identification on the middle level is related to respondents with some focus on the holistic systemic synergies, although they do still have a strong focus on the individual dyadic relations. These stakeholders still have the intention to optimize and utilize resource streams, contributing to the circular symbiosis with new projects similar to previous projects. These stakeholders often express by phrases like; “… we are already circular, we have been circular form the very beginning”. In the group of stakeholders with neutral circular identification we find actors who benefit from selling residual streams in dyadic relations having a core production that is not directly related with circular economic thinking.

The variance or heterogeneity among these actors is higher than in the low end and in the high end. Common for actors in the middle part of the continuum are their positive monetary, environmental, and social view on being a member of the Symbiosis. Actors in this group use statements as; ”we have learned working together”, and “do not underestimate the society’s response on a company’s action”. An approach that demonstrates an overlap between the anthropocentric value set primarily based on instrumental, egocentric, and economic rational, and an eco-centric set of values concerned to emotional, empathetic and ecological rational thinking.

This middle group identification can support the transformation towards the circular symbiosis, but have to take the personal sphere perspective with a transformative education point of view. In plain words it means that there is a need for more insights of the circular economic way of thinking, and they will need time for voluntarily change to happen, if the transformation should be successful. An important supporting factor for this group is measurable outcomes, enabling transitional benefits for actors adapting to the new circular way of thinking. This can be described as an action related to the practical sphere, although it might influence the personal sphere within this group too.

High circular identification is related to a situation where the respondents are focused on holistic systemic synergies and less focused on individual dyadic relations. In the group of stakeholders with high circular identification we find actors that in daily operations have a business model, where circular economic thinking is already a part of the individual actor’s core operations. These stakeholders have a tendency to visualize with greater detail the difference between the temporary state and the future circular reconfiguration of the industrial symbiosis. Statements from this group are; “… make others interested by the showing the powerful examples”, and “… this is not an success for the individual”. Characteristic for actors with high level of circular identification is their way of seeing the Symbiosis as a whole, and their attention on how other parts of the Symbiosis could develop in circular thinking. The personal sphere of this group with its beliefs, values, and worldviews are therefore of high relevance for the Symbiosis to enhance the circular transformation.

From literature it is found, that strong partnerships and people’s willingness to contribute and interact are strongly related to identification within an organization. Actors experience strong identification in the network when it is related to prestige and/or distinctiveness. Several researchers within the field of identification have outlined how identification can be formed on a historical background, other stakeholders’ opinion towards the network, or by specific specialized actions. Further it is found, that stakeholders through their interactions and exchange of specific embedded knowledge creates synergy effects supporting a readiness for innovation or changes. Deborah Dougherty has in her article from 1992 suggested that dynamics and routines, like knowledge sharing in the network affect the mindset and ways of thinking and finally the networks capacity to collaborate. Examining the mindsets and ways of sharing knowledge among the interviewed from the Kalundborg Symbiosis, it has given a relative clear indication of one specific value able to help the transforming of the Symbiosis. “We are having the desire for sharing ideas and talk to each other”.

Looking at the transformation towards a circular Symbiosis in a narrow perspective, it is worth pointing at the challenge the diverse perception of circularity could cause. This challenge could cause some difficulties to develop pathways and to support partnerships in the most optimal way. Although it is argued that the individual actors in the Symbiosis have different logics for visualizing the future circular industrial symbiosis, it does not mean that stakeholders are moving in different directions. It is plausible to assume that stakeholders with high circular identification are able to move the Symbiosis towards the 2025 goal. The speed, coherence and holistic systemic structures between projects on the practical sphere will make the move for middle level actors.

Transformative education and voluntary changes of all involved stakeholders from top to the bottom of the pyramid, should be encouraged and supported. Further findings from the research project might be useful to encourage and inspirer for similar industrial collaboration’s transformations towards a circular economy.

There is no doubt that Kalundborg Symbiosis stands with the best opportunities to reach their 2025 goal, and become the world’s first industrial symbiosis with a circular economic approach. By that it is fully deserved that Kalundborg Symbiosis is honored for their work by receiving the ”Win win Gothenburg Sustainability award 2018”.

– PhD-Fellow, Sönnich Dahl Sönnichsen and Associate Professor, Jesper Clement