Maria Rampa: Hi I’m Maria Rampa and welcome to this episode of Engineering Reimagined.
Amidst the evolving landscape of our world and the experiences that shape our lives, who hasn’t questioned the career choices we’ve made from time to time? Particularly if our values have shifted and our work no longer fulfils our purpose.
In recent years, new industries and opportunities have emerged from our necessity to combat climate change, engage in more sustainable practices, and highlight the biodiversity imperative.
It’s within this context that many people have wondered if they could play a more significant role, and transitioned their careers towards addressing some of the sustainability challenges we are facing.
In this episode of Engineering Reimagined, we hear from two such people who have moved into careers firmly focused on making the world a better place. Jenni Philippe, Associate in the Circular Economy team at Aurecon, speaks to Climateworks System Lead, Tom Wainwright, about reshaping your career with a sustainability focus and the role innovation plays in developing the circular economy.
Let’s hear what they have to say.
Jenni Philippe: Hi, Tom. Great to have you on this podcast today.
Tom Wainwright: Thanks, Jenny.
Jenni Philippe: I'm really excited about this conversation today. Just to start us off, the IPCC's 2023 climate change report came out not long ago and describes this step as a final warning for us to consider. Knowing that there are many opportunities for businesses to pave the way for positive change. From your perspective, Tom, what can businesses do to ensure we have a liveable future?
Tom Wainwright: It's important to acknowledge the urgency and the imperative, but also the opportunity for businesses as part of this. And the fact that there is a pathway forward for us. The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has consistently demonstrated that 1.5 degrees, if the world warms beyond that, the impacts on our way of life, our business become exponentially worse. The cost of inaction now is greater than trying to fix it later. So, the debate is no longer on the what, it's on the how. And Climateworks and others have shown that it is possible to reach net zero and decarbonise largely through existing solutions. Corporates have a huge role to play. The majority of emissions comes from the corporate sector and those organisations hold huge positions of power and influence. So, what can a big business do? I think first of all, everybody needs to step back, understand your risks, your impacts related to climate, but also increasingly nature and communities set science-based targets relevant to the sectors and the geographies that you operate in according to whatever technology pathways gives us the best shot at limiting global warming, not whatever happens to best suit your current business model. It's going to be increasingly important to disclose credible transition plans to get there. Your short, medium and long-term actions, how to finance these, what metrics and internal governance you're going to put in place to deliver that plan. You're really going to have to show you're going to walk the walk as well as talk it and have an engagement strategy in place, because climate change is too big for any one company to solve it alone. This will all soon be mandated. It's already expected through international initiatives like ISSB and TPT and the increasing CBAM legislation and a path to sustainable finance. So, there's a lot businesses can do and it will increasingly be asked to do.
Jenni Philippe: Not a small job but hopefully a lot of organisations are already on that path and trying to do that progress over perfection. We're seeing a lot of greenwashing issues at the moment and how do we set targets that are ambitious but also that are achievable and realistic. Many organisations have set net zero targets and they face significant challenges in reaching them. So how are you helping organisations on their path to net zero with Climateworks?
Tom Wainwright: For those who might now know, we’re a non-profit research and advisory institution within Monash University, part of the Monash Sustainable Development Institute. We seek to bridge research and real action in order to catalyse change. So a lot of bigger picture systems thinking, really looking and listening to businesses about where those gaps might be. We do a lot of public work around scenarios and pathways to limit global warming to 1.5°. Public assessments of whether companies are doing enough. Always interesting to be on both sides of that fence. We seek to trigger early action and implementation by helping others to pilot some of those new solutions and new products and creating opportunities for collaboration. And finally, embedding change in systems, whether that's regulation, technology and capacity building. So training and education we do a bit of advisory, but only where it matters, where it's a path to scale. If we can work with a big bank or big supermarket, imagine how that cascades change across the entire system. There's so many areas of mutual benefit and if we can help identify the win-wins for companies, we can really get them going.
