Impact Goal Rush
Impact Goal Rush

Episode 20 · 1 year ago

Francesco Cara - Digital Innovation For Sustainability


Francesco Cara is a serial entrepreneur and an academic. He teaches digital innovation in sustainability at the IED Milan, Institute of Design in Milan and he shares his observation of why innovation in sustainability is growing exponentially and how some of the technology is becoming mainstream. 

Francesco also talks about the If You Want To platform, a project where I had the opportunity to be a part of his team when we built a platform curating sustainable digital solutions.

You can find Francesco's work here:

Time Stamps

[1:33] What Francesco teaches his students at the European Design Institute

[5:18] Role of students in sustainability

[6:30] The If You Want To project

[9:19] Business model issues with the project

[11:55] What has changed in the last five years in the green technology and sustainability space

[17:11] The question of shortage of funds or shortage of entrepreneurs

[18:49] Example of sustainability entrepreneurship - Rifò

[22:03] Franceso’s advice for podcast listeners

[26:21] How to get in touch with Francesco  

How to make innovation in sustainability more mainstream. That's what we're going to be looking at in this episode, episode number 20. Hello and welcome to the Impact Goal Rush Podcast. This is the podcast for impact entrepreneurs. This podcast aims to amplify the voices of impact entrepreneurs addressing the United Nations global goals AKA The Sustainable Development Goals. Listen in to fellow impact entrepreneurs on their journey in this new goal rush of making a bigger impact. Get inspired to learn how through entrepreneurship, you can grow your impact to make the world a better place, leave a legacy and live a more meaningful life. I'm your host Woon Tan. In this episode we have Francesco Kara, a serial entrepreneur and academic He teaches digital innovation in sustainability at the IED, Milan, Institute of Design in Milan, and he shares his observation on why innovation in sustainability is growing exponentially and how some of the technology is becoming mainstream. Francesco also talks about the if you want to platform one of the projects I've had the opportunity to be part of, when I joined his team, when we built this platform curating sustainable digital innovations some five years ago. If you missed the previous episode, we had Carl Pratt of Future Planet share his journey of growing a super engaged community of sustainability professionals. Francesco Cara, welcome to The Impact Goal Rush. What have you been up to? I've been teaching quite a lot. I had 80 students between November and the end of February, with the exams on the course, which is called the Design for the Anthropocene. And so I take these design students who come from different disciplines, from industrial design, communication design, fashion design, interior design, marketing, photography. I take them through like 360 degrees journey from climate change and the environmental crisis. We get into all the different domains of human activity, starting with energy production and use, moving into food, into agriculture and the food system. Then we look, spend quite some time on industry, trying to understand both the impact of industry and circular economy, how the circle economy is changing industry, and then we're going to transport and then we end up with building and construction. So we really, you know, it's a it's a big tour and for each topic, we try to understand what is environmental impact. What are the strategies to reduce the carbon and environmental impact. And then we ask the question, "what can design in that space, and sometimes design can play a role in shaping communication. Another time it's really very much about material choice or the way products are designed for being repaired or now being reconditioned or to get to components. So you know, we, it's kind of, you know, journey through all those topics and we end up with the politics, so we adopt with the Paris agreement and everything that has happened around the Paris Agreement, which is very interesting from the C40 CT network to the Investor's network, to the brand's companies network, the re100 for the renewable energies in big corporations. We look greenhouse gas protocol as a common language to measure carbon...

