Navigating the Blue Economy: An interview with Yves Zieba

In this interview, Yves Zieba, the CEO of Synthezia from Switzerland, discusses with Nicole Loeser, director of IFAI Berlin his passion for the blue economy and its potential to tackle climate-related challenges. He emphasizes the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, sustainable business models, and the adoption of eco-centered practices. Yves envisions a future where the blue economy plays a central role in preserving ocean resources and addresses urgent environmental issues. His vision highlights the significance of creativity and cultural industries in driving positive change for a sustainable world.

NL: Welcome, Yves Zieba. You are the CEO of Synthezia from Switzerland. And I’m very happy to have you for this session today.

YZ: Thank you for the invitation, Nicole.

NL: It was three years ago when we met for the first time online at the Plastic Revolution, which was a project that accelerated ideas of change-makers in the plastic field. And there we met in the jury session and later on, again, we had the pleasure to be part of a jury in 2021 for the Social Art Award. Both were projects by the Institute for Art and Innovation.
I’m very happy that we can find the time and talk about your activities and also your visions for positive futures. Let’s start with a short introduction. Yves, what is actually your background? And maybe you can also tell us more about your current position.

YZ: Sure. Thanks for the introduction. So, to give you some information about my background – I studied in business schools in Paris and in Montreal. My background is in strategy, innovation, and information systems. And I’ve been traveling quite a lot – living and working in Berlin, in Geneva, in London, in Casablanca. And there’s been basically two parts in my life, the corporate life, 13 years working for the world leader of information provider – Reuters, the news agency. So I know data, news, graphs, pictures, and videos quite well. And the other part, so the last 12 years or so I’ve been working as an entrepreneur. Starting up various ventures, some not-for-profit and some for-profit ventures. That’s pretty much in a very short time my background.

NL: Thank you for sharing. I see that you have a very multifaceted career. And when we met, I also had the feeling that you are very eager to shape societies for the better. But when facing a poly-crisis consisting of connected risks where climate-related issues are the biggest future threat, it seems that many people become frustrated or depressed about the future, but I always see you are highly motivated. So how do you deal with these challenging times and what keeps you motivated?

YZ: Well, I think you’re right when we speak about climate-related issues, we are typically dealing with wicked problems, so multifaceted problems which are quite complex in isolation. In combination, it’s even more complex. So, I think that’s motivating in many ways because you find on the way – how the way systems work or ecosystems are organized – what works, and what doesn’t work. And it’s a real challenge to understand and find solutions for these wicked problems. And what motivates me is that it’s impossible to solve any of these wicked problems alone. So, you really have to join forces with people from other disciplines to maximize your chance. I like to meet people, I like to work with people. This is a big driver for me. So, that’s the reason why I think that the motivation is coming from the appetite to solve the climate issues, of course, making sure that we have environmental sustainability for future generations. And on a more personal level, I like to work with talented, smart people who share the same energy and appetite for the environment and sustainability. So this is what keeps me motivated.

NL: Thank you. And when you talk about whether it’s entrepreneurial approaches towards the better or let’s say sustainability-oriented businesses, what kind of concepts serve you as a guidance model? Because when we think about circular, regenerative, symbiotic, or blue economies, how do we relate to them?

YZ: Well, I think there are new business models arising. And I think it’s great that when we think about a new product, a new idea, or a new project. We don’t simply look at whether it’s economically viable, but we also look at the impact of the project on nature, on humans. And, you know, of course, it’s great if it’s creative, if it looks nice if it’s aesthetic, if it’s functional, but it’s also very interesting and enriching for the team and the project to make sure that it’s respectful of nature in the way, in terms of resource consumption, the impact it can have on the water pollution or air pollution or soil pollution. And I think it’s great if we do that by design at the conception stage, which is where I’m mostly involved. I think I’m quite good when it’s conceptual. And this is why I have a chance to make sure that these principles look after the limited amount of resources we have on planet Earth, the importance of water and its ecosystems, and all sources of pollution and sources of CO2 emissions, that when we think about new ventures, we have that in mind from day one. From the beginning of the first day when the team meets or the first day when the product development starts.