Jenni Philippe: We share a bit in common together around our career paths. We've not always been in the sustainability and climate change or circular economy space. My background originally is in business innovation and transformation. Six years ago, out of personal interest and challenges, I guess to live a zero-waste lifestyle, I felt that I had to make a decision and shift my energy to solve those big problems and moved into the circular economy space to really transfer that innovation and business transformation into driving more sustainable outcomes for society and the environment. That trigger came from having children and really thinking about the longer-term effect of how we live and how our societies is organised. Turning that to you, Tom, what got you into this career transition and how did you make your way to Climateworks?
Tom Wainwright: Well, probably an appropriate opportunity in the podcast to put out my first disclaimer, which is I don't have a background in engineering or STEM either. Like you, I come more from a business consulting, technology consulting background. And I think it was back in 2016 when I was living in the UK, I was questioning the value of what I was doing. It was intellectually stimulating. What we were achieving, creating more money for banks or outsourcing jobs to other countries. It's not the sort of stories that you want to be able to look back on and tell your grandkids necessarily, or certainly I didn't. So, I was motivated by passion, purpose and impact. And I tried to shift my career around that time. I had a bit of an eye-opening moment, realising that my core skills, project management and organisation change, business strategy, could be pivoted and repurposed to achieve more sustainable outcomes. I got knocked back then, got told you need to be from a strategy background and have an MBA and the market wasn't ready. And I remember thinking, I don't believe that. I reckon anybody can be doing this sort of work. Fast forward a few years. I moved over to Australia where I met you and that was around the time after the bushfires and the floods and the plague of locusts and all sorts of crazy climate-related events all happening at the same time, and you could really sense the mood shift in the country. I saw there's a real business opportunity here for people like me to have a more positive impact on the world. So pushed quite hard. I upskilled myself to reposition my own role for impact. I wasn't successful in fully driving that change at the organisation I was at. So that was when I moved to Climateworks. And it's amazing how you can accelerate your career by moving into an area that you're passionate about.
Jenni Philippe: When I did make my shift, had to do a lot of upskilling and back a few years it was quite difficult to get a job in sustainability. I remember applying for over hundreds of jobs, and not getting any single response because I didn't quite fit the exact profile. Sustainability has now become a critical business imperative and people want to be involved. I get calls almost every week from people from all walks of life looking to make the shift, and they all ask me the same question. How someone was not trained in sustainability, repurpose their skills and make the transition. So keen to hear your thoughts around how we can help people make that shift.
Tom Wainwright: If I were to list some of my skills, obviously sustainability strategy and systems thinking is up there now, but the bedrock of my career is built on program design, human-centred design, organisational change management, business strategy. And when you hear from the business community about what it's going to take from them to shift their priorities and what they need, they'll always say they need more technical skills, but they'll also talk about leadership, mindset, technology gaps. If people want tips, I would say read and just get a feel for the breadth of the topics, but also which ones you might want to specialise in or you find most interesting. Build your network. Internally as well as externally. Be proactive in shaping your own role and maybe even take on that internal advocacy role both for yourself but we all need to be working to make the world a better place. If you can't shift your current role, if you can help shift the organisation to have a more sustainable purpose, then your role will follow.
Jenni Philippe: What sort of benefit do you think people with business and / or STEM backgrounds bring to working in sustainability and climate change?
Tom Wainwright: I look at a lot of the existing technical engineering or scientific roles at the moment in chemistry, mechanical engineering, physics, they've got to be pretty excited about the opportunity to either dive into some of those new technologies and R&D programs. There's a lot of new technical knowledge out there that's going to be fantastically valuable to businesses as they try and seize the opportunities around these new and emerging technologies. You can really support the transition of some of the existing industries and workforces. Something like offshore oil and gas and harnessing those skills and all that institutional knowledge to really scale the new industries around offshore wind and green hydrogen infrastructure and shipping ammonia, or forestry, all those skills are super relevant for regeneration and resilience of our habitats. What we need to get this global transformation moving at pace is system integrators, problem solvers, collaborators, communicators. In the short term, those people can drive that change and identify the value and the opportunity. But long term, these are the people who need to run a sustainable business. And that problem doesn't go away. It's just now reframed in different outcomes and goals.
