Food Service & Agriculture, Nonprofits, and Sustainability

Wege Prize awards $30K for circular economy proposals

Student teams concentrated on finding solutions for food issues.

April 3, 2015
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Wege Prize 2015
Max Hornick of Western Sustainers presents information on the Local Loop Farm. Courtesy Facebook.com

As the “wicked” problem-solving competition called Wege Prize 2015 came to a close March 28, the three team finalists were awarded a collective $30,000 for their solutions to help create a circular economy.

The winning transdisciplinary intercollegiate team from Western Michigan University — Western Sustainers — was announced during the final presentation and awards event at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids for designing an agricultural system with a symbiotic function with the surrounding environment while up-cycling waste.

Western Sustainers was awarded a $15,000 cash prize for its first-place finish at the second annual design competition tackling the “wicked” problem of revolutionizing the world’s linear economic model into a circular or regenerative economy.

The five-member team of undergraduate students represented a variety of academic backgrounds: biomedical sciences, geography, mechanical engineering, public relations and civil engineering.

Team members Cara Givens, Elijah Lowry, Kelsey Pitcshel, Max Hornick and Ramon Roberts-Perazza presented their solution of the Local Loop Farm in front of a panel of five internationally recognized judges during the final stage of the competition. The Local Loop Farm utilized hot composting, hydroponics and innovative technology to produce fresh, healthy, local and affordable fish and vegetables while eliminating waste, according to a press release.

Ellen Satterlee, judge participant and CEO of The Wege Foundation, said while she was impressed by each finalist team’s level of professionalism, research and analysis, the winning team had done the most research and were willing to take the next step toward implementation after the competition was over.

“The entire team was very committed to the project. It was clear they were ready to implement the project in several different stages, where the other two were ideas or design ideas that weren’t as likely to become a reality or be implemented, or be put into an actual working program,” said Satterlee.

“There was only one person presenting, but you could tell by the materials and reading the background that this was something they believed in.”

Pixelation, a team of five students from Savannah College of Art and Design and Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, was awarded $10,000 for its second-place project called No Waste Delivery, or NOW. The delivery service reduces packaging waste, food waste and service fuel emissions by altering food consumption and purchasing methods of a typical urban office worker.

Third place was awarded to The Originals for a combination of an energy-efficient in-home compositing appliance and user experience-driven web platform service known as Organikos. The five-member team represented Savannah College of Art and Design, KCAD and Pennsylvania State University and was awarded $5,000.

Gayle DeBruyn, organizer of Wege Prize and chair of the collaborative design program at KCAD, said she was impressed with the quality of students who were competing.

“Their work is scholarly, their work is well reasoned, and they are very clear at communicating that work visually and verbally,” said DeBruyn. “They were very well poised, very well-rehearsed, and they were very ready for this competition. I could see a very impressive difference from last year in the rigor, depth and quality of work.”

The three finalist teams were evaluated based on the level of understanding the teams had of the circular economy concept, the depth of research conducted, how effectively the proposal was conveyed, and feasibility.

The panel of judges included Colin Webster, education program manager at Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the United Kingdom; Gretchen Hooker, biomimicry specialist at Kalamazoo-based Biomimicry Institute; Nathan Shedroff, program chair of MBA programs at California College of the Arts; Michael Werner, green chemistry and restricted substances manager at Apple; and Satterlee.

While there was an overall strengthening of applications for this year’s Wege Prize, Webster said he noticed a common failing of how to apply the circular economy framework to their solution.

“Most teams concentrated on sustainability solutions, which can be quite distinct from circular economy solutions, said Webster.

“Sustainability solutions tend to focus on reducing a problem whilst concentrating on changing the behavior of consumers. Circular economy solutions may not involve the consumer at all, but would have a stronger focus on systemic elements and the economy. There would be a restorative rather than reductive mindset.”

The Wege Prize launched last year as a collaboration between KCAD and The Wege Foundation to encourage students to work across disciplines, use design thinking principles and compete for $30,000 in cash prizes. While the first year focused on regional participants, this year’s event was opened up to undergraduate students throughout the nation to develop a restorative idea, service or business model.

“I’m amazed and really touched by how interested our judges are in this project. They come from all over the world,” said DeBruyn. “They are truly interested and excited about seeing where this project is going to go and how the thinking of students are going to help shape the future of the planet.”

As a second-year judge panelist, Webster said he participates with the competition because the philosophy of the event is inspiring and can act as a seed for future research and work on how to achieve a circular economy.

“This is an awesome competition run by great people. The students have a great enthusiasm, and the final day is pretty special,” said Webster. “The ethos of the competition is inspiring: to take students out of their comfort zones by insisting on cross-college collaboration, interdisciplinary collaboration and the circular economy.” 

When KCAD developed the idea for the competition, Satterlee said it was a good fit for The Wege Foundation to support, based on how closely it aligned with the philosophy of founder Peter Wege.

“Mr. Wege was a visionary; he wrote the book and coined the word ‘economicology.’ He felt we needed to always think about clean air, clean water, proper disposal of waste and the triple bottom line: environmentally, economically, socially responsible living,” said Satterlee. “He was very holistic in his thinking and almost on a daily basis would say, ‘Is the planet worth saving, and if so, it is up to us to do it.’”

With planning for Wege Prize 2016 already under way, DeBruyn said the competition will move to an international scale. Fully enrolled undergraduate students from all universities and colleges are eligible to compete for next year’s event.

“It has to engage a circular economy solution. The piece that is getting missed by the students is the economic model. They are not pulling into their team an economic or business student,” said DeBruyn.

“There is great work in design and establishing a solution for an identified need, but it needs to go beyond what does it look like. … How does it become sustainable as a viable economic component?”

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