“When we think about water, we may think about the bottle, the plastic bottle we buy at the supermarket, but it’s actually much, much more than that.”


NL: Maybe we can even go a little deeper into what differences are there, and maybe which model can serve us the best for changing systems for the better when it comes to the circular regenerative symbiotic or blue economy principles. How do you get yourself involved in these different economic fields? Do you see different business models or do you think these are all connected and there are just different visions behind them? Can you define these a bit in your own words, these principles?

YZ: Yes, sure. I think they have a lot in common. So, they all aim at being respectful of the environment. But there are some slight variations. I can call them this way. The way I arrived at the circular economy was coming from the decarbonization angle. The circular economy is one of the ways to achieve the reduction of CO2 emissions. This is the reason why I got involved in an open course for projects, which look after the circular economy from a business model viewpoint. It has a certain specific meaning in terms of a loop. There are specific business model canvases for the circular economy. Typically we can have a specific workshop to look for ways to identify where the loops can be.

NL: And of course, it’s also about zero waste as well, right?

YZ: Exactly. I’ve been spending lots of time with the fab labs and maker space and- there because of its product innovation, we have the materials, we have the machinery, and we have the mentality to reuse, repair or repurpose. And it’s actually fun to do that because for every product that we manufacture, there are always leftovers, there are always attempts that failed, and you’re left with some kind of material, even if you optimize the way you conceive it in 3D. I like the zero waste approach in the sense that we think about the waste before we manufacture, and we think about using in a smart way the materials. This is how I landed, so to speak, in the circular economy.

On the blue economy, it’s a bit different. I landed on the blue economy thanks to the European Commission, who has been kind enough to grant me some innovative SMEs, who were active in the blue economy. So, I discovered that, well, it’s of course everything related to water as a resource. But this is massive. I mean, it’s when we think about water, we may think about the bottle, the plastic bottle we buy at the supermarket, but it’s actually much, much more than that. It encompasses ocean protection, coastal protection, and the cities which are on the coast and face the rise of sea levels. It’s about the fish, it’s about the food, it’s about algae. So, you have biomaterials that you can use in very, very interesting ways in many other sectors. It’s an entire economy that for me was completely unknown 10 years ago. And I’ve been invited to join that economy. And since that, I’ve discovered the way we can produce and store hydrogen. I’ve discovered tidal energy, wave energy, and the importance of floating systems for the future. I’ve discovered many things thanks to innovative startups, which I had the pleasure to coach. I think for us, inhabitants of planet Earth or the soil, we don’t really know the law of the sea. We don’t really know: what is life floating on the sea and we know probably even less about the undersea world. I usually like to start my workshops by asking participants whether they would prefer to land on the planet Mars or to discover the undersea. That was a unique opportunity for me to discover what’s undersea. So that’s for the blue economy.
For the symbiotic economy, this is new, so I think it’s emerging. It’s extremely interesting, and what we do there, we collect prospective text and future thinking visions from people who attended our workshops at the last Festival of the Earth, and we’re going to see if we can turn it into some kind of book to share the insights. We’ll take some of the principles of the symbiotic economy, some of the main authors when we’ve asked participants to imagine a better future or sustainable future that would use the symbiotic economy principles.


“We need to be aware that we have limited resources”


NL: And symbiotic means then that we coexist with other creatures or does it mean that we live in a symbiosis state?

YZ: So it was really funny to see during the workshop by sharing the same video and the same principles to the audience and simply asking them to imagine in the future the different routes they’ve taken. So, I don’t want to reveal the good parts of the book. But what I can say is some people have started to think in a very intimate way, some others have started to think in terms of politics, so the life of the state, the life of a city, or the life of a family, or the life of the people who share flats. So just by taking a slightly different angle and applying the same principle at a different scale.

NL: So it’s more about that we are embedded as human beings in all kinds of different systems and by that have to be symbiotic in a way?

YZ: I think it has something in common with a regenerative economy in the sense that we need to be aware that we have limited resources. How to stay autonomous without consuming more than we have. If we put just that simple principle of respecting limited resources, it has so many knock-on effects at many different levels, whether it’s at our individual level, at the family and friend level, at the city level or at the planet level. that this simple set of principles can drive lots of effects, consequences for the future.