Jenni Philippe: There's definitely something for everybody to really add the sustainability or climate change elements to their role. As you mentioned, it's a system transformation. It needs that multi-disciplinary, diverse point of view on how do we solve that problem that no one really has got an answer. What kind of roles do you think we'll need more of in the future to continue to drive climate change?
Tom Wainwright: We're clearly in a massive transition, the scale of the Industrial Revolution or the digital and internet revolution. It's a hugely complex, dynamic thing that needs to happen at pace and at scale and people who can handle a bit of flexibility, thinking on their feet, working in a more agile way are just naturally going to be better able to respond to the different regulations that keep emerging, the success or failure of different technologies as they progress. Looking a bit further ahead, it's going to be very data driven. The roles that you have in the current business structure around finance and operations, they'll all still be there. They'll just be measuring a different thing. This isn't going to be a total rewriting of the rulebook. A lot of the ways that we assess and measure value and corporate performance and the way that we engage with our stakeholders, that will all still be there. It's just going to be on a slightly different theme than pure profit or operational efficiency.
Jenni Philippe: That's quite optimistic as well to put it that way because it helps people feel like there's a way forward without necessarily needing to completely change from scratch what they're doing and also for businesses to think about, what is the next iteration of our business model? If we were to look specifically, at engineers or designers, advisors, how do they contribute to that climate action?
Tom Wainwright: Those roles are going to be critical to identifying the new solutions and the new sustainable business models that are required to get there. The engineers and designers they're going to need to be quite brave. We need to innovate now harder than we ever have, to save our planet. We need to do it faster and get to scale at a pace that we never have before. There is a ticking clock on how long we've got left to do this. And I think if engineers and designers can embrace that urgency and that agility. They can really get everybody to where we need to be much quicker.
Jenni Philippe: We obviously have been talking about sustainability. And that's a bit of an umbrella term that everybody hopefully now gets a grasp of. To me, I feel that sustainable is not enough anymore. We really need to shift towards that regeneration to build more healthy ecosystems, what could regenerative jobs of the future look like and why is that important?
Tom Wainwright: Taking that longer-term view not to just solve, but also to repair and restore, particularly with the world's increasing population, really is the safest long-term way to get back to a more healthy planetary status quo. I see a huge opportunity for jobs around preserving the knowledge of, particularly in Australia, the traditional owners and custodians of this land who didn't seek to exploit the natural resources like we do, they lived in harmony with a sense of respect, and they did sustain that for tens of thousands of years rather than the short-term damage, which we've achieved. And there's opportunities to support communities who are impacted by the energy transition and leverage those skills they have. Our forestry workers can help restore the resilience and vibrancy of the land that they’re so familiar with and getting more value out of it in the form of tourism and carbon sequestration. A lot of jobs around regeneration will play on existing skills around measuring, monitoring, balancing competing priorities and understanding the value of what you're doing, The scientists who are going out and counting the greater gliders and the pygmy possums, those niche interests are now going to increasingly be integrated into core business performance, huge opportunities for cross-pollination of skills and collaboration for mutual benefit.
Jenni Philippe: It's really exciting and it's shining a light on the importance of biodiversity and how that interconnects with the economy. There's a lot of conflicting priorities at the moment for leaders of organisations.
Tom Wainwright: I have a lot of sympathy for business with some of that because it is so complex. People have only just got up to speed and got a handle on TCFD and climate reporting. And now when it comes to nature and increasingly social impacts, even just getting agreement and clarity on those metrics is pretty challenging. If you don't do that, you can get some pretty perverse outcomes. If you want to reduce somewhere like Indonesia or Brazil's emissions, hydropower or solar at scale across the land might look like a good solution but that equals huge destruction of rainforest and pristine habitat. So this is where you need that systems thinking approach in order to balance the different priorities.
