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Annual University Celebration

Celebratory Lecture 2023

Dear Minister, dear Rector,

Board, colleagues and collaboration partners of the University

And dear students at the University of Southern Denmark.

It is a great honour for me to receive the Research Dissemination Prize 2023.

Knowledge is best when it is shared. I am grateful to receive this award for my commitment.

Since 2019, I have been responsible for our Product Development and Innovation Engineering programmes at the University of Southern Denmark. In this context, it has been essential in our vision for the programme that our graduates learn to incorporate sustainability as a natural part of the innovation process. This has been a skill requested by the employer panel, with broad agreement in our Education Committee.

I can well understand that young people can succumb to climate anxiety and powerlessness - for instance, when the latest UN report dashes hopes that we can keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees. That is why it is all the more important that we adapt quickly. It is important to me that as a university we contribute to this transition and combine research with teaching in this area. In this sense, I have been engaged with what we (the students and I) can do with our field of study 'product development and innovation' in the climate area.

It is a task that has demanded a greater insight into materials and geopolitics than engineers have ever seen before.

Today, I would like to present an important key to the green transition, which builds on these experiences.

It's about a circular economy - that we create a material cycle and innovate in such a way that we design products for less material consumption. So let me be abundantly clear: the product design of the future is circular.

Because the climate change and CO2emissions we are currently experiencing are closely linked to how we use materials.

In 2021, the think tank Circle Economy calculated that 62% of global greenhouse gas emissions are released during the extraction, processing and production of the basic materials and goods that serve society's needs - and this is even before factoring in products from land use and forestry.

HALF A TRILLION TONNES OF VIRGIN RAW MATERIALS - that's how much we use worldwide in six years.

This means that between COP25 in Paris in 2015, when the Paris Agreement was adopted, and COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, 70% more virgin raw materials were extracted than what the Earth can likely replace.

According to the UN's International Resource Panel, the global use of materials is accelerating. It has more than tripled since 1970 and could double again by 2050 if we don't take action.

We have only one planet, and we use the resources of four planets per year. And that is what my students and I are working to do something about.

High resource consumption is part of the environmental problems that trigger major negative side-effects for the climate, biodiversity and chemical pollution.

In Denmark, material consumption amounts to an average of 25 tonnes of CO 2 per capita. That's a lot. In comparison, the Netherlands has a carbon footprint of 7.5 tonnes per capita. I would love to be able to tell you that the materials used in industrial products and consumer goods go to recycling at the end of the use phase. But according to the Danish Circularity Gap report 2024, Denmark recycles only 4% of our total material consumption. Four percent. Worldwide, the figure is on average 7.2% of all basic materials. And the year before, it was 8.6% (in 2022).

We can do better. A survey among Danish manufacturers shows a readiness to become 47% circular when it comes to the environmental efficiency of the planet's resources.

We need to address the circular gap, and there is great research potential in this.

Products are generally designed for a use-and-throw-away culture. After all, we make money from new purchases.

Think of a smartphone. It contains virtually the entire periodic table. Several of the materials are on the critical list of materials that are important for the green transition. Even so, the average Dane has five smartphones lying in a drawer at home.

If we look at larger products, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has just shared their concern about the dependence on critical metals such as lithium, cobalt and neodymium magnets, which are important for the green transition to wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars.

The shortage of critical materials will push up the price and may have an impact on the speed of the transition. An important key to reversing the trend is recycling through design. Just as batteries are designed to be changed, rare earth elements such as neodymium magnets should be able to be harvested from end-of-life products.

My students and I have worked with design strategies that prevent waste. We have worked with materials from wind turbine blades, plastic products with electronics in them and packaging.

With wind turbine blades, it is about factoring in the separation of plastic and fibreglass for when they reach the end of their useful life. This is possible with new types of epoxy in the design - and thus we avoid landfill - that is, modern landfills that take up land. It is 2023, and in several countries landfilling is still the most common treatment for household and similar commercial waste.

We need to move up the waste hierarchy and flip the pyramid (see image in PowerPoint).

Recycling technologies require a certain capacity to become profitable and this calls for collaboration across sectors on designs for the entire life cycle of product and material cycles.

Another example we are working with is plastic products containing electronics. Often, the electronics are hidden and thus also represent hidden value. We throw away 9 billion kilograms of electronics worldwide - every year. Electronics, which according to the UN and the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum represent a recycling value of 10 billion US dollars - every year.

A research experiment that I am proud to be leading together with SDU robotics is called 'Design for Disassembly'. This month, DR P4 reported from SDU's Industry 4.0 Lab, where our robot engineer and design engineer are working together to programme a robot to separate plastic from electronics and free up components for recycling.

We want to be able to separate many products in an efficient way - which is why it must be a robot. The technology must be developed. For example, it requires being able to train the robot to handle the variation inherent in handling used products.

Here, too, we need to rethink design:

- for a long time we have designed for automated assembly - now we have to design for automated disassembly.

My message is clear this evening: we must take Denmark further than 4% recycling of materials.

Throughout the 18th to 19th centuries, industrialisation profoundly transformed both the artificial and natural worlds. It marked the beginning of design as a discipline, partly in art and partly in science, focusing on the acceleration of industrial, technological and economic development.

Design has been used since early history to define how humans create, maintain and transform the artificial, man-made environment. So it is not surprising that design must be brought into play in a green transition and that design principles must now be rethought or reinvented.

Design for recycling, for durability or circularity requires new methods that differ from the traditional design approach. The ideal is the design of products and production systems that will rebuild ecosystems and create a positive impact on the environment and society.

This requires design principles that espouse a regenerative economy.

- We can challenge current product designers about the use of unnecessary substances and additives that inhibit the recycling of materials.

- We can design products so that we can 'harvest' and recycle important components.

- We can design for a longer service life. We can design so that products can be repaired and technologically upgraded.

We can design better products and systems so that no materials are wasted, as in the natural economy, but this requires that the rationality, purpose and direction for catalysing the circularity of economies be developed - not only in politics, but in companies and in our mindset when designing products and creating collaborations in new value chains.

The technological context is an important catalyst for a sustainable future. But technological innovation also requires behavioural changes and the adoption of new values to ensure their uptake.

With research and the education of the future's product designers at the University of Southern Denmark, we are helping to pave the way for a circular economy that aims to achieve efficiency in the use of limited resources and design systems that enable a transition to renewable resources.

I am deeply honoured to receive the Research Dissemination Prize for my work in communicating these ideals, experiences and innovation opportunities to active societal stakeholders - and for this University's great commitment in this regard.

Have a very good evening.

And have a great Annual University Celebration!

Lykke Margot Ricard

Last Updated 30.10.2023