NL: That’s amazing. And I think on one hand, it’s challenging to understand all these different concepts, but on the other hand, there’s so much to get done in a way. And to get it right for future generations. I mean, we have lots of ideas, right? Now we have to ground and to realize all of them. For instance, regarding the symbiotic economy, there will be your book published soon. But when it comes to the regenerative or blue economy, which is also still a bit new, can you maybe provide some examples of practices or businesses that are currently being implemented in this area so that it can be better understood how these principles get adopted?

YZ: Yes, of course. If we talk about the blue economy, I can mention two things. The first thing is that there is every year European Maritime Day, which is an event dedicated to the blue economy, specifically targeted towards the youth generation, which is of course very important for all of us. And it’s taking place in 400 different cities across Europe. I think it’s one of the rare events which can mobilize lots of people to look after water as a resource. I think this is very inspiring when you join this European Maritime Day at your local level, so in Berlin or Lausanne, but also I mean, it’s almost an endless source of inspiration if you look at all the good ideas which have been generated in 400 cities.

And the other thing I can mention which can be very useful for entrepreneurs, artists, or creators is that there is a BlueInvest Fund which was in the pilot phase and is now completely running and which can fund different projects. As I’ve been coaching five innovative SMEs I can share some of the examples. Some are working on foil, some are working on IoT to minimize the energy consumption of fishermen’s boats, and some are crossing the Atlantic to transport coffee commodities from Europe to North America with the force of winds. There are this fixation and floating systems, which as a technology might not be so impressive. But if you think in terms of building future cities on the water, or if you think about having solar panels on water. You can have them on lakes, on seas, so you can think of life on water in many ways. And from a resilience viewpoint as well as from an expansion viewpoint, I think it’s extremely important if we look at the population density we have currently.
And I mentioned hydrogen as well which for me is really important as the energy for the future. We’re not too sure if it’s going to be 2030, 2040, or 2050. We’re not too sure at which price point hydrogen is going to be produced. But I think there is high chance that the energy of the future will be coming potentially from water. So that’s also a huge… industry and potentially a huge change if we manage to transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen energy.

NL: It sounds amazing. When you have been hearing about these innovators and where do you see the possible impact of these innovators? I mean, for me it’s always about how can we invite the societies and big economies to implement these values that are very necessary in a way, not only because we face all these climate-related issues, but how can we invite them to really share these values? What is your idea?

YZ: Well, I think in a way what you do with the Social Art Award and other similar open innovation initiatives where we invite everyone are quite important because I don’t think that the problem is that we don’t have the solutions. I think technical solutions exist and will improve over time, but adoption, wide-spreading of good practices, and behavior change are required to enable these new technologies. I think the way we could invite these different solution providers if I can call them this way, then we can facilitate the interactions with citizens, of course, with artists or designers as well. It’s going to be very important because they face challenges in getting their technology adopted because it usually replaces an alternative technology that is still on the market and which is not really happy about being displaced or replaced. This is why it’s a transition and I try to modify the habits and the behavior so that people understand the value of the transition. But I think artists and creators are much better equipped than me to drive behavior change because they have many more assets to their palettes to raise awareness for the importance of these changes.


“In my vision of the symbiotic economy and my hope for the future is that I would like my children or my grandchildren to be paid for their creativity and for how green they are”


NL: It really sounds amazing when we have this kind of positive future outlook, right? But you’ve already mentioned some challenges or obstacles in the transition. As you said, we have old industries, and they could grow, and aggregate knowledge over the last decades or even centuries. And now we come to the conclusion, actually that they did not do a good job, in a way, because they just thought in a kind of linear way, right? And not really about all the externalities and that actually the environment got polluted by their processes. But what do you think are really the main challenges? Mindsets, you mentioned already, but what other things come to your mind when working with change-makers?

