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COIL | Our Food Future: Getting it Right on a Local Level

The Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad and Our Food Future are driving local collaborations to achieve Canada’s net-zero targets. Learn more in this exclusive interview with Andrew Telfer, Lead of Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad and Development.

/ 8 mins / SparxTeam

Big things can happen when you start small and the path to achieving ambitious national or international net-zero targets requires getting things right on a local level first. 

We spoke with Andrew Telfer, Lead, Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad and Development, about two circular economy initiatives: Our Food Future and COIL and how the combination of collaboration, a “think and do” attitude and strategic funding have helped them accelerate climate-smart efforts through building an inclusive circular food system and advance the economy toward net-zero.

Tell us about Guelph-Wellington Smart Cities’ mission.

Smart Cities (Guelph-Wellington) is a collaborative committed to driving circular economy development utilizing its local place-based urban-rural testbed. Our developed best practices, learned lessons, and discovered obstacles are shared with other cities and regions across the country to accelerate the shift to a circular economy (CE) across Canada.

We lead two CE-building initiatives: Our Food Future and Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad (COIL).

Our Food Future, unveiled in mid-2019, is creating and implementing a robust circular food system in the Guelph-Wellington area of Ontario. We have four focus areas: reduce food waste; increase food access; drive circular collaborations; and affect systems-level change. Our Food Future includes 45+ currently-active or past projects. Projects, innovations, and ideas are tested and piloted in our living CE lab.

COIL, announced in spring of 2021, is an innovation platform and network aimed at developing, proving, and scaling transformative solutions that will move Canada toward a prosperous, low-carbon circular economy. It contains a comprehensive suite of programs, tools, and resources developed to achieve our goals of embedding and accelerating circularity through businesses and organizations, as well as across supply chains and material streams. Our resources include an accelerator, an incubator, upcycled-product certification, innovation challenges, CE-learning curriculum, material flow analyses, as well as other circular economy advancing programs and tools.

What inspired you to start your organization?

Our Food Future, our flagship initiative, was inspired by Infrastructure Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge to build upon our region’s (City of Guelph and County of Wellington) strengths in agri-food and environmentalism. Our region is an internationally-recognized hub of food innovation, production, and processing; the City has goals to become a net-zero community and to use 100% renewable energy in all its facilities by 2050; and the County has the largest municipal tree-planting program in North America – with over two million trees planted.

Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad (COIL) was inspired by our efforts with respect to business and organization collaboration under Our Food Future. We quickly realized that there was a growing need to help enterprises understand circular economy principles and implement related thinking in their processes and planning. We announced COIL in April 2021 and launched our first set of CE-building programs by the end of that summer.

What were some of the challenges you encountered?

The unexpected COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest challenge we have encountered. We started our first efforts under Our Food Future in mid-2019, and the pandemic’s full effect struck 6-8 months later. Many programs had to be moved online and delivered with new approaches, with planning meetings and collaboration events being held via video conferences – and they all had to be just as engaging as if held in person. We persisted and, to this day, our stakeholders remain committed to our shared vision.

What do you consider to be Guelph-Wellington Smart Cities’ biggest success?

Collaboration. The Smart Cities (Guelph-Wellington) team is fewer than 10 full-time people. We rely heavily on the enthusiastic efforts of our collaborators. We have both local and national subject-matter-expert networks, and locally and provincially, we work with our City and County colleagues, social enterprises, innovative businesses, resource producers, and related academics. Across Canada, we stay connected with other leading circular economy organizations to ensure our priorities and efforts are aligned. Collaboration is key as it ensures incremental value is truly delivered and that there is little to no duplication of work. Best practices and learnings can quickly and easily be shared along established stakeholder networks so that developed knowledge can inform the current priorities and actions of all involved.

What makes your organization unique?

Our attachment to both the City of Guelph and the County of Wellington makes us unique, provides us a distinct perspective, and allows us to experiment within an urban-rural municipal setting. Our organization is a collaborative between two local governments, many community agencies, and multiple business leaders. We have an executive director, however we follow a distributed leadership model with a focus on community-capacity building. 

How do you feel your organization makes the world better?

