Kalundborg: Where it all began

Kalundborg, Denmark - the site of the world’s first industrial symbiosis - is a wonderful example of how the Nordic system works. As one of the world’s most productive industrial centers, its culture brilliantly models the six life-mimicking qualities described in Table 1.1. Given its influence among its Nordic neighbors and other countries that aspire to the circular economy model, it can rightly be considered the godparent of economies that mimic life.

Kalundborg’s story is particularly relevant because it transformed itself from an economy once dominated by fossil fuels (a coal-burning power plant and an oil refinery) into a global citadel of renewable energy, biotechnology and closed-loop manufacturing. With a population of only 16,500, the municipality is today an international symbol of how people with shared synergetic visions can infuse new life into economies operating under the older industrial capitalist model.

The transformation process began when municipal and business leaders started a series of experiments in resource sharing and recycling in the 1970s, fed by open exchanges of ideas and a shared vision of the common good. Guided by an awakening that the industrial world was pushing beyond its ecological limits - advanced by the renowned Norwegian ecologist Arne Naess - the citizens of Kalundborg created a symbiotic model where local wastes and industrial byproducts were transformed into value-added resources the same way Nature recycles and reuses spent nutrients.

As success led to success, Kalundborg became a global innovation hotspot and an important learning center. Today its exchange network comprises more than 30 bilateral or trilateral commercial agreements centered on exchanges of energy plus the recycling of water and waste products, all of which are overseen and coordinated by an adjacent symbiosis institute.

The tangible economic benefits of this symbiosis can be seen in the value generated by its four original leadership companies: 0rsted (the utility owner), which is now the world leader in offshore wind energy; Equinor (the refinery owner), a diversified energy company and world leader in carbon sequestration; Novo Nordisk, one of the worlds most innovative and profitable pharmaceutical companies; and Novozymes, the world leader in enzyme technology. Often working in collaboration, these four have pioneered new circular economy solutions that have spread throughout the Nordic region.

In one such pioneering venture, Inbicon (a subsidiary of Orsted) converted 30,000 metric tons per year of waste wheat straw supplied by local farmers into biofuels. Using waste steam from 0rsted’s power station mixed with enzymes from Novozymes, it produced on an annual basis 5.4 million liters of bio-ethanol for the Equinor refinery; 13,100 tons of lignin pellets for use as boiler fuel at the power station and 11,200 metric tons of molasses for use as a livestock feed supplement plus bionutrients that can be returned to farmers as fertilizer. Based on this success, Inbicon now licenses its technology worldwide. By 2022 it envisions up to 500 commercial-scale biomass refineries in the US and Canada, producing 10 billion gallons of bio-ethanol a year and generating as much as 20,000 MW of green power.

As such creative innovations progressed, demand for Kalundborg’s circular economy know-how quickly spread. Today the Symbiosis Center Denmark (Dansk Symbiosecenter) collaborates with universities, nonprofits and other industrial symbioses, both in the Nordic region and worldwide. In addition, its BIOPRO development center - a partnership between Novo Nordisk, Novozymes, the Danish Technical University, the University of Copenhagen and nearby biotech companies - has become a leading research and learning center in the futuristic field of bio-innovation. Building on BIOPRO’s success and growth potential, the Nordic Council of Ministers created in 2015 a Nordic bioeconomy panel, which subsequently made bio-innovation a central goal of future Nordic development.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation, which owns controlling interests in both Novo Nordisk and Novozymes, is also a major catalyst in the field of bio-innovation - both locally and worldwide. In addition to funding BIOPRO, the foundation supports a new center for biosustainability at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), which researches and develops “cell factories” that produce organic substitutes for petrochemicals. Since these chemicals exist in countless everyday products, including those that people ingest (pharmaceuticals) or put on their skin (soap, cosmetics, textiles), such safe, bio-based chemicals have become one of the fastest-growing segments of the global chemistry industry.

The market for Bio-based chemical is anticipated to grow from $6,474 million in 2016 to $23,976 million by 2025, at a CAGR of 16.16% between 2017 and 2025... [C]oncerns regarding the environment due to dangerous chemicals and depletion of fossil fuels are leading to the rise of the production of the bio-based chemicals.

Bio-based News, 2017'°

The remarkable thing about these developments and Kalundborg’s evolution as a global leader in circular economy enterprise is that they developed organically at the local level based on the curiosity and collaboration of free-thinking citizens and companies committed to the health of the whole. Like symbiotic collaborations in Nature, these are rooted in mutual benefit - a quality that has stabilized and energized Kalundborg’s economy as new needs and opportunities arise.

As discussed in Chapter Three, these holistic tendencies are supported by a philosophy of education and self-development that has been part of the Nordic cultural DNA since the middle of the 19th century. By urging people to think beyond themselves to the wider contexts of Nature, the wellbeing of society and the security of future generations, this philosophy endows Nordic people with an almost reflexive capacity for systems thinking.

Looking back on the transformation of Kalundborg from an industrial fossil-fuel-based economy to the symbiotic life-mimicking one it is today - all in the space of two generations - we find striking parallels with the earlier 14th-century European Renaissance that began in Florence.

By challenging established norms in fundamental ways, both movements can be seen as transformative historic events - ones that take us to new levels of understanding about our relationships with Nature, authority and ourselves.

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