YZ: Well, I think I see many opportunities. I’ve mentioned some of them. And you’re right, there are some obstacles and challenges. For instance, when we faced COVID, for instance, I think according to UNESCO, the creative and cultural industries lost millions of jobs just because of COVID. So, you know, there is a human side and an economic side to the equation. If we want creativity and culture industries to play a role in the sustainability transition or in the circular economy transition, people need to be able to make a living out of their creations. And it’s not only the creators, it’s also the technicians who support the creators. So, it’s actually a very important industry. The challenge to answer your question is to make sure that everyone including policymakers, politicians, and decision-makers, recognizes the importance of the creativity and cultural industries as a sector so that it carries enough weight compared to the automotive or aerospace sector, which is not so easy. And to recognize that with the rise of artificial intelligence and automation, it would be nice to be very well paid for the creativity and for the positive mindset and growth mindset, optimistic mindset, but also the creativity, what you or I can create as a value. It would be very nice to get paid for that. I think at the same time that we need to transition to green jobs, it would be good if we transition to creative jobs because we would be more happy. So in my vision of the symbiotic economy and my hope for the future is that I would like my or my grandchildren to be paid for their creativity and for how green they are. And if that’s the case, I think it would be fantastic. But before we get there, there is our generation that has some work to do.

NL: Interesting. Because creatives are also intrinsically motivated, right? To me, it’s always a little challenge to get paid for creativity. Because you start usually out of your own curiosity and with an approach that maybe you also gain a talent. And then you are able to implement that in your endeavors. And out of this, you then also create your job in a way. But what comes to the table when, for instance, having these multi-stakeholder collaborations, and especially when it comes to sustainability transition, is that creatives often are not that well equipped. For instance, when it comes to all these economic models that we were talking about beforehand, it seems that these models are not really well known. And when it comes to innovations or startups many of them are really in the niche or not really well promoted. They are not in the media. Of course, people can find them when listening to podcasts or watching videos. But I think collaboration is needed to deplete these opportunities. Do you have the same impression or what other frameworks do you believe are necessary to support the integration of creatives?

YZ: Yes, I agree with the situation that you described, I see the same thing. Where I have hope is when I see this multi-stakeholder approach becoming more and more popular on campuses. For instance, I was last week in Lyon, I was visiting a university and I was happily surprised that students from different fields were gathering in the same building: the political science, the engineering, the advertising school – so very creative designers next to the business and law students. Even if they study in separate entities, they share the same cafeteria, the same sports association, et cetera. So I think it’s happening in some campuses where they make it easier and easier to have this multi-stakeholder approach and interdisciplinary mix and match. It’s a bit more difficult after you leave the university because then you arrive in the real world. And let’s say if I’m a business person or a finance person, and I want to team up with you as a creative or a great designer or with somebody else than an engineer, it’s not so easy. You still see people who found a company with five engineers or five finance persons or three designers. So, even if we know that it’s this multi-stakeholder and interdisciplinary approach, which is probably the best chance for success, we still see people who stay in their comfort zone with people who are like themselves. But I think these changes can happen with open events. I mean, we call it open lab days for a reason, because we open it up to everyone. And when you open it up to everyone, you meet new people. Some are engineers, some are activists, some are artists, some are transitioning in their careers or don’t know what they want to do and they are looking for new teams and new ideas. And it’s great. It’s this openness and inclusion that enables the multi-stakeholder approach.

NL: Great. I would love to be part of that.

YZ: You’re welcome anytime.

NL: Thanks! Can you also share some insights regarding your activities? For instance, I think you mentioned shortly the EIC Accelerator or also the program Reimagine Fashion. I think they are important for entrepreneurs and startups.