Jenni Philippe: A system thinking approach is probably not a very common skillset that you find in in business. And I can definitely see an emerging interest across a range of sectors for this way of thinking. System thinking is part of circular economy, which is the space that I work in. And the circular economy is really a great enabler for decarbonisation. A circular economy is a closed loop system where you’re shifting from that linear model to minimising waste and pollution and really keeping those products and materials in use for longer. And that element of regeneration, making sure that whatever we take away from nature, we give back and create that positive reinforcing outcome. We're working with government at the moment on circular design guidelines and understanding what are the carbon abatement costs related to those circular strategies and understanding which ones, between repairing and reusing or building for modularity or using recycled content, which of those strategies have the best carbon emission reduction potential and are they competing with each other, or are they in synergy. We see reuse for instance, it's got a massive potential because the materials and the buildings are already there and all that carbon emission has been already impacting with all that effort we've put into putting buildings and infrastructure in place. How do you see the circular economy, decarbonisation play out in the future from your perspective?
Tom Wainwright: I think getting started with something like Scope 3 is actually a really good stepping stone to circular economy because it's the first time where you need to understand your wider impacts and role and value in a small and contained system, but still a supply chain around maybe a particular product or initiative. And the work that we have done with the Climate Leaders Coalition, which is a group of more than 50 CEOs and their delegates from Australia's largest companies, was all about just getting people in the room for the first time, understanding it from their perspective along the supply chain, understanding how you can actually collectively problem solve in order for wider benefit. Because at the end of the day you bring down your scope 1, it's someone else's scope three, you can bring down everyone's emissions and maybe even everybody benefits from being able to charge a green premium at the end of it. And I think that will translate quite quickly into how to solve the circular economy, understanding emissions flows across the supply chain is then a good stepping stone to understanding material flows and waste. And that data might not be as readily available as emissions data at the moment because companies haven't been focusing on it for so long. But it's there, it can be gathered, it can be developed. Learning from the work we did last year, don't let perfect get in the way of progress. Get started, understand the value of it. It's just good business. There's inherent value in these limited and precious materials. So, let's keep them in use for longer and just think a bit longer-term rather than just your classic take-make-waste lifecycle.
Jenni Philippe: Material moves across and has different ownership across its lifecycle, right? That's one of the challenges with the circular economy and also this scope 3, how do you manage that multi-stakeholder accountability and how do you hand off those responsibilities across the lifecycle of materials? So obviously cross industry collaboration or even cross value chain collaboration is really essential to drive that outcome. What type of innovation do you think is required to support that collaboration and that whole value chain transformation?
Tom Wainwright: Innovation is critical for the circular economy because it just involves so many different players across the system. It's a really exciting time for anyone involved in startups, and that's bottom-up experimenting and problem solving when it comes to particular materials or products be prepared to work with new teams, new people who you might not have previously collaborated with. At the organisational level, you need real innovation now around processes and business models. You need to really think through how to break some of those open loops and close the loop on certain materials, having a longer-term view of ROI and really understanding the value of keeping those materials in use for longer, and particularly that collaboration across the supply chain, you won't be able to solve it just yourself. You've got to think about your upstream, your downstream. How can you all collaborate and innovate together? It might be a product focused solution initially when you get started, but where the system thinking really comes in is much more at that jurisdictional level, even international, you've got to at pace think through the new market structures, data and technology solutions that's going to be needed to make all this fit together and work, particularly across states and international borders. It's almost a totally new economy and market that needs creating here and orchestrated in a way that works.
