Launch of BioEcoJust Open Horizon Scanning

Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh & Amos T. Taylor

A key part of any high-quality futures research project is active horizon scanning. In our work for the BioEcoJust project, we have made it part of our research design to continually seek, analyze and share new information regarding our focal topic − the bioeconomy. Up until this point, we have only shared our horizon scanning items and future insights within our small futures team. One could argue that doing so is wise in the competitive world of research − moats not bridges. We however believe that being open with our horizon scanning outcomes will contribute to our project’s societal impact while also doing important sharing work within the research community of the larger Academy of Finland BioFutures 2025 programme.

Earlier this week, we decided we would pilot a more open horizon scanning process. This is the first installment. Our goal is to share the top three to five most interesting items we find every week on the FFRC blog. Because establishing an active new communication channel would cost us a lot of valuable research time, we see this strategy as a win-win for our project and for the FFRC community. Our research efforts win because we will be forced to further synthesize our analysis of our items found through horizon scanning. And society wins because what we share could lead to new and productive actions, perspectives, and insights. Furthermore, we invite readers to share any items you find that you think our project will find useful.

Because you are joining us midway in our horizon scanning journey, you will probably need a brief introduction to the sensemaking tools we’ve created so far. There are three main tools:

  • The human-technology-nature triangle. We find the longstanding and dynamic relationships among humans, technology, and nature are useful for making sense of the motivations behind various bioeconomy activities.
  • Three Socio-Technological Domains. We’ve identified three indicative socio-technological domains: forestry, soil, and algae. These do not comprehensively capture all activity in innovative activity in the bioeconomy, but do convey some of the variation and depth of this activity. Forestry refers to all efforts to better manage and generate more value from forests. Soil refers to all efforts to leverage soil’s capacities to capture carbon as a way to address climate change (e.g. regenerative agriculture). Algae refers to many efforts surrounding the use simple living systems to produce chemicals, foods, fuels, and materials for human consumption.
  • Five BioWorlds. Building on the Scenarios as Worldmaking (see Balcom Raleigh et al. 2018), we have identified five worlds or worldview archetypes that various actors in the bioeconomy occupy. Each BioWorld has different characterizations of the human-technology-nature These BioWorlds are Bio-Utilisation, Bio-Mimicry, Bio-Upgrade, Bio-Recovery and Bio-Equality. The first two are hopefully self-evident. Bio-Upgrade refers to actors and activities engaging in upgrading lifeforms. Bio-Recovery refers to applying radical technology to restoring degraded or destroyed ecosystems. Bio-Equality refers to actors advocating for equal status for all living beings.

These and other emerging sensemaking tools produced from our past horizon scanning efforts feed into the present and future horizons scanning work we are doing. On one level, they serve as attractors for information − for example, we may see a headline and think, “this could be useful because it could be part of BioMimicry world.” On another level, they can be applied while interpreting an item for its future potentials. While discussing the launch of this open horizon scanning series of blog posts, we decided we’d start by losely applying the following framework to produce brief ‘first takes’ about what we’re seeing in what we share with our readers. For each item we share, we will generally include the following elements:

  1. The found horizon scanning item, a brief description, and a short header capturing its essence.
  2. How the item relates to other items we’ve encountered;
  3. How it relates to our existing sense-making tools (e.g. BioWorlds, Human-Technology-Nature Triangle, Three Tech Domains)
  4. Potential futures we interpret from the item.

Before we present our first five items, we ought to mention that our project is concerned with the year 2125. If you find it tough to imagine, think of the great-grandchildren of today’s three-year old children. These descendents will be in their 20s and 30s in 100-some years. Close your eyes and let that sink in for a minute before you continue.

Now, without further ado, here is this week’s top five BioEcoJust horizon scanning items:

1. Milk from Bioreactors

Orispää, Oili (2018) Maitoa ilman lehmää ja munia ilman kanaa – suomalaiset keksivät, miten maailman kasvavaa väestöä ruokitaan. 19.9.2018, accessed 20.9.2018.

This news item is about the work of researcher Lauri Reuter at VTT who has successfully produced milk proteins via bioreactors and microbes. This is an example for the Bio-Upgrade world and also linked to to the concept of bio-based production, in this case, of food. It is similar to the YCombinator story we saw earlier about the rising startup theme of cellular agriculture and the DARPA-funded 10 thousand molecules research project which aims to find a way to make 10 thousand useful chemicals via bio-based means.

