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ACCELERATING MULTI-STAKEHOLDER MOONSHOTS TO ADDRESS GRAND CHALLENGES: THE CASE OF CIRCULAR ECONOMY INNOVATION

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ACCELERATING MULTI-STAKEHOLDER MOONSHOTS TO ADDRESS GRAND CHALLENGES: THE CASE OF CIRCULAR ECONOMY INNOVATION

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Using an action-research and a toolkit development approach, this paper uncovers the epistemological limitations of the Lean Startup and Design Thinking heuristics and proposes a novel 'wicked acceleration' framework to address a grand challenge in the sustainability domain: circular economy innovation. Circular economy innovation is a 'wicked problem', where multiple stakeholders operate under different timescales with often conflicting interests in terms of value creation, value capture, and behavioral change. We illustrate our novel systemic approach with case data from the World Economic Forum's Scale360° Initiative and discuss both the epistemological, ethical and practitioner implications regarding its societal adoption and scaling.
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ACCELERATING MULTI-STAKEHOLDER MOONSHOTS TO ADDRESS GRAND
CHALLENGES: THE CASE OF CIRCULAR ECONOMY INNOVATION
Cristóbal García-Herrera
Imperial College Business School
Imperial College Road, London, SW7 2AZ, UK
c.garciah@imperial.ac.uk
Erkko Autio
Imperial College Business School
Exhibition Road, London SW7 2AZ, UK
erkko.autio@imperial.ac.uk
Mike Pinder
Senior Innovation Consultant
Groenenborgerlaan, 2610, Wilrijk, Belgium
mike@mikepinder.co.uk
Helen Burdett
World Economic Forum
91-93 route de la Capite, Cologny/Geneva, Switzerland
helen.burdett@weforum.org
ABSTRACT
Using an action-research and a toolkit development approach, this paper uncovers the
epistemological limitations of the Lean Startup and Design Thinking heuristics and proposes a novel
'wicked acceleration' framework to address a grand challenge in the sustainability domain: circular
economy innovation. Circular economy innovation is a ‘wicked problem’, where multiple stakeholders
operate under different timescales with often conflicting interests in terms of value creation, value capture,
and behavioral change. We illustrate our novel systemic approach with case data from the World Economic
Forum's Scale360° Initiative and discuss both the epistemological, ethical and practitioner implications
regarding its societal adoption and scaling.
Keywords: grand challenges, sustainability, innovation, economic circularity, epistemology, lean
startup, design thinking, moonshot, acceleration, ecosystems, action-research, case study, toolkit.
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INTRODUCTION
The relative ineffectiveness with which today’s societies have responded to the many
global, ‘wicked’ challenges facing humanity the ongoing pandemic, climate change, plastic
pollution, retreating biodiversity, CO2 emissions, and global health challenges — has shown that
governments or companies alone cannot resolve them within the necessary time frame required to
avoid catastrophic outcomes. Private sector contribution is critically needed to provide the
necessarily additional momentum, as shown by the encouraging, largely private sector-driven
progress towards accessible solutions to renewable energy provision, even being a highly regulated
industry. In the face of global challenges, private-sector firms and incumbents have increasingly
adopted a broader, stakeholder perspective, which encourages businesses to combine profit-
making, social, and environmental sustainability missions to balance the narrow, financial profit -
oriented shareholder perspective in guiding their strategic mission (Henderson, 2020). However,
this development has also exposed the limits of currently popular techniques and heuristics
deployed to innovate novel solutions, as most of these widely used innovation heuristics focus
narrowly on the immediate needs of the focal customer and, thus, are only poorly suited to
addressing complex, ‘wicked’ problems that require coordinated adjustments by multiple
independent stakeholders who may have conflicting interests. To better equip private-sector firms
and incumbents with tools to address ‘wicked’ challenges, new approaches to corporate innovation
acceleration are needed to steer collective adaptations (Woolley, Aggarwal, & Malone, 2015) and
dynamically steer emergent collective visions of a more sustainable future (Dattée, Alexy, &
Autio, 2018).
