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Published: 2024-04-25

Sustainability prize to student thesis on AI and circular economy

NEWS Niklas Bäcklund and Björn Tomas Minde, Luleå University of Technology, receive Umeå sustainability prize for their thesis “Unlocking the Potential of AI-driven Circular Business Model Innovation: A case study of an industrial symbiosis”. The prize including a scholarship worth 25,000 SEK is awarded in collaboration between the Research Institute for Organization and Business in Sustainable Transitions (ROBUST) at Umeå School of Business, Economics and Statistics and Umeå Energi.

Artificial intelligence and circular economy are two trends that are highly relevant and widely debated in research and in the contemporary business landscape. Niklas an Björn Tomas have written a thesis that brings together these two trends in a highly ambitious empirical study of an AI initiative in industrial symbiosis. The study provides a comprehensive framework for AI-driven circular business model innovation that can be widely applicable to many businesses and industries seeking to contribute to sustainability transitions.

– Creating sustainable industries requires better utilization of resources and AI is a powerful enabler for circular economy. Despite the enormous potential, many industrial companies fail with AI because it requires so much more than just a working AI model. You need to rethink processes, collaborations, mindsets, data sharing and much more, which means that companies must change their business models to fully realize AI's sustainability potential, says Nicklas.

In their thesis, Niklas and Björn Tomas draw on a case of SSAB’s industrial symbiosis where residual gases from steel production are used for electricity and district heating production in Luleå. They conducted 32 interviews with representatives from five companies in the industrial symbiosis and experts. The most memorable experience from the thesis work was a personal guided site visit with the CEO of Lulekraft, district heating producer.

– To see how everything worked in real life gave us a deeper insight and a stronger connection to the subject. In addition, it was fascinating to see how the people of Luleå get heat in their homes and then also get the view of Luleå from the top of the heating plant, says Björn Tomas.

With some of the leading researchers in AI, digitalization, and innovation, the Luleå University of Technology reinforced already existing interest in technology. The teachers and specifically supervisors, David Sjödin and Milad Kolagar, further awakened curiosity about sustainability and AI's potential for circular business models. This interest has persisted even after the graduation. Niklas currently works as a business developer at Freshworks identifying and creating opportunities for the largest Swedish companies, where AI as important part. Björn Tomas is a consultant at Rejlers working with digitalization, project management, and business analysis including several green investment projects in Norrland.

– We hope that this award can inspire more companies to see the value in AI. It is extra rewarding that Umeå Energi is sponsoring the award. During our work on the thesis we realized the crucial role of energy companies in the green transition and the challenges they face, says Björn Tomas.

Honourable mention

The jury directs an honorable mention to two exceptional theses. As a runner-up, “At melting summits: How do ski resorts transform? A comparative case study of privately own ski resorts in Sweden”, by Isabelle Talsma and Vendela Silwén, Stockholm School of Economics. Third place goes to “Hållbarhetsstyrning och rapporteringskvalitet: En kvantitativ studie om styrsystem till följd av tvingande hållbarhetsrapportering” written by Amanda Henriksson and Isabelle Wennerström, Linköping University.

Important collaboration

The prize, which is handed out as a scholarship worth 25,000 SEK, has been made financially possible through collaboration with Umeå Energi.

– Umeå Energi wants to be a positive force in sustainable development of the Umeå region. With this scholarship, we want to encourage students in business administration to deeply engage in sustainability, says Magnus Stenvall, Umeå Energi.

The jury

ROBUST expresses sincere gratitude to this year’s jury that consisted of Professor Timur Uman (Jönköping University), Professor Thomas Magnusson (Halmstad University), Karl Eldebo (Linköping University), and representatives from Umeå Energi: Sara Ekenstedt and Magnus Stenvall.

Read more about the thesis prize and the criteria underpinning the jury’s decision on our webpage:

Umeå sustainability prize for theses in business administration