YZ: Yes, the EIC Accelerator is an EU funding scheme and a coaching mechanism for innovative SMEs. And it’s been extremely popular because you can be eligible just by being an SME. So you don’t need a fancy consortium with five countries, three universities, five research centers, et cetera. It’s quite accessible for an SME who has a good idea to give it a try. It’s extremely competitive, but from an eligibility viewpoint, it’s very open and it has had lots of success. I’m lucky enough to be one of the business coaches of that scheme. I’ve been coaching 10 different SMEs, which was for me an amazing experience because I had the opportunity to work in Denmark with the Future Unicorn Award Winner for Digital Europe. An AI startup, which can detect heart attacks. I have had the opportunity to work with a Swedish SME who can decarbonize HVAC, the way the air flows into buildings. I’m not going to mention all of them, but I’ve worked in France, I worked in Belgium, in Switzerland. Thanks to these funding and coaching schemes. For me as a coach, it’s a great opportunity to meet the people who are acting on this transition. And hopefully, for them, it’s useful as well because I bring them an external viewpoint, maybe some contacts in other markets, some thoughts about how they can replicate and scale their initial success which tends to be local in one country, and how we can export that success in other countries.
The Reimagined Fashion is also a startup competition and I’ve been coaching a French SME in fashion. They have found a chemical way to capture carbon inside the textile. And with the Reimagine Fashion Award, I’ve been coaching them in the semi-final and then they’ve been selected for the final and they ended up first as the French SME in this competition, which was a big reputation booster for them. It’s given them a lot of visibility.
The BlueInvest is that it accelerates the visibility and the recognition of these innovations so that after they get these seeds of excellence or these awards or once they are semi-finalists or finalists it boosts their visibility and most of the time they win other awards afterward. So, once you’ve won one, two, or three awards, then you start to have easier access to capital. This way, you can do your pre-seed seed, series A, series B, and series C, and it helps and opens up access to other funds at the same time. I think it’s worth it, it’s competitive, but it’s worth applying for these funds because this is also a way for a policymaker to give inflections and orientation to where they want to invest. So if entrepreneurs have an idea that fits well, a particular call, it’s of course great to try and apply. And they learn on the way. Even if they don’t get the money, they have learned on the way how to structure their team and their project much better than before.

NL: Now as we looked a bit deeper on the startup level and how to set up a sustainable business model and how to become an effective and productive team, let’s look more on a systemic level. What are some emerging trends or innovations that could shape the future of our new eco-centered practices? What comes to your mind? Where do you see some promising trends?

YZ: Well, I think one trend is personalized and on-demand, so that instead of being industrialized and everybody’s one size fits all approach, there’s a big trend in fashion but also in print to do on-demand production or on-demand print and that’s great because you minimize the volume which is being produced. If you don’t produce you don’t have to look after the waste at the end of the chain. I think this combination of personalized customized and on-demand is a very promising trend we see for book editions or for fashion creation.
I think we see lots of promising trends as well coming from the gaming industry, which is probably the only industry that did not suffer so much during COVID because they have visual effects, they have animation effects, which are now being used in other industries be it healthcare, real estate, automotive, et cetera. All the good developments which are happening in the digital scene, which were coming originally from entertainment, e-sports, or video games, are now being used as a pretty good solution for the metaverse, virtual reality, and augmented reality in other sectors and for other purposes. I think it’s also an emerging trend. I don’t know if it’s a big trend yet, but it’s what we try to do is mix and match. So for instance, when we organize an escape game to change the habits and behavior in terms of urban mobility, we also ask the same people when they are trying the boat or the tram to have a collective dance with the choreography so that we also advocate about active mobility. And I think this cross-disciplinarity is usually very well received. And it’s an example of how culture makes it so much more appealing to drive change in habits or behavior change.


“I hope that we will have citizens asking more and more for a shift into this eco-centered economy”


NL: Thank you. Let’s have an even broader outlook. Where would you like to see the new eco-centered economy heading in the next decade?

YZ: Well, this is a very macro question. I like to see it everywhere. I think we’ve lost a lot of time questioning ourselves, why should I start doing this as long as you haven’t done that? And why should this company do something if the state doesn’t do anything? I think we’ve been playing hot potato games for too long. So I’d like to see everyone trying to do one’s best. It might be a utopia, I know. That’s maybe one of my weaker points. It might not be realistic, but it’s actually what I hope for the future, that we all think in terms of what we can do and how we can do and who’s going to be supporting us. It is going to come easily because the technology exists. It’s just a matter of organizing everything and having a political will to actually implement this eco-centered economy. So that’s what I wish for. I hope that we will have citizens asking more and more for a shift into this eco-centered economy. It’s happening with the voting in Switzerland last week, for instance when the climate law has been approved after having been rejected a couple of years ago. So we see that minds are shifting. In 10 years’ time, if we can say, we’ve all done what we could to facilitate this transition, I think it will be solving lots of conflicts and it’s just being proactive in a good direction. So rather than waiting for somebody else to do something.

