Get the public involved in the bio-economy

Most bio-economy innovations involve new materials, developed by companies and researchers. Using glued, laminated bamboo as a construction material is an example. Members of the public tend not to develop new products, but are on the lookout for new ways of using of traditional, natural materials such as wood or hemp. Researchers at Wageningen Economic Research bring these two worlds together and thus contribute to social innovation in the bio-economy.

The bio-economy is one in which companies use renewable plant-based raw materials instead of fossil-based raw materials. An example would be the use of plant fibres in construction materials. These innovations usually come from businesses and research institutes, because they have the equipment needed. Nevertheless some citizens are also engaging in the bio-economy, says researcher Anne-Charlotte Hoes of Wageningen Economic Research. For example people who choose to build a house using bio-based materials. There are also various resident-led sustainable building initiatives in the Netherlands such as Ecodorp Boekel, an ecovillage where natural materials such as wood, hemp and green roofs have been used for the houses.

‘Our aim is to link up businesses, research institutes and residents’ initiatives,’ says Anne-Charlotte Hoes. She is working on this with her colleague Greet Overbeek under the BioSTEP and BIOVOICES programmes set up by the European Union to increase citizens’ involvement in the bio-economy. BioStep, for example, included a touring exhibition on bio-based products.

Workshops about the challenges of bio-economy

BIOVOICES, which is still in progress, goes a step further. Greet Overbeek: ‘Citizens take on a more active role in BIOVOICES. We’re going to organise workshops in which members of the public talk about the challenges of bio-economy.' Citizens and civil society organisations will meet with people from business, government and research institutes.

One of the workshops, says Anne-Charlotte Hoes, is about bio-based building materials and will be run by Boekel ecovillage residents and entrepreneurs from NAC, the natural fibre application centre. Hoes: ‘During the workshop we link residents’ demands for bio-based materials with suppliers of these.’ One product will be glued laminated bamboo, which was presented at the 2018 Dutch Design Week. The strength of this new material is somewhere between that of hardwood and steel.

Overbeek: ‘In addition to citizen and civil society involvement in sustainable developments, social innovation in the bio-economy is also about making businesses aware of the user’s perspective.’ Companies and researchers need to focus more on the qualities of bio-based products that users find important. For example building materials that are light, or help create a pleasant living environment. And it’s also important for businesses to find consumers who are willing to buy innovative bio-based products that have not yet been used.

To create more trust and awareness, the first thing that’s needed is information, says Overbeek. Then governments have to develop standards and certification for bio-based products. ‘That way we can create a common understanding of what bio-based products are, and how they contribute to sustainability.’