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Victoria Darbyshire
Business Development Executive Circular Economy

The construction industry is Scotland’s largest waste producer, but an entrepreneurship education programme gave University of Edinburgh students the chance to ideate ways for one major company to embrace sustainable practices and the circular economy.

The Programme

Students as Change Agents (SAChA) is a co-curricular enterprise education programme at the University of Edinburgh. Created by Ruth Donnelly, Assistant Director of the Careers Service and led by Project Manager Al Powell, student participants form groups to tackle complex challenges posed by external organisations from the non-profit, public and private sectors. The programme is funded by the Data Driven Innovation programme at the University of Edinburgh, part of the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, and is hosted by the Careers Service. At the core of the programme is a commitment to making a sustainable difference; to society, the environment, or the economy.

The Challenge

The construction industry is Scotland’s single largest waste producer. The construction and built environment sectors account for about 50% of all waste in Scotland and over half of carbon emissions (including the operation of buildings). Infrastructure company Robertson had already taken steps to reduce its carbon footprint but they were keen to go further, so they challenged SAChA participants to ideate ways in which the construction industry as a whole could embrace digital technologies and contribute to the circular economy.

Participants were given access to Robertson’s waste management data as an entry point, and they came up with a range of innovative solutions including an AI tool to analyse building materials, a peer-to-peer waste sharing app and a web platform that links key stakeholders in the construction supply chain to advise of opportunities for waste prevention.

The Benefits

For participating students, the programme offers a wealth of benefits that supplement their academic experience: invaluable industry engagement; public speaking and pitching skills coaching; teamwork experience; and data analysis training. For the external industry partners the rewards are just as great:

  • Companies benefit from the fresh perspectives of SAChA participants, and can advance ideas that have germinated during the programme to create long-lasting solutions;
  • Collaborative interaction between industry and students allows industry partners to identify talent for potential employment post-graduation;
  • The programme provides participating companies with an opportunity for positive public relations.

Tony Grundy, former Sustainability Manager for Robertson, remarked how involvement in the SAChA programme keeps the company focused on innovation:

Hearing from challenge students keeps us on our toes, it allows us to take a step back and to look at what we’re doing. It’s a good forum platform for us to take stock of where we are going and the constant changes we’re facing.

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