NL: That sounds like a good plan. I wouldn’t call it a dream. I hope it can be a plan.

YZ: Yes, I’ve read a lot about utopia and fiction and we’ve done some design fiction workshops. The good thing about fiction is that sometimes it happens. Sometimes what you dream happens.

NL: Yes, your dream becomes a reality hopefully. So what role would you envision yourself playing in advancing the circular regenerative symbiotic or blue economy agenda in the next decade? What would be your big dream?

YZ: Well, I think I can probably bring most in the innovation and conceptual phases and quite transversal. So, you know, I’m not an expert in anything, but I’ve been seeing lots of things and people compare me quite often with a Swiss knife. So, you know, I can do many things.

NL: That’s an interesting metaphor about you.

YZ: But to some limit, of course, because I need to know what are my competency limits and when I reach them to have the right partners around me. But if I can play a role in supporting initiatives that are driving forces for the transition towards a symbiotic economy or eco-centered economy, I would be happy every morning when I watch myself in the mirror. My objective is to have an impact, a positive impact whether it’s on health, on environmental sustainability, or on raising the profile of creativity and culture. So, it’s probably not a job description, but I haven’t had a job description for the last 15 years. Maybe it’s a messy job description, but it’s probably what I’d like to do.

NL: I like this organic approach. It unfolds in front of you, right? With all the challenges that you might tackle.
As we now come slowly to an end here, is there anything else you would like to add or Is there any missing link that you would like to share?

YZ: Well, maybe one last thing, because digital plays a big role. As we have the energy transition and ecological transition, we also have lots of digital transformation going on. And in many ways, it’s good because it creates jobs, it creates opportunities, and it’s helping quite a lot. Creative and cultural industries. And at the same time, they are a vigilance point because of the carbon footprint and energy conception that the digital transition has. I try to keep an eye on it as I’m very much in favor of progress and digital and I use lots of the new technologies, but I also try to be vigilant about the ethical dimensions, the energy consumption of digital consumption, and also the carbon footprint, because everything is linked. I’m all in favor of progress and digital, but also vigilant about the environmental impact, and the industry is becoming more vigilant on the carbon footprint. I don’t know if I mentioned that before, but it’s something that is close to my heart. Reducing plastic pollution and reducing CO2 emissions is really what motivates me. This is maybe the one last thing I was keen to add.

NL: Wonderful. I guess fighting plastic production and pollution. This is what we share a lot, but we both are also ocean enthusiasts. And my last question to you today would be, what is the ocean to you? Personally, emotionally or in what dimension it comes to your mind?

YZ: Well, there’s a picture that comes to my mind. And I think it captures the ambiguity. So the fact that the ocean is becoming warmer has a knock-on effect that you have lots of algae covering the undersea landscape. I think it’s sad because it was really beautiful with the corals and fishes, colorful fishes when you dive. Now this is kind of hidden with algae. In a way you could say that’s kind of sad. And at the same time, algae can be maybe feeding people in the future or can be enhancing building materials. So, you have also a huge amount of opportunities. I think it’s a case in point for the pros and cons of the current situation. We have challenges, we have threats, and we have urgency to tackle them, but we also have opportunities to seize the oceans if we understand them well and if we take the time to learn.

NL: Wonderful. I always say go with the flow, right? Thank you so much, Yves, that was really amazing.

YZ: Thank you for the smart questions, I hope I got it right.

More information about Yves Zieba:

Open Models for Sustainability (co-author, publication for COP21, in French)
Blue Growth Economy (co-author)
BlueInvest (certified coach)
EIC Accelerator (business coach)
EUSIC Diogo Challenge – Re-Imagine Fashion (coach)
EMD in My Country
Facilitate Innovation through play
ENoLL / Open Living Lab Days
Open Innovation (Interview)
Tech 4 Good Intelligent Cities Challenge (Jury)