Uncovering the Potential of Industrial Symbiosis
In industrial symbiosis (IS), one firm’s waste or byproducts become raw materials for another. As Ray Paquin (Concordia University) explains: “There’s real money there, real environmental impact, and also a real approach for regional economic change.”
Paquin, along with colleagues Timo Busch (University of Hamburg) and Suzanne Tilleman (University of Montana), drew on 10 years of data on a British IS program to identify impacts and benefits of IS — and conditions contributing to its success.
Previous research on IS had largely focused on small case studies. Paquin explains that “previously, researchers didn’t have the data to broadly explore the economic and environmental impact of IS to firms, to show the value of this sometimes unsexy firm innovation — firms looking through each other’s trash for ways to collaboratively create value.”
For their work on industrial symbiosis — and their journey into unglamorous but important territory — the research team won the 2016 Research Impact on Practice Award. This award is sponsored by NBS and the Organizations and the Natural Environment (ONE) division of the Academy of Management.
Sharing the Insights with Managers
For Paquin and co-authors, making their insights available to managers is important but not always easy. “Practice-oriented impact has always interested me,” says Paquin. “I feel it’s necessary.”
Suzanne Tilleman agrees: “I feel a need to impact practice, so probably [the Research Impact on Practice Award] is the most important award I could have won from ONE.”
Their research has received media coverage, and Paquin and his co-authors have spoken about their findings with executives and with government officials. They have tried to make the “unsexy” topic appealing. “[We have] been playing with catchy slogans — ‘cash for your trash.’”
Making the connection to practice is challenging. Academics are not always prepared for this kind of outreach, Paquin says. “I feel like the process of becoming socialized as an academic risks removing us from being more obviously practical.”
Additionally, findings can be difficult to communicate, or even controversial. Industrial symbiosis goes against many managers’ training. “Business schools often teach that businesses should focus on their ‘core’ business” says Paquin. “But with IS, we’re saying, ‘The stuff you’ve not been paying much attention to, like waste removal — maybe you should pay closer attention, there’s value there.’”
Collaboration for Better Research and Greater Impact on Practice
Collaboration was essential in developing the article, and offers a pathway for even closer connection to practice.
Paquin found meaning in the data through discussion with his colleagues. “The paper came together quickly when [my co-authors and I] came together,” he says. “Timo and I sat down, I told him about this data set, we explored the data a bit.... Timo conceptualized a model of what we might study — it was one of those ‘idea sketched on a napkin’ moments. To look more deeply required more detailed quantitative analysis. Since Suzanne and I were already working together on a related study, I asked if she would join us. It was fun and perhaps the fastest paper — from concept to publication — I’ve been part of.”
Tilleman offers similar advice: “Work with great co-authors and find the ways you complement each other. I feel so very fortunate being a quantitative methods person, being able to work with two fantastic qualitative researchers.”
In new collaborations, Paquin is working with collaborators who offer additional ways to engage with practitioners. His emerging projects involve colleagues in engineering and technical disciplines.
Those colleagues, says Paquin, are more actively involved with firms. “They are creating new exchanges, often with new processes — for example, substitutes for virgin resources. They are doing lots of technical work that needs to be done. They cross boundaries and get closer to companies themselves to understand what they’re doing and what’s valuable to them. They ask, ‘How do we translate and apply these concepts?’”
As a result of these collaborations, says Paquin, "I'm learning more about how managers and executives see their work, and, as a result, can adapt my ongoing research to be more clearly practical.
Creating research with impact on practice is still a learning journey for Paquin. He offers tentative advice: “Enjoy the flexibility we as academics have to reach out to the people who can shed light on our work.”
Learn more about previous Research Impact on Practice Award winners and the 2017 competition.