Aly Khalifa - Circular Economy Design Expert

Aly Khalifa - Circular Economy Design Expert

Aly Khalifa joins Sustainable Nation to discuss:

  • Cradle to Cradle and the circular economy'

  • Engineering and designing for a sustainable future

  • Ocean plastic and designing with recycled materials

  • Recommendations and advice for sustainability professionals

Final Five Questions:

What is one piece of advice you would give other sustainability professionals or those working in the circular economy that might help them in their careers?

I think there's a principle that I like to use called boundary conditions, and that's something I learned from engineering school. If I'm looking at like the structure of a building and you say "calculate that structure," it's like an impossible task. You need a computer to sort of figure out what happens and the wind load. But what you can do is isolate a single beam and just draw your boundary conditions around one beam, and calculate for that. And as you get more sophisticated in your modeling, your boundary conditions might grow. You might draw around a bigger boundary. You also might say, "I'm going to announce think about temperature also," or I'm going to think about what if there's a rocking party on top of that beam and there's a lot of vibration? So the boundary conditions define for you the problem that you're going to address.

And I think in many cases we draw that circle very tightly and we say, "well, I'm just going to deal with this," or in many cases those boundary conditions are never firmly addressed at the beginning because. And we do the same thing in life cycle analysis, right? We have to consider my carbon footprint from here to here, but I'm not going to go outside of that picture. But sometimes it's when you actually list what you're going to define and the things that you can address, and here's the things you are not going to address. Sometimes it's a wake-up call because reflexively, we will attack problems like we've always attacked them and think, "I'm not going to deal with fair labor. I'm not going to talk about realization or I'm not going to talk about these things," without really having acknowledged to yourself that you're not going to do that. Or vice versa. When you do take something on, maybe it's not appropriate to address that. So I think there needs to be some real rigor as a professional about what's inside the boundary conditions for each project, especially on the sustainability side. What are you willing to take on and address, and what do you not want to be distracted by? Because this product has to get done. Frequently, I think there's one stretch that you can take. You can add maybe one set of criteria to it from a sustainability perspective, without having to like eat the whole elephant in one bite. You can say, "I'm just going to take one bite here. I'm really going to reach for this one particular thing without having to address all of it."

What are you most excited about right now in the world of sustainability or the circular economy?

One thing it's been great for us on the Ocean Work side is blockchain technology. The whole notion that we can have communities that help us develop a transparency to the way information is shared is very exciting. I have limited knowledge on the topic, so please don't ask me any more about block chain. There's much more qualified people about that. But I do think it's really exciting thing because it's a technology that's not necessarily just for technology's sake. It seems like the heart of the technology is transparency and community building. And I think that's fantastic. I think there must be other technologies we haven't developed, whether it's open source engineering systems, I think there's many different ways that we could develop technologies that are inherently community building and inherently transparent. I'm just wondering what the next one is, but I think this is one of the cases where I feel like I can just build off the work someone else has done and instead of building the tool, get to use the tool. That's really refreshing for me as a sustainability professional. I think in many cases we have to develop the tools more than we get to use them. And in this case I feel like there's a lot to learn about this tool.

What is one book you would recommend sustainability professionals read?

Well, probably the one that first really got me fired up was Entropy by Jeremy Rifkin. I think that was the one, as someone coming into it, just sort of having my head taken off and my brain shaken it up a little bit, and my head put back on. I just felt like I wasn't the same after reading that. I think that's good because I think sometimes we do just need the rational, logical kind of approach to sustainability, but we need the energizing aspect to it. So I felt like Entropy was one that was really great, but there's so many other inspirations for me. I've already mentioned Cradle to Cradle, but I think for me also just the writings of Buckminster Fuller and his call for design science revolution really pushed me on my way.

He has a really fun book called I Seem to be a Verb, which isn't really anything to do with sustainability. It's about how to start a design science revolution and what kind of happens in the mind of Buckminster Fuller. And I think that would be another one I just think is a good one to kickstart some emotions on this topic.

What are some of your favorite resources or tools that really help you in the work that you do?

Yeah, it just seems like it changes by the day. I think one of the tools that I'm really enjoying in the past few months is the platform called Slack. It's allowing teams to collaborate on a variety of threads all at once, like the simultaneous nature of being able to look at what's developing across similar but slightly different threads. It's fantastic for me. I feel like that's a tool that allows me to just very quickly share and get feedback amongst a multitasking type of research projects. And then there's a lot of different systems that are going on in terms of tracking materials and signals. The idea of materials having intelligence the equivalent of a DNA, being able to understand what the material is very quickly. There is so much happening on that right now as well. I think that's also fantastic. That's exactly what's needed. We need to attach information to our products to understand them 

And finally where can our listeners go to learn more about what you do, learn more about Ocean Works, follow you, whatever you'd like to give out for websites or any way to follow your work.

Well, I think my social media presence is pretty frenetic and its fits and starts. Usually has to do with when am I in research phase and when am I in publishing phase, or different things that I'm doing. But certainly on twitter it's AlygKhalifa and that's probably the quickest, easiest way to get to me. But certainly on LinkedIn, I'm pretty active on that. And then Oceanworks.co is where a lot of the Ocean Work stuff is happening. My firm Design Box is partnered up with that, so designbox.us.  You can also see a lot of the other projects that were kind of preceding all this big investment into Ocean Works.