...emissions, and this is how the course ends and we do lots of case studies so students prepare every week, can study of the brand or the climate hero and since everything is online, you know, we try to have everything really interactive. What are people reacting to, you know, what are people picking up? So it's um, so what is interesting is that I teach in this school, which is called a European Design Institute and they do a lot of work on sustainability, like sustainability in fashion to find an alternative to the fast fashion too very chemical-heavy and water-heavy processes. So they are very competent on particular sectors, in particular domains. So what they really appreciate of the course, which is something that fills me with joy, is that they really look at everything. Obviously, we cannot cover everything, everything. But we cover a lot of ground and by covering a lot of ground, we see all the similarities from one domain to the other. And this is really you know, something that they appreciate a lot. And then, since it's a big group, it's an international group, half international, half Italian group, each of them has there own passion, so some people are really big and activists some people are, they do a lot of canoeing and very concerned with hydro electric power. Some people are really into reusing fashion, so they push the boundaries of reusing fashion. Some people are really exploring materials, are getting into materials so they really know well, and bamboo is a material very critical, with organic cotton, because, because they think it's an oxymoron, you cannot have organic cotton because cotton is so, uses so many resources, you know? So, so what is really nice is we try to have a lot of conversations where they can bring in their own concerns, their own passions, the solutions that they're working on. I have known you since, I think, I don't know, five years, five or six years ago now. And we started working together on the "If You Want To" project. So for people who want to, you know, explore that, can you share, you know, how it started and what was your vision and where it is right now. So essentially, sort of, I met Woon at Cleanweb meet up, and Woon was one of the organisers of this meet up and coming from a sort of digital background, in the sense that I worked on services, digital products, applications, for many years, I found what Cleanweb was doing incredibly interesting, which was essentially look at innovation in the area of sustainability. Let's call it let's use a very broad term, where the best technologies and the best technologists were were used and involved. And, and I found through the meet up where start ups and innovators and researchers were presenting the latest results. I thought that they content was really worth a platform, a dedicated platform, where people could both point out interesting Cleanweb, so digital products and services to live more more sustainably,... well as discover some of those services. And so, if you want to, was born out of the idea of creating a collaborative platform where people could tell us about things that they thought were really good, who effective in this environmental transition, as well as commenting as well as waiting. And this was was how if you want to was born. And we started very, very fast that thanks to the input of of a number of very dedicated and passionate people. So we grew our database very fast. We established some connections with some of the startups and new businesses, and, um, and you know, we had a really nice price in January of the third year, since the platform was born and the Rushlight Prize for sustainable innovation in the social space. And then we were part of a climate launchpad programme with EIT. So, sort of, you know, lots of things happened. Then we really, in a sense had troubles, on the one hand, personal issues and, and so sort of, in my case, since I was I was driving the project, I had to to reduce my engagement on the project itself, and then we really struggled with the business model. We're really, really struggled with the business model, because I think it was a little too early as the platform. The market was more a forming market and is so much more much mature now. This was 2015 when we started. Now in 2021 the market is matured a lot and if you want to, we're still up! We're still up and running because it's been built in a very solid way. Haven't had resources to update it much, but it's up running, is welcoming. I got an alert from Google yesterday, saying that, you know, we had 1000 visitors last month, February so you know, it's it's it's a little it's a little resource in a very wide space. In the meantime, there are similar things that have been developed. I got in touch with Unbuntu recently, which is more of a business to business platform, but very, very similar to what you want to. So I think I think some of the drive, the project, the idea is still there, is still there. Amazing. I think it's been such a journey, isn't it? Building that and then learning about what's happening in getting the platform up and running for me was my first ever venture, first time outside of the insurance, where I was previously in the career path. So you give me that that first opportunity my first ticket out of insurance, so I really appreciate that. And it was such a good fun starting that and building it together. And we learned so much. Every day, we were discovering these people doing amazing things, trying to capture and share those insights. It has been a wonderful, really wonderful couple of years? Yeah, If people want to check it out, the website is So, at the time when we started your real base in London and you've moved back to Italy an then, now you're sort of involved in the academic side of things more giving back through teaching. What do you think has changed since, you know, in the last five years? What are the big changes you've seen? Many things, actually. The main thing is and I...

