And then, there was light. And chatter. And curious glances coming from the heaps of people that suddenly filled the halls of the EPFL campus. Still processing these first impressions after being taken out of its packaging, the souvenir drinking bottle began its journey through the 2023 International Swiss Talent Forum (or ISTF, for those with a lazy tongue or limited time) and, as a way of reflecting on this year’s event, we are now invited to follow. Let me preface this by saying that while we will accompany only one special, chosen bottle during the following lines, our companion was, nevertheless, one of many.

On arrival, each participant was gifted one of those colourful vessels. Yet, while the wellbeing of our young brain collective undoubtedly is our top priority, this gift was less of an attempt to keep them hydrated but rather a way to augment their memories of the forum with something more physical, more permanent. Something they could use many more times, even after the ISTF 2023 has long ended.

At this point, our trusted water bottle was standing on one of the tables amid the hustle and bustle of what could be described as a highly international potluck of snacks – a first day icebreaking exercise for which each participant brought a treat from their home country for the others to try. As planned, this snack-sharing not only sparked culinary debates but, furthermore, helped foster an increasingly amicable atmosphere amongst those who were still strangers mere hours ago. Then, after plates were emptied and friends had been made, there was only one unknown variable remaining for our drinking bottle owners: the event venue.

Therefore, dangling from someone’s hand, the water bottle soon was taken on a journey of discovery over floors of concrete and carpet, up and down endless escalators, and through an abundance of doors until the participants were not only acquainted with the event space itself but also with the many other highlights the EPFL campus has to offer. If we’d chose to believe the reports of our travelling flask, the trip to the Swiss Plasma Centre and the Discovery Learning Laboratories on site seemed to be the most fascinating part about this whole tour. Soon after these explorations, with the team building dinner that then followed, we had already arrived at the final agenda item of this first day which eventually ended with our bottle getting some well-deserved rest on the bedside table in its owner’s hotel room.

From the next morning on, however, things suddenly started to get more and more intense. After the official forum opening and a brief introduction to the overarching topic of circular economy, the participants separated according to the five different challenges and were then split up once more so that each of those five challenges had the chance to be approached from two different angles. The resulting ten teams instantly got to work and during the next three days, the excessively used ISTF-bottle was put through a lot. A non-exhaustive list of those adventures would include being forgotten on a table after one of the coffee breaks; getting lost between piles of post-its and flip-chart pages filled with dismissed ideas, and accidentally being kicked while peacefully resting on the floor, thereby ornamenting the ongoing keynote speech or masterclass with some unplanned background noise. Of course, there were also moments of leisure and letting go as one evening was kept free for our participants to do whatever they pleased. However, to those readers who hope for once to not find water but tea in our beloved bottle, I can only offer disappointment. That evening, our ISTF souvenir was left at the hotel and much to our dismay, other kinds of drinking vessels in Lausanne turned out to be significantly less chatty than ours.

Circular Solutions to Escape the Vicious Cycle of the Linear Economy

Time flew by and eventually, after a stressful and strenuous Friday evening (or rather night) of tweaking, rehearsing and finalizing projects, presentations and summaries, the Saturday morning sun found its way through the blinds of the hotel room and was quick to wake up our bottle as well as its companion just in time for one last breakfast here at the centre. As ten o’clock came by, the colourful flask found itself, once more, standing by the leg of a chair in the main auditorium right as enthusiastic applause marked the kick-off of the forum’s final event and the ten inspiring presentations that would follow.

Not only the ISTF-bottle, but truly everyone, including the guests, was blown away by the teams’ solutions to the diverse challenges the implementation of circular economic models poses. One group, for example, pitched an alteration to the existing patent system which would promote more circular inventions by categorizing new proposals into regular, green, and circular ideas. Green patents, those which are generally more resourceful and less environmentally damaging than the standard regular patent, would predominantly profit from monetary incentives, whereas circular inventions would benefit from less stringent laws regarding derivational patents, hence facilitating the process for solutions that provide improvements to already existing products. With this solution, the group hoped to make regular patents less attractive and thus allowing the more desirable, meaning sustainable, ideas to take the stage.

Another group thought of combating the abundance of plastic waste resulting from the shoe industry with soles based on mycelium, while the second team of the same challenge was ready to launch a shoe brand that was inspired by Legos. But do not fear, the latter group’s intention was nowhere close to letting their customers continuously step on the colourful yet menacing little bricks! What they envisioned was a shoe that would consist of five basic components – three parts to make up the sole and bottom layers, one top part, and the laces – all easy to assemble and disassemble again. Those components would come in different shapes and materials and would all be compatible with each other so that the owners of such a pair could not only customize their shoes according to their own style but also wouldn’t need to buy three different sets of footwear should their hobbies be as diverse as hiking, outdoor running, and indoor tennis. All they’d need to do was switch out the pivotal parts to better fit the conditions and demands. Additionally, in case a customer couldn’t or wouldn’t want to proceed using some of the components, these could be returned to the manufacturer where they would be recycled to produce new shoe elements again, making it a much more circular business model than what the shoe industry currently has to offer. Overall, both promising solutions that filled their challengers with pride and the ISTF bottle with hope for the future of the owners of the many pairs of shoes it was able to see through the lines of chairs from its place in the auditorium.

All Good Things Come to a New Beginning

Yet, while our beloved ISTF bottle could forever go on about revised tax systems that benefit and thus promote circular businesses, an endless cycle of refurbished coffee machines, and sustainable solutions to combat packaging waste, this unfortunately has to be cut short. However, adapting the perspective of circularity, there’s not really such a thing as an end, but rather a chance for a new beginning. So, while it’s hard to say goodbye to an event as inspiring as the ISTF, our participants have their water bottle, filled with a thousand memories, to look at whenever that sweet melancholy should pay them a visit. And if that’s not enough, then they are free to bring it along next year for with the end of the 2023 forum, the planning of the next ISTF has already begun.