2. DNA for Data Storage

Hyde, Embriette (2018) From magnetic tape to the “DNA hard drive:” entering the next frontier with DNA data storage. SynBioBeta 16.9.2018, accessed 17.9.2018.

This is a fascinating example of BioMimicry world (plus some parts of BioUpgrade, although they the purpose of this technology is not improve existing lifeforms but rather to create a data storage technology using a one of life’s core concepts − DNA. One of the entrepreneurs interviewed claims there could be a commercially available DNA storage product in 10 years.

3. Inequality and the biosphere

Hamann, Maike – Kevin Berry – Tomas Chaigneau – Tracie Curry – Robert Heilmayr –  Patrik J.G. Henriksson – Jonas Hentati-Sundberg – Amir Jina – Emilie Lindkvist – Yolanda Lopez-Maldonado – Emmi Nieminen – Mat´ıas Piaggio – Jiangxiao Qiu – Juan C. Rocha – Caroline Schill – Alon Shepon – Andrew R. Tilman – Inge van den Bijgaart – Tong Wu (2018) Inequality and the Biosphere. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol. 43.

Amos noticed this item late in the week. It is an academic article that defines inequality in terms of society and the biosphere, then digs into the interactions among these concepts. We find it highly valuable to our development of the BioEquality world as it discusses interactions among human society and the natural living world. As an aside, the authors “define the biosphere broadly as the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships in the thin layer of life between the Earth’s crust and outer space” − which really puts things in perspective.

4. Other Species recruited to help humans sense impacts of the melting ice sheets

Culliford, Elizabeth – Jackson, Lucas (2018) Harsh climate: The struggle to track global sea level rise. Reuters Graphics 20.9.2018, accessed 21.9.2018.

This item describes some of the key technologies being used to track impacts of global warming on Greenland’s ice and glaciers through NASA’s OMG program. Biomimicry world partially appears in the form of the sensor strategy used by the research team–human made robots are not nearly as agile swimmers as seals, halibut, or small ’unicorn’ whales. Biorecovery world partly appears as the recently launched space-based monitoring satellite that will provide highly precise data about the Earth’s two ice sheets. The future potentials here include humans increasing their use of other species to monitor planetary systems and future high resolution datasets for verifying and modeling climate change and rising sea level.

5. Large-Scale Walls vs. Large-Scale Complexity

Wolovick, M. J. and Moore, J. C. (2018) Stopping the flood: could we use targeted geoengineering to mitigate sea level rise? The Cryosphere, Vol. 12, 2955−2967.

Geo-engineering offers solutions to climate change at giant scales intended to tackle global problems at their natural and geological source. In a recent proposition to avert the impending Antarctic glacial collapse that has been noted to be the largest contributor to future sea level rise, scientists Wolovick & Moore (2018) suggest innovations to mitigate the degradation and melting of the Thwarties Glacier in West Antarctica, echoing the idea presented in this post on WEForum. This we might understand as a contingency plan to slow the melting ice contributing to sea rise that threatens human habitat along coastal areas of the globe. It could be seen as linked to the BioRecovery world as human technology is applied to preserve an ecosystem, but it is perhaps more a part of the BioUtility world as humans intervene on natural processes to meet its own agenda − human habitat preservation. In practice, the proposal is an innovative way to stop the ice shelf from breaking away by artificially cooling and anchoring its edges. As an example of radical innovation to mitigate disasters, it signals new forms of resilient engineering that are evocative of coming times. There are ethical questions however, can engineering at such a scale work? At what cost? In the coming future will these projects become commonplace to avert the multitude of threats due to climate change? As China instructs its armies to plant trees at a gigantic scale to improve air quality, and engineers in Norway attempt to capture carbon from the air and store it in caves underground are we moving to a new level of scaled up innovation for planetary protection? This item also reminds us of other ‘walls’ in popular discourse: the walls built to block human migration flows. As Sassen (2018) argues, human migration is fundamentally caused by loss of habitat. Going to the symbolic level, a simple human technology − walls − are being proposed as safeguards against changes wrought by deep changes in the behavior of complex Earth systems. This observation begs the question: Are there alternative metaphors to walls that can serve us better in addressing these multifaceted challenges?