...looked at, I see it very closely when I prepare my courses, is that the material I use, the content I use essentially needs to be revised every six months. This gives a sense of how fast things are changing in the space, which is sort of the ecological transition space, sustainability space, the green technology spaces. We can use different labels, but essentially all this new world that we're building. And I find it amazing that in six months I really need to update most of the material because uptake of innovations is going much faster than what was expected. Because new regulations are happening that maybe transforming the market because their new innovations, new things coming in to market that are really giving a new perspective on things, because society is adopting, is picking up so many behaviours that were really among earlier adopters five years ago and now are, you know, truly late adopters, you know, they're really in the mainstream, and this is the first thing that amazes me. The second thing that I find really interesting is that the knowledge, I'm thinking of my students and my friends colleagues, the knowledge is growing exponentially. So people have moved very fast from an awareness state, of awareness to a level off engagement with the topic. And now what matters really is action. So what I can do in practice in my life, this is really the driver. So the driver is more. It's not why any longer. It's not what, because people have a pretty good idea. what needs to be done, it's how I could do it. And this has been a transformation you know, where we're starting, discovering all these innovations, these new opportunities. Frankly, we didn't think it would have got so fast. Now many of those innovations are mainstream, and many of those opportunities are behaviours that we see on a daily basis and this can be, you know, switching to a renewable energy and a renewable electricity provider to using sharing mobility, transport systems. You know, all these things that were just popping up five years ago. Now, are we truly mainstream. To remember all the time we spent looking at applications that brought food grown locally to people in cities big and small. And these were the first attempts, the first trials of those systems. So now we have a multiplicity, practically across the world, and this entire in the market are having a larger and larger way. We saw, if you remember, you know, we had this company with electric taxis in London who was launched and we were the launch or you were at the launch. I couldn't believe already. Now we have electrified vehicles that are sold in larger numbers than these vehicles across Europe. But we started in July and we have these fleets of cars, electric cars that are among us, you know, like, they're part of our battle. And then the third thing, that really strikes me is the new way we're doing business So we, so five years ago we saw innovators and entrepreneurs were coming on the scene and they wanted to do sustainable innovation to...

...enable sustainable lifestyles and sustainable services. And they also were looking at the social dimension things swears no to repeat what the previous generation of entrepreneurs did, which was really go for profit and take any shortcut to achieve those goals. These brand of entrepreneurs were quite different. And this thing this another change. I think that five years on or six years on, there are entrepreneurs can really manage at the same time their financial objectives that are better mental goals in their social goals. And there are more and more of those companies that were more and more in networks. And they're operating according to different rules. And, you know, with my students we spend quite a lot of time analysing those startups, you know, and they are very smart and it's in your way of doing business. Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned the entrepreneurship. You know, what do you think? Do you think that there's a shortage of people trying to innovate in the entrepreneur space? Or is there like because one of the one of my my podcast clients, he just interviewed someone who is, so he's interviewing a lot of the big impact in the impact investors, like the institution impact investors and he was saying, or he was observing that there is still shortage of entrepreneurs. And it's not that there's a shortage of impact investments. The money's there, it's that the entrepreneurship is not taught enough and there's not enough entrepreneurs. What? Do you have a view on this? You know, I think I, from my perspective, I, I see more an issue off market, of matching in the market. Um, I more on the entrepreneur sides and the entrepreneurs I know have real trouble getting funds and investment, but they do, so I listen to you. I hope we're not in a situation where, where the two communities are not talking to each other. What I'm seeing, I am seeing very capable entrepreneur, we had the last, the last course was the beginning of February when we had exams and we had as guest, Niccolo from the Italian company called the Rifo, R.I.F.O. with an accent and they started, I think, two years ago with a crowdfunding in the city of Prato which is in Tuscany. And this is the capital of the reuse of textiles. The Italian capital. The very long tradition, going back hundreds of years with very active Chinese community in Prato, and he and a friend went to get down on the trip and came back and they were really appalled by the textile, the presence of this very large textile plants in Vietnam, with the hundreds of thousands of people working for them under very harsh conditions in most cases. And they really wanted to do something against fast fashion. So they went back to Prato, and they created a network...

