Once upon a time, there was a small network in the midst of big corporations. It was surrounded by big players who produced fossil coal and had no great interest in changing energy policy in a sustainable and climate-friendly way.

What few people know: Fossil coal is not only burned. A lot of unsustainable products are also made from fossil coal. Even the activated carbon that purifies groundwater and is used in “alternative” drinking bottles has a poor sustainability record.

Our small network gathered a crowd of committed citizens and companies over the past 10 years to make charcoal from unused bio-waste. This was achieved with the technology of “pyrolysis”, which makes so-called “biochar” from, for example, waste from the organic waste bin, wood waste or unused grass cuttings.

But this biochar, the network realised, is far too valuable to be burnt straight away – even if that would of course be much more sustainable than what the big corporations do.

For this reason, the network gathered its member organisations and considered what else could be done with this biochar. And since they quickly realised that these developments were not that easy to realise, they asked experts who could support them. But they were neither convinced by the offers of professional coaches, engineers or other consultancies, because these could only ever work on a small part of the “opportunity space”. This is because social developments take place in complex systems in which there are no purely ecological-technical, social or economic solutions. Here, the creativity of all citizens should be used together for social innovations.

Therefore, the small network finally cooperated with a group called “Facilitators of Learning and Development”. The network partners liked that they were taken seriously here and that they could contribute and implement their own ideas. General knowledge about the SDGs was made available to the participants and they could network on a platform – guided and kindly accompanied by the facilitators.

An online programme was set up consisting of 6 face-to-face modules that were worked on in online working groups – from the vision of a socio-ecological region to concrete products made from biochar.

Through this learning and development programme, participants came into contact with new partners from Northwest Europe, who contributed many new ideas for products made from biochar, be it for animal health, waste water purification, odour reduction, organic soap and much more. Some of the products even won a prize and could be presented at a conference.

The programme has been so successful that there will be a second run, and hopefully many more later, where citizens and businesses will develop climate-friendly products and services from their waste.

The small network is happy to now have a well running offer for other committed regions. There is no shortage of interested participants, as the programme is fun, builds on creativity and engagement, and provides a community at a time when we should be working together to find solutions for the future.