That’s our list for this week. We hope it gave you a taste of our thinking here in the BioEcoJust futures team. We welcome your feedback − particularly about how the above items remind you of items you’ve seen or if you see additional future potentials in the horizon scanning items. Please send your remarks to nabara (a) and Nick will pass them on to our team.

Nicolas A. Balcom Raleigh
MA, Project Researcher 

Amos T. Taylor
MA, Project Researcher


Article picture:

Bridging Industry 4.0 and Circular Economy: A new research agenda for Finland?

Mikkel Stein Knudsen and Jari Kaivo-oja:

Emerging academic research concerns how the principles, practices, and enabling technologies of Industry 4.0 might unlock the potentials of Circular Economy (CE) and sustainable manufacturing (Jabbour et al., 2018; Stock et al., 2018). Digitalisation (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2016;  Antikainen et al., 2018) and the use of Big Data (Hazen et al., 2016; Nobre & Tavares, 2017; Jabbour et al., 2017) are seen as key enablers for increased sustainability and for the implementation of a circular economy. Technology is also a necessary enabler of a move towards Product-Service Systems (Tukker, 2015; Antikainen et al., 2018). As Moreno & Charnley (2016) notes the fundamental drivers behind Circular Economy and Industry 4.0 overlap. It is an obvious fact that the combination of Circular Economy and Industry 4.0 leads us towards the Green Economy vision.

However, research output integrating the two important fields is still very scarce and plenty of unexplored research areas remain. Tseng et al. (2018)  deliver a telling example of the hitherto missing research: While separate queries in Scopus using “Industry 4.0” and “Circular Economy” yields 4060 and 2452 results respectively, a combined search using both “Industry 4.0” and “Circular Economy” as keywords provide only three results (all published in 2017). Combined searches for “Circular Economy” and ´digit*´ (i.e. digital, digitalisation etc.) provide similarly limited results (Antikainen et al., 2018). Stock et al. (2018) make the point even broader, as they conclude, there are rarely any sustainability assessments for Industry 4.0 available”. All transition paths are not automatically leading us to sustainable development and greener infrastructures, which typically mean sustainable land use, widely adopted green consumption lifestyles and broad industrial use of nature saving technologies.

If we – ‘we’ as researchers, as Finland, as the international society – should harness the potential synergies of these two emerging business systems, and strive for a transition to a greener economy, there is therefore plenty of work ahead. It seems likely though that solving this integration puzzle, however, will also bring major (business) opportunities and a competitive advantage for the future.

Industry 4.0 and a new sustainability optimism?

Stock et al. (2018) note that most literature linking sustainability and Industry 4.0 do so with a basic tenor of optimism. Opportunities for increased sustainability by using novel technological opportunities in combinations with new business models take centre stage. Improved traceability of smart products through the entire supply chain and during the products’ use phase allow manufacturers continuously to optimize the performance of both product and production, which may deliver a more efficient use of resources. For industrial practitioners sustainability, environmental, and social opportunities is also a noted driver for implementation of Industry 4.0 (Müller et al., 2018). Highlighting what is at stake for a green economy transition, Erol (2016) even asks thought-provokingly if Industry 4.0 is the very last chance for a truly sustainable production?

Notably, the United Nations also talks of ‘Big Data for Sustainable Development’, and how “new sources of data, new technologies, and new analytical approaches, if applied responsively, can enable more agile, efficient and evidence-based decision-making and can better measure progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a way that is both inclusive and fair”.

Source: United Nations

While this ‘optimistic’ strand of research is obviously both highly relevant and highly inspiring, increased technology uptake could also happen unsustainably. Rise of enabling technologies behind Industry 4.0 is mirrored by rising demands for scarce resources such as (certain) metals and also highly dependent on increasing consumption of energy.  We can probably sum things up this way, “Industry 4.0 and its related technologies may facilitate more sustainable production, but sustainability is not an endogenous feature of Industry 4.0.”

Industry 4.0 and its related technologies may facilitate more sustainable production, but sustainability is not an endogenous feature of Industry 4.0.