In recent years, private-sector corporations have adopted several new heuristics for managing
innovation, including Design Thinking, Lean Startup, Design Sprints, Growth Hacking and Agile
Development (Brown, 2009; Kimbell, 2009; Contigiani and Levinthal, 2019; Bocken and Snihur,
2020). Most build on the design science philosophy, the epistemology of which emphasizes
iteration between problem contexts, generic knowledge bases, and potential solutions to validate
‘generalized design principles’ – i.e., insights regarding what should be done in a given situation
to effect a desired outcome (Romme, 2003; Van Aken & Romme, 2012). One prominent
innovation method to quickly validate solutions to immediate customer problems through an
iterative, design science -based learning heuristic is the Lean Startup method (Blank, 2003; Blank
& Dorf, 2012; Ries, 2011; Romme, 2003). Originally conceived to speed up product and service
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development cycles to build new ventures, this heuristic has been subsequently extended to the
commercialization of science (Blank, 2013) and, more recently, introduced in large organizations
(Blank & Newell, 2017; Ries, 2017) through corporate accelerators, incubators, labs, design sprints
and innovation training (Kohler, 2016; Shankar & Shepherd, 2018; Weiblen & Chesbrough, 2015).
However, while effective in speeding up customer-centric validation in highly specific and
immediate problem contexts, innovation heuristics building on design science epistemology carry
important limitations when it comes to addressing complex, societal, wicked challenges. Design
science -based iterative approaches to innovation emphasize a close yet narrow focus on customer
needs to validate immediate solutions designed for highly specific and targeted customer groups
(Felin, Gambardella, Stern, & Zenger, 2019), as opposed to more radical, systemic, and
architectural solutions that address complex problem contexts that involve multiple, heterogeneous
stakeholders and time horizons. Current dominant innovation heuristics, thus, are not well suited
to solve ‘wicked’, systemic challenges that require complex multi-stakeholder adaptation and often
radical system-level adjustments (Chesbrough & Tucci, 2020; Claes, Decan, & Mens, 2018;
Pinder, 2018; Hildenbrand & Meyer, 2012)
To effect systemic change, large firms need to re-think how they manage their innovation
activities such that they are better able to address wicked challenges while still paying attention to
their financial bottom line. To more effectively develop radically different solutions to wicked
challenges, new approaches are urgently needed (Garcia Herrera & Autio, 2020; McGahan,
Bogers, Chesbrough, & Holgersson, 2020; Ooms & Piepenbrink, 2020; Webb, 2020; Weiblen &
Chesbrough, 2015).
To tackle ‘wicked’ challenges, it is important to move beyond lean entrepreneurship and similar,
design science and design thinking
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-based heuristics and their myopic focus on individual, known
customers’ immediate needs and explore heuristics that enable incumbents and new ventures to
more effectively discover solutions to global, complex, and co-evolving ‘wicked’ challenges. Our
objective in this paper is to explore such heuristics to support distant ‘moonshot’ projects that
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As opposed to natural sciences, design sciences are sciences of the artifact: sciences that create solutions to practical problems
(e.g., engineering, medicine, information systems (Simon, 2019)) Design thinking is the application of design science heuristic to
uncover latent customer needs and facilitate the development of practical solutions. Lean entrepreneurship applies a design science
heuristic to quickly validate product and business model assumptions through the build measure - learn loop.
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move beyond the focal customer’s immediate needs to develop solutions to wicked sustainability
challenges, involving multiple stakeholders in the medium and long term.
Using a combination of an inductive longitudinal single-case method (Eisenhardt, 1989; Yin
Robert, 1994) and an action-research approach (Argyris & Schön, 1989; Leitch & Day, 2000),
where one of the authors co-developed a multiple stakeholder framework to accelerate circular
economy innovation, this paper presents such a novel framework to address ‘wicked problems’ in
the sustainability domain.
The itinerary of this paper proposal is as follows: we next present the dominant innovation
heuristics, notably, the lean entrepreneurship heuristic and its limitations; we then describe our
case study, action-research methods and empirical context, featuring the World Economic Forum’s
Scale360° initiative; finally, we present our novel wicked acceleration framework, and elaborate
on its epistemological and practical implications for effecting systemic change in multiple
stakeholders contexts.
