Dr Geraldine Brennan of Irish Manufacturing Research is helping lead a network looking to accelerate a net-zero carbon circular economy.
Dr Geraldine Brennan holds a PhD in strategic management and a MSc in business and environment from Imperial College London, and is a University College Dublin (UCD) alumni with a BA honours in politics and philosophy. She has lectured extensively on circular business models and scaling circular innovation, and authored articles, innovation insights and toolkits on circularity.
In 2015, Brennan was an awardee of the German Ministry of Education’s International Green Talents Award for outstanding interdisciplinary researchers in the field of sustainable development. She is currently the senior circular economy programme manager at Irish Manufacturing Research (IMR), an Enterprise Ireland and IDA-supported technology centre.
‘It is an exciting time to be working in this area as the circular economy movement in Ireland is gaining momentum’
– DR GERALDINE BRENNAN
What inspired you to become a researcher?
Growing up in a politically active family, I have always been interested in why the world is the way it is. Inspiration to become a sustainability researcher was influenced by two formative experiences during my undergraduate at UCD.
The first was sitting in a politics module on global environmental justice where a visiting academic from Canada, Christian Barry, highlighted the interconnection between social justice and environmental degradation. Then the penny dropped that sustainable development requires holistic solutions.
This was cemented further while visiting my sister Josephine Matthews, a key role model in my life, in Karlskrona, Sweden, where she was part of the first masters’ programme cohort on strategic leadership for sustainability (based on The Natural Step Framework).
During this visit, Josephine and her peers challenged my thinking – stressing the need to design sustainability solutions which do not unintentionally create more new problems. This was my first exposure to the insight that solving complex industrial and societal challenges requires systems thinking and systems innovation.
While systems innovation is now recognised as pivotal to addressing climate change while achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, 15 years ago it was far from mainstream.
Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?
As an independent research and technology organisation, all Irish Manufacturing Research’s projects focus on translational innovation projects, in collaboration with industry, to demystify, de-risk and deliver emerging concepts, processes and technologies.
Currently, as part of IMR’s sustainable manufacturing team which is led by David McCormack, I am managing our flagship circular economy initiative – CirculÉire – a public-private partnership soft-launched in January 2020 at the National Manufacturing & Supply Chain Expo.
It is the first national, cross-sectoral industry-led innovation network dedicated to accelerating the net-zero carbon circular economy in Ireland.
CirculÉire’s overarching objective is to enable Irish industry to source, test, finance and scale circular supply chains and circular business models by embedding innovation in manufacturing and their supply chains.
It’s a three-year initiative with a €1.5m ring-fenced innovation fund dedicated to large-scale systems-level innovation and demonstration projects.
In your opinion, why is your research important?
Irish manufacturing represents approximately 25pc of Ireland’s GDP and, currently, the Irish economy utilises more than 100m tonnes of materials per annum. In 2013, it was estimated that a 5pc material improvement could yield €2.32bn per annum for Ireland, but this opportunity remains largely uncapitalised on.
This is illustrated by Ireland being ranked as having the third lowest circularity rate (1.7pc) of EU Member states in 2016. CirculÉire is designed to turn this around and capitalise on the so-called ‘circular innovation gap’ – supporting Irish industry in their transition towards a zero-carbon circular economy by embedding systems innovation.
The circular economy is a key climate mitigation strategy, so scaling up the circular economy in Ireland is an imperative. We have a decade to implement radical reductions (45 to 50pc) in global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
It is an exciting time to be working in this area as the circular economy movement in Ireland is gaining momentum. Last year, the Government committed to addressing the circular innovation gap in the National Climate Action Plan and set out its ambition to make Ireland a global leader in the circular and bioeconomy.
What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?
Circularity is emerging in the context of, and enabled by, technological trends which characterise the fourth industrial revolution. For example, the internet of things, blockchain, 3D printing and AI, amongst others. So, there are numerous opportunities for scaling up circular business models in every sector of the Irish economy.
Moreover, scaling up circularity is central to the EU’s Covid-19 recovery and needs to be central to Ireland’s recovery from the crisis.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?
I have had to accept that I can’t be an expert in everything and how I remain anchored is by constantly flexing the muscle of ‘becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable’ – a mantra I have taken from practising yoga over the last decade.
This mantra is also helping me navigate the personal and professional constraints that Covid-19 has created and adjust to this ‘new normal’ we all find ourselves in.
Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?
The most common misconception about the circular economy is equating circularity to recycling or focusing on implementing individual resource productivity strategies in isolation.
From my perspective, the power of the circular economy comes from viewing it as an umbrella concept and looking at the benefits from combining different circular strategies.
Take, for example, redesigning a product for multiple use-lives. These are deployed via a product-service-system business model, kept in use through predictive maintenance and a reverse logistics system. These types of circular configurations can deliver new forms of value creation while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and waste.
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