Jenni Philippe: You look at data and the latest circular economy report tells us that only 7.2% of the world’s economy is circular and we're actually going backwards, which is not great to see. The reason behind that is that the middle class around the world is exponentially growing. And while we're trying to reduce material consumption and make better use of it, there's a natural exponential need that's a bit out of control here. There is a huge opportunity to transform our global economy and really see how do we still cater, in a fair and just way, to all humans around the world and not punish those that need access to great social services. Governments are starting to introduce a range of policies to transition to a more circular economy. The Netherlands, for instance, are requiring that all government purchases made from sustainable and circular suppliers. There's a range of things happening around the world, mostly in Europe, we're seeing some really great leadership in that space. Just talking about my home country that recently the Minister for the EcoLogical Transition was saying that they're working on a tax system to support circularity and making sure that we're incentivising and reducing tax for circular products, repair and remanufactured products or product as a service as opposed to raw materials being virgin. From your experience, what can you say from other countries, what they're doing in terms of circular economy and what could be transferred to us here in Australia?
Tom Wainwright: I think it's fair to say Europe often does take the lead on these things, and I think it does have better conditions for innovation than Australia. So, some good lessons learned and knowledge sharing about why that's the case and how they achieve that. Is it risk appetite? Is it skills in academia? I would love to explore that a bit further because, we talked a little bit earlier about having to do this in a way that supports international markets and across jurisdiction. The Netherlands is a small country but is part of the EU, which is, much more complex than the Australian Federation. The states and the federal government. So, the fact that our regulation is still so misaligned and confusing for people to navigate on this topic, I think that should give us some hope and confidence that's probably a quick win and we can catch up. And I think their approach of starting with the data, doing a lot of up-front system and stakeholder mapping to bring the right people together and understand where the interventions are needed is a playbook that we can lift and shift here. Given the size of the Netherlands, there'll be some other good lessons learned for how we set up our new industries. Renewable energy, industrial precincts have a huge circular economy potential as well. If you can get everything designed in the right way and connected upfront. The question of the middle class and what that means for Australia. We do have one of the world's worst per capita emissions and I’d be interested to see how we rank in terms of waste as well.
Jenni Philippe: It is one of the highest per capita.
Tom Wainwright: I'm not shocked. And we've historically exported that waste to our Pacific neighbours too. So going back to the just transition theme, does Australia have a responsibility and expectation for us to be doing more in this space. I suspect so.
Jenni Philippe: Absolutely. Those policy changes like the China soil policy coming into play really shifted the mindset in Australia and shook off the old government system in terms of how do we now respond to that change and what does that mean in terms of our economic and social system. There's obviously a lot of effort at the moment in the remanufacturing space. How do we localise and re-localise the management of our resources and shifting away from the term of waste to resources and creating local jobs? And what does that actually look like? It's a process. Right. We're not there yet.
Tom Wainwright: Australia is fantastically well positioned to benefit from the energy transition because of our natural resources. But when it comes to circular economy, we are a largely resources extractive driven economy with huge export market and people might look at that and think, well, isn't the circular economy a threat? But you look at the direction Europe and other key markets are taking, and demand will reduce because of circularity. But we have a huge opportunity to play a leading global role through what we produce in order to reduce the emissions. You only have to look at the work that some of the big miners are doing already around better recognition of the inherent long-term value of these materials. There's not much left in the ground for some of them, in terms of green steel and circularity, passports and the new blockchain technology solutions for tracking all of that. If Australia can be a bit more forward looking and help set up these new markets in a coordinated, collaborative way, and we're fantastically well positioned to have much more sustainable long-term resources industries that can help the rest of the world achieve their carbon emissions and circular economy goals.
Jenni Philippe: That's a really amazing way to conclude our conversation. A great message of hope and optimism around the size of the opportunity and how we can position ourselves in this changing world. Well, thank you so much, Tom for your time. It was such a great conversation. And keep up the good work.
Tom Wainwright: Thanks so much, Jenny.
Maria Rampa: We hope this episode has given you some food for thought about how you can upskill or transition your career towards tackling some of the ‘wicked problems’ our world is facing.
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Until next time, thanks for listening.