THEORETICAL BACKGROUND
One prominent entrepreneurial innovation method to validate solutions to immediate customer
problems through an iterative, design science -based learning heuristic is the Lean Startup method
(Blank, 2003; Blank & Dorf, 2012; Ries, 2011; Romme, 2003). Originally conceived to speed up
product and service development cycles to scale new ventures, this heuristic has been subsequently
extended to the commercialization of science (Blank, 2013) and, more recently, introduced in large
organizations (Blank & Newell, 2017; Ries, 2017) through corporate accelerators, incubators, labs,
design sprints and innovation trainings and cultural transformation (Kohler, 2016; Shankar &
Shepherd, 2018; Weiblen & Chesbrough, 2015). Design science -based iterative approaches to
innovation emphasize a close yet narrow focus on existing customer needs and problems to
validate new concepts and business models, initially aimed at radical and disruptive outcomes but
often fall short to incremental solutions (due to tensions between the firm’s exploratory vs.
exploitative logics) designed for highly specific customer groups (Felin et al., 2019), as opposed
to more radical, systemic, and architectural solutions that address complex problem contexts that
involve multiple, heterogeneous stakeholders and different time horizons (Pérez-Nordtvedt,
Payne, Short, & Kedia, 2008).
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The main critique of the currently dominant Lean Start-up heuristic is that it emphasizes a close
and narrow focus on customer needs to validate new concepts, which tends to facilitate incremental
innovations close to the core business at the expense of more radical innovation that addresses
distant and complex challenges (Felin et al., 2019). This critique builds on three arguments. First,
it is argued that the Business Model Canvas tool characteristic of Lean Entrepreneurship exercises
lacks specificity to help entrepreneurs recognize “what to look for in the first place(Felin et al.,
2019, p. 3). Second, the lean startup heuristic is criticized for its heavy reliance on readily
observable feedback and immediately validated learning, i.e., to look for your keys under the
streetlight.” Third, given its inspiration from lean (incremental) manufacturing and its orientation
towards ‘waste reduction’ (Bicheno & Holweg, 2016; Holweg, 2007; Krafcik, 1988; Womack,
Jones, & Roos, 2007), the lean startup heuristic is somewhat ‘limited by design’ when it comes to
the generation of novel, radical, and impactful concepts, solutions and business models (Felin et
al., 2019).
While we concur with the argument that Lean Start-up-spurred iterative experimentation can
help to reduce uncertainty and to co-construct novel concepts and business models with
stakeholders in both new ventures (Bocken & Snihur, 2020; McDonald & Eisenhardt, 2020) and
incumbents aimed at strategic renewal (Burgelman et al., 2018; Pettigrew, 1992), we contend that
the Lean Start-up carries relevant limitations when dealing with wicked problems that require
exploration of a plethora of value propositions, multi-stakeholder adaptation, and ecosystem-level
adjustments. In short, iterative experimentation is not enough to address grand challenges (de
Bakker, Rasche, & Ponte, 2019; Ferraro, Etzion, & Gehman, 2015; George, Howard-Grenville,
Joshi, & Tihanyi, 2016; Henderson, 2020). We next turn to the epistemology underpinning the
lean entrepreneurship heuristic.
Innovation heuristics such as lean entrepreneurship and the design science philosophy upon
which it builds are, in essence, heuristics to develop solutions to ‘field problems’ – i.e., situations
in social and natural reality that, according to influential stakeholders, can or should be improved
(Van Aken & Romme, 2012). Field problems are therefore problems defined and experienced by
human actors and, at least in part, shaped by the needs experienced by these. A solution is anything
– e.g., a material product, an immaterial service, or perhaps a reorganization of some social reality
through policy intervention – that alleviates the problem by, e.g., eliminating it, reducing it, or
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sidestepping it. Successful solutions and business models that are effective and superior to pre-
existing value chains become widely accepted and adopted, thus qualify as innovations.
Conventional lean entrepreneurship heuristics are constrained in terms of the field problems
they are applied upon, and therefore, the kinds of solutions they are likely to facilitate. As observed
above, lean entrepreneurship heuristics are conventionally applied to needs and challenges (i.e.,
field problems), as currently experienced by an immediate specific user or a customer group within
B2C or B2B contexts.
Figure 1. Epistemology of Lean Entrepreneurship
Although there are examples of scientists and engineers stumbling upon radical discoveries
through iterative approaches (Wynn & Eckert, 2017), this focus tends to promote incremental
innovation at the expense of more radical ones. Central to the design science dynamic, specifically
as applied in the lean entrepreneurship heuristic, is the continuous dialogue between the designer
and the user/customer in the context of currently experienced and proximal field problems,
drawing on current state-of-the-art in general scientific-technical knowledge and informed by the
current stock of solution knowledge. The problem- and solution-oriented iterative dialogue
(Dewey, 1958) between the designer and the user enables the build – measure learn feedback
loop that drives explicit knowledge accumulation. This iterative dynamic explains the tendency of
the lean entrepreneurship heuristic to predominantly facilitate incremental solutions that relied on
immediate validated feedback of proximal customers.
