Industrial Symbiosis Programs: International Lessons

By Tracy Casavant, Executive Director, Light House Sustainable Building Center and James Woodcock, International Manager, International Synergies Ltd (UK)

Canada is set to become the 21st country to launch a National Industrial Symbiosis Program. In the past ten years since the first NISP was launched in the UK, the NISP model has been evolving, meaning Canada is in a good position to apply the lessons learned from other countries. And so, in no particular order, here is what we have learned.

Lesson 1: It Matters Who’s in Charge

While government support of NISPs is critical, government agencies don’t make the best delivery agents, even if they are agencies that do not have a regulatory role. Delivery agents from the private sector who employ people with experience in industry are better received by businesses.

In Canada, a research report prepared by students at Concordia’s John Molson School for Business determined that a not-for-profit, arms-length organization would be an ideal delivery agent. A not-for-profit structure demonstrates to businesses that the program provider is not seeking to profit from the businesses efforts, but really is there to champion the businesses’ efforts. A not-for-profit structure is also important to access many types of government and private funding in Canada.

Cities (local governments) can be involved as financial and logistical supporters; advisory council participants; and even program participants – a municipal wastewater treatment plant can participate as a ‘business’. And of course, NISPs help cities to achieve many of their policy goals (see our previous blog post); provide important feedback regarding policy issues and economic development opportunities, and can provide data to support sustainability reporting.

Lesson 2: Capitalize on Existing Networks

Industrial associations can be important for recruiting large numbers of members. Working with trade associations, depending on how they are organised, can lead to rapid replication of synergies.

In Canada, this will mean working with organizations such as the Alberta Industrial Heartland Association, local Chambers of Commerce, or ClimateSmart, which has more than 700 business members. And, local economic development officers / agencies associated with Cities will also be important partners helping NISP-Canada to connect with local businesses.

Lesson 3: It Takes Two, Baby…. Or Three or Four

Apart from simple by-products, say wooden pallets, it is rare for materials to go from A to B without some form of transformation (which is often where jobs and new business start- ups are created) and added value. Working with a number of companies in one synergy can make something that individually would not be economical viable. The NISP model helps to identify these opportunities through its special workshop process, and through the use of dedicated regional practitioners who can connect companies working on similar synergies within a region… or even within the international NISP network.

Lesson 4: Pilot Wisely

The scope of a pilot should also be similar to the scope of a full-program, or the benefits may not be substantial enough to generate support for a full program. For example, it can be detrimental to launch a pilot without resources for at least one, dedicated practitioner to start and without at least a one year commitment so that multiple workshops can be delivered, and there is sufficient time for synergies to progress from idea to implementation (and performance measurement).

NISP Canada is seeking enough resources to launch each pilot region with at least 2 practitioners, for 2 years.

Pre-feasibility work around the specific delivery model can also be helpful.

Cities for People specifically supported pre-feasibility work for NISP-Canada that supported the development of the business plan for the pilot.

Pilot activities can raise awareness and enthusiasm but it is important that there is not too much time passing between pilot and realisation of practical delivery to not dampen expectations and enthusiasm.

The NISP model allows for frequent performance measurement. As the NISP-Canada pilot proceeds, these interim results will be used to seek support for a permanent program so that a permanent program can begin right after the pilot.

Lesson 5: Be Practical

It is important to balance academic research in potential synergies with practical delivery. Don’t get lost in researching the potential of a synergy to the detriment of progressing the synergy through to practical completion. This is one of the most counter-intuitive lessons of NISPs – we do not need to conduct exhaustive material and energy flow analyses to identify synergies. Life is too short for full life-cycle analysis every time!

The NISP model relies carefully structured and facilitated workshops and specially, consistently trained practitioners to ensure a practical focus. NISP-Canada will of course adhere to that model.

Lesson 6: Research Does Have a Role

It is important to connect with research institutes, incubator companies, and venture capital to realise demand-pull on innovation from identified innovation synergies.

NISP-Canada will work with organizations such as universities or angel investor networks in each region, for example inviting representatives to observe at workshops to identify synergies from which they might benefit in supporting e.g., as an investor or to develop new technology that will remove a technical barrier.

Lesson 7: All Aboard – Engage Key Stakeholders Early

Building a broad understanding of the NISP model, such as including key stakeholders in some of the initial training, yields big benefits later in programme life.

The NISP-Canada Pilot will include key stakeholders, such as representatives from industry associations, in some of the early practitioner training. This will also help to create regional program ambassadors who can support practitioners in engaging as many businesses as possible as quickly as possible. (See also Lesson 2)

Lesson 8: Data Can Be A Common Language

The use of a common database system (SynergIE™) allows for regional programs to be linked, ensuring cross-regional activity can occur (even occasionally across different countries). The use of the SynergIE™ platform also facilitates the sharing of synergy opportunities and lessons learned across the network of countries with NISPs.

NISP-Canada, including the pilot phase, will also use the SynergIE™ platform. i.e., expertise and implementation tricks from one region will be available to all in the network.

Lesson 9: NISPs Can Be Many Things to Many People

NISPs can be driven from many directions – social, economic, and environmental. This is a strength of the model. Initially, the UK programme was based on landfill diversion because a landfill tax was due to be implemented. The tax was delayed and the drivers of the programme needed to be changed. . Although initial engagement by some companies may have been because of the landfill tax, they soon began to recognise NISP as a business opportunity programme. From institutions and governments, NISP has been recognised as a tool for climate change mitigation, eco-innovation, regional economic development and material security.

As discussed in the last blog post (URL), NISPs help cities to achieve goals as diverse as boosting businesses’ competitiveness to diverting waste from landfill. NISP-Canada is reaching out to a diverse group of partners, recognizing this strength.

Lesson 10: Return on Investment Can Be Fast!

Return on investment can be quick and often doesn’t require new regulations or complicated agreements. The experience of NISPs has shown that there are quick wins that can appear within 3-6 months. Although some synergies involving innovation/new technologies do take some time, there are many synergies that can be implemented quickly and have a culture change effect on the companies involved to want to do more. As the programme incorporates measurements, these quick wins can be quickly turned in to case studies/examples to encourage others.
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