Smart Prosperity’s Research Network conducts world-class research focused on a stronger, cleaner economy. This Spotlight Series highlights the activities of faculty and student researchers alike, showcasing the breadth of expertise and activities of our Research and Student Networks. 

In this second edition, we caught up with Deishin Lee, Jury Gualandris, Elliot Choi, Shawn Liu, Gloria Wu, Bryce Pratt, and Ruby Lin. The team was awarded funding through Smart Prosperity’s special COVID Call for Research Proposals for their project titled “Achieving Regional Resilience through Circular Economy Practices“. 


Hi Deishin, Jury, Elliot, Shawn, Gloria, Bryce, and Ruby. Your research focuses on how circular economy supply chain practices can be used to increase regional resilience in Canada. Can you tell us a bit more about the project and what the “big questions” are that you are trying to answer?

Our research aims to enhance the understanding of the structure and functioning of critical dairy supply chains in Canada so that managers and policy makers have more accurate and relevant information to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of these complex systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our critical food supply chains. Our study identifies which activities along those supply chains have been interrupted, and which resources are in short supply or underutilized because of shifting demand. Our study also involves mapping the existence (or the emergence) of circular economy practices such as exchanging and processing food waste across firms. Food waste includes both excess production and by-products that are high in nutrients and residual economic value but for which firms struggle to find an immediate application. Successful waste exchanges fortify both parties in the exchange and diminish their reliance on singular sources of inputs and singular distribution channels.

Although our research is still at an early stage, our ambition is to reveal structural sources of  inter-organizational agility that enable a regional dairy supply chain to seamlessly and speedily adjust operational processes and material flows in response to changes in the external environment (e.g. COVID-19) to maintain a robust and efficient state of operations. Ultimately, our research will help to transform critical dairy supply chains so that they deliver goods and services to society in a way that is responsible and resilient to external shocks.


What are the potential policy implications of your work and why is this research important in the context of a green recovery from the pandemic?

Economic systems like dairy supply chains operate in a policy framework. Policies establish the boundaries of what is allowable, profitable, and advisable for companies within these systems. If we want to stimulate systemic improvements in how supply chains operate, we will undoubtedly need to change policies. Currently, we are trying to figure out what is the best structure for critical supply chains for fluid milk and other dairy products. Once we have an understanding of that, we will investigate policy interventions that can incentivize firms to adapt supply chain structure and adopt practices that elevate their inter-organizational agility and resilience.


Deishin and Jury, complementing your academic work, you have given briefings to big corporations, including Walmart Canada and HP. Do you see these same conversations of supply chain resilience and circular economy reflected in the private sector?

Absolutely! Supply chain resilience has never been more relevant than now. Every firm is taking a critical look at their supply chains to determine where their vulnerabilities are and taking risk mitigation steps. In some cases, this investigation has highlighted the benefits of circular economy practices as a means of bolstering the supply chain and improving environmental impact. Pre-COVID, resilience and circular economy were already on the radar for many companies, but since the onset of the pandemic, the importance of these issues has intensified. Private firms are actively looking for product-process designs and supply chain structures that are responsive to the needs of end-customers, resilient to climate change risks and other external shocks like COVID-19 and eco-effective i.e. maximize the usage of materials that have no impact on the natural environment.

Besides policy makers and private firms, we are also collaborating with circularity brokers like CTTÉI (Centre de Transfert Technologique en Écologie Industrielle) and NISP Canada to examine the conditions under which companies can productively source and use another company’s waste to produce economic and environmental value. For example, Agropur, a large cooperative of farmers that operates dairy farms and processing plants in Canada and the U.S. is exchanging its by-products (e.g. dairy serum) with companies that produce fresh juices and alcohol for disinfectants and rum. Our research can help circularity brokers to more effectively match companies and create the conditions for more productive waste exchanges between them.


To the student researchers on this project, any particular lessons you have learned from being so integrally involved in the research process?

Elliot: First and foremost, research is definitely a black box in the sense that there is an abundance of data but a lack of data integration and cohesion - part of this process has been incredibly rewarding as I have been able to integrate data from various sources and see how it can form a fulsome view of the supply chains we are mapping. In addition, often I've learned that unlike school, there is no prescribed answer and the only way to test your conclusion is to continue to find supporting evidence and constantly re-evaluate your hypothesis. 