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TOWARDS A NOVEL ENTREPRENEURIAL INNOVATION SYSTEMIC HEURISTIC
Wicked challenges (Buchanan, 1992; Coyne, 2005; Rittel & Webber, 1973) differ from field
problems usually addressed in design-science -based innovation heuristics such as the lean
entrepreneurship heuristic in several important respects. First, instead of being defined by current
problems as currently experienced by specific homogeneous user or customer groups in specific
contexts, wicked challenges require future-oriented yet sometimes speculative solutions that are
customized to the anticipated needs of multiple and radically different groups of stakeholders with
often conflicting interests who operate in different timescales. Second, solutions to wicked
challenges may draw on anticipated future stocks of general scientific-knowledge, solution
knowledge, explorative R&D and generalized design principles. Third, also problem contexts are
defined by anticipated yet uncertain future states of the natural or social reality. Combined, these
three differences undermine problem- and solution-oriented iterative and incremental dynamics
characteristic of heuristics such as the lean entrepreneurship. Instead of using design sketches or
beta version such as minimum viable products (MVPs) to drive customer/user- and context-
specific learning, the acceleration of solutions to wicked challenges requires a much more
speculative, future-oriented approach that enables the reduction of overwhelming uncertainty and
complexity regarding potential future states to a manageable level in a coordinated fashion while
engaging commitment through emergent validation with evolving stakeholder audiences. To
successfully facilitate future-oriented solutions towards which multiple stakeholders can co-
evolve, the lean entrepreneurship heuristic needs to be extended by trend projection, collective
imagination, strategic purpose outcomes, social engagement and dynamic control.
Figure 2. Epistemology of wicked acceleration
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In this paper, we intend to further refine this framework for moonshot wicked acceleration and
multiple stakeholders orchestration in the context of the circular economy innovation and thus,
derive practitioner-oriented guidelines to ensure wide adoption and scaling.
RESEARCH SETTING AND METHODS
The research setting is the design and deployment of World Economic Forum’s (The Forum)
Scale360° initiative: a circular economy co-creation innovation framework designed to bring
together public and private sector leaders and innovators, deployed at governmental and regional
levels aimed to fast-track Fourth Industrial Revolution impact whilst supporting innovation
ecosystems to address the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – specifically SDG
12: Responsible Consumption and Production (World Economic Forum, 2020). The design and
global deployment of Scale360° framework provides the context in which this paper elaborates
both the epistemological and practical implications of the Scale360° heuristic. In terms of research
methods, we adopted a combination of inductive longitudinal multiple-case method (Eisenhardt,
1989; Yin Robert, 1994) and an action-research approach (Argyris & Schön, 1989; Leitch & Day,
2000), where one of the authors together with The Forum Team designed the Scale360° Playbook
and related tools, and these tools were applied in several contexts. The development of Scale360°
commenced in 2019 in partnership with the United Arab Emirates as the first signatory to develop
practical interventions to support circular innovation and growth of economic, social, and
environmental sectors. Subsequent members include the Government of Chile, SOFOFA, Google,
Majid Al Futtaim and IDEO.
Initial empathy assessment and analysis of primary and secondary data was undertaken with The
Forum and global partners to assess scope, objectives, and learnings thus far. Over sixty
exploratory informational interviews were carried out with key Forum stakeholders, government
agencies, non-profits, and organizations within private and public sectors to understand local
context, challenges and needs across multiple geographies. An expert panel of eleven circular
economy global thought leaders was assembled, designed to continually challenge the
development of Scale360°. Empathy insights, requirements and outcomes were presented to The
Forum’s core working team for design inputs and outcome end points to the program development
phases. Clear requirements for a bespoke circular innovation process were identified to enable
autonomous decision-making supported by a general framework facilitated through workshops by
The Forum using Miro, a Web-based collaborative whiteboard tool. An overview journey map,
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universal playbook, collaborative suite of digital tools and intervention guidebook were foreseen
to manage main partners, key stakeholders, prioritize value chains, identify circular challenges,
define future intervention types and support new governance structures moving forward.
