Five Questions for the Head of Business Innovation at Veolia on the launch of its new 'Open Playground' program.
In partnership with: ChangeNOW
One of the world leaders in bringing innovation to the energy transition, French company Veolia chose changeNOW to announce the launch of its new Open Playground program. This initiative aims to confront the climate emergency by helping to build innovative, sustainable solutions by working together with startups committed to the environment. Veolia's Head of Business Innovation Claire Falzone recently told us more about it, and about the importance of co-creation in the urgent quest for new solutions.
WORLDCRUNCH: What has the pandemic shown us about the need to act now and bring about a more sustainable future?
CLAIRE FALZONE: There's a parallel between the health crisis we are going through right now and the current environmental crisis: both have highlighted the gap that exists between our actions and their impact on the planet — they've helped reveal, almost on a philosophical level, how interconnected everything is. A positive aspect that emerged was the solidarity we saw. It was a remarkable example of people going the extra mile and working together to find solutions — and realizing that, indeed, solutions could be found.
Can you outline Veolia's new Open Playground program that was just unveiled at the 2021 changeNOW summit — and tell us how it fits within energy transition objectives?
At Veolia, we are used to saying that to make the ecological transformation happen, we already have half the solutions at our disposal — and the other half, we have to invent. The goal of this Open Playground is precisely for that "invention" phase, to find the right partners who will come up with the right answers. So the idea is to first identify our different business units' needs, and then turn to the community of startups, small and mid-sized companies to select who we could team up with. And after a six-month trial period where we test the solution in real-life situations, we work towards scaling it up on an international level, notably through contracts across the whole Group. We know there's plenty to invent, but we also know we won't be able to invent it on our own.
ChangeNOW is a summit that brings big industries together — but also researchers and startups … What's the challenge in building a strong ecosystem from such a variety of actors?
We were one of changeNOW's very first industrial partners last year, because we believe in its founders' motto that things need to change. As the summit gathers people around the idea of "transformation", we know for sure that the audience there is very much aligned with what we're doing — and this variety of actors, industrials, startups, NGOs, associations, matches our idea that we can only succeed if we listen to and include everyone. It's also a real pleasure to talk with people whose vision may differ from ours: startups that were born yesterday, whereas we've been around for 170 years. Taking one step back, this kind of open innovation is what we do every day, as Veolia is present on thousands of sites across 45 countries, and we always work with our clients under that very spirit of cocreation.
Can you share 3 of the issues you deem particularly worthy of attention today?
It's tricky to only pick 3, as at Veolia, innovation takes many different shapes across many different sectors … but I would say first: EV battery recycling, which for us is a key topic. We have already developed solutions, but we need to go further in the handling of rare earth materials present in batteries. This is what has led us to strike a partnership with Solvay and Renault, to accelerate it. Then, food: How are we going to feed 9 billion people tomorrow? That's why we're working on bioconversion, or how we can transform a certain type of waste into animal feed, in a sustainable way. And third, air quality — an issue we're tackling along two axes: both indoors and outdoors, for example through carbon capture and storage solutions for the latter.
Veolia is an example of the leadership of French tech and innovation in the energy transition. Still, this is a global challenge. How important is it for you to seek solutions and talent internationally?
That's a particularly of-the-moment question for us! The merger deal we have struck with Suez was done precisely in that spirit, to create an ecological transformation "super champion". We are convinced that the scaling effect is crucial to identify the right solutions — and only by being present on all continents, as close as possible to the direct needs, that we will be able to come up with solutions that are truly adapted to the local context. Combining our savoir-faire also means that innovation can spread faster, and that we can attract more — and better! — ideas, startups, partners, best practices, that will allow us to build tomorrow's solutions together.