Shawn: It’s been great getting exposed to the research process as a partner rather than solely a contributor. Working with Deishin and Jury has been a great exercise in critical thinking as I was tasked in being the expert in what I was researching. My favourite part of the entire process involved Deishin and Jury questioning my thought process during our weekly meetings. This has really made me think deeply about what I was researching and the insights that I was extracting from my analysis.

Gloria: Having never done research before, I have really enjoyed learning the importance of asking the right questions and how to answer these questions effectively using the right data.

Bryce: I think my biggest learnings have pertained to the complexity of the supply chains we are studying. The number of moving parts and unique considerations in each of these supply chains is almost imperceptible from the outside looking in. Having had the opportunity to work on the simulation of these complex systems, it has given me much more appreciation for all the work that goes into products we use every day.

Ruby: Working on this project improved my research skills and taught me about supply chain resilience. Circular economy and extended producer responsibility affect many stakeholders and processes, thus defining a research question and establishing the scope of the research project are helpful in refining the research methodology so that you are not overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project. A clear outline also helped me prioritize the information and communicate it to an audience who does not have prior knowledge of this research area. In addition, I learned about the interdependencies between parties in economic systems, and how policies must consider the impacts on all stakeholders in order for the system to be resilient. 


Gloria, you recently authored an article for the Ivey Business Review looking at Canadian-based retailer Indigo. You explored changes that Indigo could make to its business model- could you tell us how elements of circularity are incorporated in these suggested changes?

Gloria: Big-box book retailers are facing a tough battle to stay alive in today’s struggling book retail industry, especially with the rise of platforms like Amazon. The proposal to implement a “give-back program” for used books in partnership with libraries was inspired by the take-back garment collection program that H&M has successfully implemented to re-wear, reuse, and recycle used clothing. Elements of circularity exists in how the “give back” program encourages reuse, remanufacturing, and recycling of books; we retain the value from products previously treated as waste, in an effort to reinvigorate business and support local communities.


Shawn, congratulations on being named one of the Global Winners of the Global Undergraduate Awards! Could you tell us what you learned while writing your paper "Opportunity recognition regarding the Circular Economy in the Canadian Food Sector"?

Shawn:  Thank you! While writing this whitepaper, I learned a lot about not only the Circular Economy, but also on how different fields in business can relate to each other. Writing this under Jury's supervision has opened my eyes to the need for interdisciplinary research within the circular economy, specifically on how one field can help answer the questions of another. It’s funny that writing a paper on how entrepreneurs “connect the dots” around food waste has made me connect the dots as well in a different way!


So after this project is complete, what is next for you?

Deishin: The notion of regional resilience extends well beyond supply chains for products. For a region to be resilient, other activities such as education, healthcare, and support for vulnerable populations, are all important. The delivery of these services and supply chain activities are all interdependent. Going forward, my research will investigate how these various elements are interconnected and how they operate together to contribute to regional resilience.

Jury: This research project is part of a larger research program on sustainable supply chains and the circular economy. As part of this program, I am investigating three research questions: (micro-level of analysis) what cognitive frames help managers to recognize economic value in waste? (Meso-level) How do secondary markets and reverse supply networks differ across diverse material streams (plastic; food; minerals)? (Macro-level) what institutional conditions (i.e. legislations and societal norms) stimulate organic growth in secondary markets and reverse supply networks? I am convinced that this program will generate new knowledge and drive real positive change.

Elliot: I am currently looking to gain some industry experience and intend on pursuing a graduate degree in the near future.

Shawn:  I’d ideally want to pursue a master’s degree in analytics and combine it with my interest in sustainability. I think it would be interesting to write about how Big Data and Machine Learning can be used to reduce our carbon footprint.

Gloria: After graduation, I am planning on joining TD Bank full time, working on fin-tech products as a Digital and Payments Associate. I will also continue working on a student start-up, Neutral, which is a browser extension that shows consumers the carbon footprint of products on Amazon.

Bryce: Upon graduating, in May of 2021, I will be joining a proprietary trading firm which specializes in market making in New York, working on software to improve the liquidity of global financial markets.

Ruby: I really enjoyed learning about integrating sustainability into supply chains throughout this project, and hope to find a full-time role in this functional area after graduation.


Thank you, All!


For more on the Smart Prosperity Research Network, click here. For recent Working Papers produced by the Research Network, click here. The previous installment of our Researcher Spotlight focused on Christina Hoicka and team, is available here.