...of people who can process the, I don't know how to call it, the reused fabrics in a very effective way, very nice ways. And they created this brand recuperating cashmere, having this network of companies that process like the cashmere in the best possible way and then the other plans doing the meeting, and they and they, you know, the product themselves. They were designed in the province, and they moved really swiftly. They started with scarves, gloves with accessories because they were one size, so you easier to learn as a trade. They did very well. They moved into jumpers, then they moved into cotton, then they moved into jeans with a very simple brand, and a very broad network of suppliers that share with them a number of values. So they work with natural colours so they don't need to use chemical colourings. And they wanted to engage a sort of franchise populations, people, in the process. So they're really putting together these three elements of the of financial profitability, social impact and environmentally impact. Just to give you an example, I could give you several more examples. I'm very impressed. I think there is a lot of innovation, actually there. Lots of people, extremely smart, very open minded, very transparent in the way they operate. So it's uh, it's a different rulebook, playbook. Yeah, interesting. For someone who is listening to this podcast like, what advice would you have for them, you know, if they're starting out their journey into creating more impact, you know what, what advice would you have for them? What I find particularly valuable is openness. I think it's really important to start with the idea, communicate that idea, circulate that idea, find partners, supporters, really create a network around around the project, around the idea. I think this is really fundamental and within the network identify the people that share the values of the entrepreneur, so that there is a real strong bond at the most important level, which is the value driver emotional level. So this is really important. The second thing, I think that is looking at the best combination of financial sustainability, environmental sustainability, social progress, I think is the really right mix, because you see that more and more of the markets of your potential customers are very sensitive and recognise really well. these new players in the market. Transparency is something that is very important. So from the beginning, the very clear, that we have to give as much visibility as possible to all the inner workings of the company, on the partners, who the partners are, whether it is hardware, if it is a product company, where the materials come from, you know, the whole value chain, transparency only on the overall value chain and then the last thing because I mean talk too long in my answers. But...'s learning. I think learning is really phenomenal, learning in the sense of saying well, at the beginning. I cannot embrace the whole of my value chain, but I can keep experimenting, learning and extending the sustainability of my value chain. And there are some examples, there is one of the best examples I know it's a VEJA, which is an accessories French firm doing sneakers shoes and the production is in Brazil of those shoes. All the logistics is handled by a comparative of franchise people. So when the containers arrive in Marseille to be distributed across France and other places they're handled by a comparative, which is a social partnership with a social enterprise that shares your same values and then in Brazil, what they've been doing being is extending the value chain. So they have the suppliers of latex and you know, they they start buying the raw material. And then they teach the people who are collecting the forgot the name now, sorry, Latex. They teach them techniques to dry and prepare the latex, so they buy from them, not raw material, but ready processed material. So they transfer more value to these local people in the Amazon. You see what I mean in constantly and then and then you know the experiment on leather from the big fish of the Amazon. And they so keep on experimenting, learning and extending your sustainable behind the change over time in a very creative way. And, you know, and there are many examples of that to me is a new way, and entrepreneurs have always innovated. But I think this innovation, looking at all these three aspects, is has in your flavour a new dimension. Those are super important points of view that as entrepreneurs we need to be very open minded, very for learning and experimenting. So, Francesco for anyone who wants to reach out to you, what's the best way to get in touch? I think the best, I'm an old school person. So my email is the best. Which is the frakara@gmail. com, which is F for Fox Romeo Alpha Kilo Alpha Romeo Alpha at gmail dot com. Amazing. Thank you for Thank you for being here. Yes. Yeah, he's been fun. Good! Lovely to be with you. So there you go. That was from Francesco Cara. What's been your biggest takeaway from this episode? Let us know in the comments section on our social media page. If you haven't subscribed yet, please do subscribe. This will really help us grow our podcasts. And if you can think of someone that would benefit from listening to this podcast, please do share it with them. In the next episode we have Dr Pooch talk about the holistic health education revolution he's a part of, and how he plans to get more kids and adults eat healthy with the "Get Well Johnny" books. So tune in to next week's episode. Thank you very much for listening into the end of this episode. We really appreciate you. This is the Impact Goal Rush. My name is Woon Tan, and I'll see you in the next episode.

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