Smart Cities (Guelph-Wellington) helps affect positive change in the world by sharing our circular economy expertise and experience. We know that circularity is an improved economic model versus a linear one – a circular economy is more efficient, uses resources more productively, and protects biodiversity. We also know that the shift to a circular economy is essential to achieve net-zero targets, as simply transitioning to renewables is not enough to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions going into our atmosphere. How we help make the world better is by acting on this knowledge. Our organization shares its work and impact with other communities and municipalities so that they understand both the urgency for and the opportunity of a circular economy. 

We use our expertise and experience to educate businesses and organizations across supply chains and within material streams on how circular practices and systems-thinking can help reduce both their costs and their impact on the environment. We consider ourselves a “think and do” organization – we learn from testing ideas and piloting projects, and we share our gained knowledge with others in an effort to broaden and accelerate actions that will drive the circular economy across Canada and around the world. 

Our work helps identify the strongest ideas and innovations that have the greatest positive impact on the development of the circular economy in Canada.

How can capital be used as a force for positive change?

We are a not-for-profit organization. Our circular economy initiatives are primarily funded by Infrastructure Canada (Our Food Future) and Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (Circular Opportunity Innovation Launchpad). We receive in-kind support from the City of Guelph and the County of Wellington in the form of services such as legal, IT, finance, and HR – as well as office space. Some of our specific efforts and research projects have received support from private-sector funders such as Co-operators, Desjardins (GoodSpark Fund), Maple Leaf Foods, and Scotiabank (Net Zero Research Fund). On a larger scale, both public and private sectors provide capital to support organizations, such as ours, to boost circular economy development, as they have identified the economic, environmental, and social benefits of such efforts. Then, the capital can be deployed further to enterprises in the form of educational programming or innovation funding to test new ideas, products, or practices. Our work helps identify the strongest ideas and innovations that have the greatest positive impact on the development of the circular economy in Canada. 

Thank you to the governments and businesses who have recognized the need for change and who have provided capital to positively affect it.

Tell us about Guelph-Wellington Smart Cities goals.

Our goal is to accelerate the transition to a circular economy across Canada, rather than continue with the current linear take-make-waste economic model. Not only will a circular economy be more productive and efficient in its use of resources, but it is also essential for our country to achieve its net-zero targets under its climate plan.

Specific to Our Food Future, our goal is to build a technology-enabled and modern circular food economy in Guelph-Wellington, Ontario: a more resilient model where we reimagine an inclusive food-secure ecosystem where access to affordable, nutritious food is increased by 50%; where surplus and excess materials are perceived as resources and not “waste;” where at least 50 new circular businesses and/or collaborations are created; and where circular economic revenues are increased by 50%.

With COIL, our goal is to accelerate climate-smart circularity through businesses, organizations, supply chains, and material streams. We began our efforts in the food and construction, renovation and demolition sectors, however our goal is to advance circular- and systems-thinking across all segments of the economy.

Are there any upcoming initiatives or projects you’d like to share?

We’re very proud to share that COIL has recently been granted $100,000 from Scotiabank’s Net Zero Research Fund to develop a circular economy assessment methodology to identify, evaluate, and validate the best innovations and practices that will accelerate circularity. We are piloting our project in the agriculture sector as there is no current method available for firms, NGOs, investors, and policymakers to recognize, assess, and incent the development of innovative practices. Our research work, focused on regenerative farming, will be field-tested in our local living lab here in Guelph-Wellington. Our newly developed methodology will then be replicated in other sectors to ensure that related efforts and funding will support only the strongest climate-smart ideas, innovations, and practices to advance a new circular economy.

What do you most want people to know about your organization?

Smart Cities (Guelph-Wellington) is here to help. Everything we do is in service to drive the transition to a circular economy across Canada. With Our Food Future, we share our developed best practices, lessons learned, and identified obstacles with all interested cities and regions so that they can work more quickly in their development of a local circular food system, and we have communicated our work and its impact on both national and international stages. With COIL, we provide funding, education, and a network to help companies and organizations either start on or move along the path toward circularity.

How can people help or contribute to your organization’s mission?

It starts with rethinking waste. We must stop perceiving products at the end of their life-cycle as garbage, but rather as materials that can be used as resources for new and essential items. Our improved perception doesn’t just apply to consumer products – this new lens also concerns buildings, cars, industrial goods, etc. The less we have to go back to the Earth for its resources, and the more we reuse and recycle materials diverted from landfills, the better off we will all be.  

This story was featured in the Make The World Better Magazine:

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