OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Knowing which levers to pull

What are some of the groups or entities that can provide long-term solutions, and how to motivate them to act?

Photo of Juan Forno
2 4

Written by

When I was in Guatemala at the beginning of this year, I began to explore a sustainable business concept with my uncle, who is a shrimp farmer. He was telling me about how some regions in Guatemala are loosing up to 20% of their local economy due to plastic contamination killing the fish. Since most of the contamination came from plastic bags, we wanted to make reusable shopping bags made out of Tul (plant that grows in abundance in lakes) to replace single-use plastic bags, a concept that has been used all over the world now. Our concept had three main benefits. There will be a demand for labor because the bags would be created by local artisans, there would be a reward for capital because supermarkets would eliminate the millions in plastic bag cost and transfer the cost of our bags to the consumer (while promoting a positive brand image), and there would be a positive environmental impact by decreasing the use of this wasteful bags.

I had to return to the U.S before we launched the idea but there was a really interesting thing that we realized when we did research on what would be the best way to implement the idea. In order for the concept of reusable bags to work, we needed to get the backing of ONE of the following groups or entities: the government (the law), the supermarkets (businesses), or the consumers.

Think about it. Much like in the plastic bag ban in Rwanda, if the law says that we cant have single-use products, no matter what business want to produce, or what people want to consume, the product will eventually seize to exist. If businesses refuse to produce single-use items, there is no way that they will end up in landfills or in the ocean. And even if they are not illegal, if consumers refuse to use these products, or better yet, demand renewable and reusable products, business would have an incentive to comply.

I believe a good approach that can lead us to create a Circle Economy, is to understand how we can leverage these groups and entities at a high-level and what triggers them to action.

1) Governments : They might be interested in reducing waste management costs, reducing deaths due to contamination (floods caused by drains clogged with waste, or toxic air pollution), improve local economies that depend on fishing, increase tourism, or attract people to move to a cleaner environment to stimulate the economy.

2) Businesses: They can seek cost reductions in better products and leaner supply chains,  adhering to markets who ask for more environmental conscious products and services, positive PR can improve brand perception, or they might have a genuine desire for creating shared value and creating an impact. 

3) Consumers: People get motivated to but things that are a good bargain and that also provide come lever of convenience. But consumers can also be triggered by a sense of contribution and belonging to a trend or movement

4) Other: The previous three are the ones that I could come up with but this "Levers and Triggers" approach could be used for any group that could make a difference.

After knowing who these groups are and what triggers them, THEN we can leverage the innovations, methodologies, discoveries, products, and business models that we have all shared in this Research Phase to inspire action. 

How does this research relate to our Use Cases?

This is more about a broad approach to developing a Circular Economy.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

I want people to not only research about innovations, discoveries, etc., but to also see where we can leverage them, or plug them in the established system so that we can actually inspire action. When we understands what triggers entities, we can stop thinking about change in terms of something that is "idealistic" or "nice to have", but instead, something that is feasible and makes economic sense

Tell us about yourself

I'm a recent grad from ASU and I am from Guatemala. I have a degree in Business Entrepreneurship and International Business but I am passionate about developing projects that make an impact. I am also thinking about starting an OpenIDEO chapter in Arizona if anyone wants to connect!


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Juan,

A great post highlight a very human and very local story!

I am intrigued by Tul. I have never heard of it until now (thank you for highlighting it!). What are the properties of Tul? Could it be used for one of the use cases in this challenge -

Are there other local materials worth considering?

How much do the timescales for change differ across government, business, and consumer level?

Photo of Juan Forno

Kate Rushton Thanks for the reply! Well, the plant has been used historically to make crafts that are usually sold to tourist but quite recently, it is being used as to save Lake Atitlan, a Guatemalan lake that National Geographic has called the most beautiful in the world. As a way to help with the contamination, they are starting to plant thousands of Tul plants all over the lake because its roots have natural filters and the plant also act as a habitat for other species.

Here is more info on that if you are interested:

As far as the cases, my background is not in biology and I only mentioned tul as a way to illustrate our initial concept, so I would be lying if I told you I knew of ways that this or any other lakeside materials could be used to create alternative products or substances that would address any of the cases. However, the city of Solola', where the lake is, could be very much used as a model of an emerging sustainable city. "Necessity is the mother of innovation" and after the lake suffered greatly due to contamination, the town re shaped its laws on plastic, styrofoam, straws, and other materials like it. Perfect example of how laws themselves are enough to create long term change.

And to answer your last question, I assume that this would be case-by-case and also country-to-country. Consumers can be the quickest and the trendiest but without continuous reinforcement or direct apparent benefit, initiatives risk fading out quickly. Governments have been proven to be effective but each country has its own limiting bureaucracies and conflicts of interest (like if a plastic manufacturer is a major political contributor, passing laws that could hurt their businesses would not be wise in their eyes). We actually had decided to go with the business route. With good business operators and project managers, the turn around for an initiative like this could have been less than 6 months for a few pilot supermarkets and the overall idea could be implemented within a year. Businesses are also more predictable than consumers, I think. As I mentioned in my other post Different approaches to create a Circular Economy , using an approach like Creating Shared Value, there are ways to have built-in incentives for companies to adopt sustainable strategies. However, if we were talking about another innovative strategy that is a little more complicated (or expensive), this would obviously delay the implementation time of businesses since they would have to build business cases, consider cost-benefit justifications, consult with advisors, raise capital, etc.

Hopefully that all made sense and sorry for the long answers! :)