Dual challenges: A sustainable Industry 4.0 and Industry 4.0 for sustainability

In the context of sustainability, new technologies might indeed come Janus-faced. Additive manufacturing and 3D printing disrupts supply chains and reduces the need for large inventories, such as in the aero-industry (cf. Khajarvi et al., 2014). Instead, parts are manufactured (printed) at the time of actual demand, increasing efficiency and reducing waste. On the other hand, beyond specific supply chains, when every part and product can be produced anywhere and at any given time, it takes little fantasy to imagine marked reductions of product lifecycles and overall increases in consumption. Additive manufacturing is therefore not a guarantee for more sustainable production and consumption (cf. review by Kellens et al., 2017 & Holmström & Gutowski, 2017).  On average, production processes using additive manufacturing even results in a higher environmental impact than conventional production processes, although this could be compensated by functional improvements during the use stage of AM manufactured parts (Kellens et al., 2017). In her highly cited literature review, Aalto University’s Cindy Kohtala (2015) concluded “Distributed production holds promise of greater environmental sustainability, but it is not a given that it will be a new, clearly cleaner production paradigm.”

Figure 1. Environmental threats and benefits of distributed production (e.g. decentralized 3D-printing). Source: Kohtala, 2015.

Interconnectivity and continuous massive amounts of data also come with an environmental price: In Denmark for example, the government expects that international data centres will take up 20% of the current national electricity consumption by 2030. The global electricity consumption for mining cryptocurrency using Blockchain-technology already today exceeds the current national electricity consumption of Finland significantly, according to consumption estimates in a recent issue of The Economist (2018).

The challenge then is (simultaneously!) to build a sustainable Industry 4.0 and to use Industry 4.0 to build sustainability. In other words, society must: (1) Ensure to the widest extent possible sustainability and circular economy as a feature in the ecosystem of Industry 4.0-enabling technologies, (2) Explore and exploit the enabling potential of Industry 4.0 for building more sustainable business models and production systems. These challenges are illustrated in figure 2.

Figure 2. Circular Economy for Industry 4.0 and Industry 4.0 for Circular Economy.

A new research agenda for Finland?

Finland is well poised to be an international leader in the bridging of Industry 4.0 and Circular Economy. Finland is already among the global drivers of Circular Economy. It is a stated objective of the current government to make Finland a “forerunner in the circular economy by 2025”. In addition, Finland is one of the most digitalised countries of the world, and a world-leader in many areas related to Industry 4.0. Our current project – Manufacturing 4.0 – aims at translating this into a success story for the general manufacturing industry of Finland.

It would seem natural then that Finland should also take the lead in bridging Industry 4.0 with Circular Economy. This could secure long-term competitive advantages for Finnish industry and simultaneously improve the local and global environment.

This new research agenda of bridging Industry 4.0 with Circular Economy would not start from scratch, but as the recent literature shows, there are still many research areas to explore. For us, a new research agenda could for example further address some of these key questions:

The countries, which are able to integrate Industry 4.0 approach to the principles of the Circular Economy, are the probably forerunners of Industry 4.0 revolution. However, as we can see above, the list of challenges in Industry 4.0 transformation is not short.  We know also that many economic activities in many countries are stuck in Industry 1.0-3.0 phases. This means that the Industry 4.0 approach with the Circular Economy approach does not solve all the sustainability problems of globalized world economy. However, remaining to Industry 1.0-3.0 models can also be a highly risky “project” for the long-run sustainability of world economy. Greener economic structures can be developed with Industry 4.0 technologies. We know that Industry 1.0-3.0 stages of development have not yet led us to needed sustainability levels, because climate change and other environmental problems are still far from solved.

In Fig 3 we present a scenario roadmap of Industry 4.0 and circular economy development. This scenario roadmap shows that in the process of Industry 4.0 development, it is not enough to change Industry 4.0 structures to meet the deep requirements of circular economy.

Figure 3. Scenario roadmap of Industry 4.0 and the Circular Economy.

Previous old phases of Industry 1.0, Industry 2.0 and Industry 3.0 require attention concerning the adoption of environmental principles of the Circular Economy. We underline that preconditions of Industry 1.0-3.0 are really pre-conditions for Industry 4.0, but also that the simultaneous transformation towards Industry 4.0 and Circular Economy requires both attention and multiple testing phases. From this perspective we can say: “Let´s try it – let´s pilot it”.


Mikkel Stein Knudsen
Project Researcher, Finland Futures Research Centre, Turku School of Economics, University of Turku

Jari Kaivo-oja
Research Director, Adjunct Professor, Dr, Finland Futures Research Centre, Turku School of Economics, University of Turku

Note: Authors thank for Try Out! and Manufacturing 4.0 projects for financial support.