SYSTEMIC INNOVATION PROCESS AND TOOLKIT DEVELOPMENT
The Forum identified five circular challenges and five enabling conditions facing incumbents
seeking transition to fourth industrial revolution innovation along circular global value chains and
ecosystems (Lacy & Waughray, 2018). Key circular economy challenges include: 1) opaque value
chains; 2) linear product design; 3) linear lock-in; 4) inefficient collection and reverse logistics;
5) inefficient sorting and pre-processing infrastructure. Key enabling circular conditions include:
1) standards and regulation; 2) change drivers; 3) data-enabled infrastructure; 4) investment; 5)
innovation and entrepreneurship. Scale360° is designed to connect global innovators with private
and public sector stakeholders facing common circular innovation challenges whilst leveraging
identified enabling conditions to implement initiatives and scale impact. The Forum’s role is,
therefore, threefold: Firstly, to surface innovators and co-identify opportunities at national and
regional levels. Secondly, to support future systemic change and tackle barriers to scaling across
enabling conditions. Thirdly, to connect regional and global initiatives through knowledge sharing,
mentorship and market visibility.
In contrast with traditional business as usual customer-centric innovation processes such as
Design Thinking and Lean Start-up heuristics (desirability, viability, feasibility), Scale360° takes
an integrity-driven start point. By framing value creation ahead of customer and consumer needs,
future impact is considered across entire value chains, incorporating environmental and social
perspectives amongst ecosystem stakeholders by co-creation and definition from the outset rather
than retrospectively.
Figure 3: Integrity-driven Innovation Funnel
With clear desired future state outcomes defined from stakeholder perspectives, an initial
Scale360° process overview prototype was mapped-out and divided into five key phases: program
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scoping, existing ecosystem empathy, common ecosystem challenges, program intervention design
and implementation.
Design Thinking and Lean Start-up focus on individual or subset stakeholder groups as context
for unmet needs and problems analysis and synthesis to inform inputs to a subsequent innovation
process. Scale360° differs by analyzing novel value interactions at the existing ecosystem
stakeholder level to understand the current as is’ situation in order to highlight opposing, stand-
by and complementary perspectives early-on in the collective innovation game. Critical insights
uncovered are aligned across the ecosystem into an agreed challenge statement format. Divergent
problem solving is bolstered by joint commitment and buy-in orchestrated through early stage
Scale360° workshops held by The Forum acting as independent intermediary. The to be or
envisioned circular innovation ecosystem value exchange prototype is co-designed, developed and
committed to through a commonly desired future state in collaboration with other stakeholders
sharing the same higher vision and purpose. Future envisioned ecosystem value exchange
prototype states are created to inform and mobilize collective interventions, as opposed to creation
of feature-driven MVP’s to test critical assumptions, correlating back to individual synthesized
needs and problems of consumer or customer segments within ecosystems. A decision tree tool is
used to support selection amongst twenty-six suitable circular economy innovation intervention
types (such as co-experimentation tracks, scale-up accelerators, public research partnerships,
innovation exporting, circular impact standards, and centers of excellence) aligned with The
Forum’s innovation enablers (outlined previously). Blueprints detail prioritized intervention types
to support the commonly agreed circular economy program mission. Clear governance is defined
to support the overall ecosystem stakeholder mission and supporting programs down to the
operational level. Key results, performance activity, and impact metrics (KPI’s), teaming, primary
and secondary responsibilities, individual accountabilities are committed to, spanning all
Scale360° phases.
DISCUSSION
Scale360° extends our approach to Design Thinking and Lean Start-up heuristics in several
ways. Firstly, by focusing on understanding both the current ‘as isand co-creating the future ‘to
be state at the ecosystem level, the front-end of the innovation process is framed within two
concurrent temporal zones as existing anchor and future target for proposed concepts and
solutions. Framing future challenges in this way enables more radical and disruptive ideation and
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concept development because it occurs outside the cognitive bounds of current technical
feasibilities, stocks of knowledge, paradigms, and existing frames of reference. Secondly,
Scale360° is used to mobilize, uncover, understand, synthesize, and mobilize collective
(oftentimes divergent and conflicting) perspectives at the ecosystem level between actors. So doing
it operates to orchestrate collective action and commitment and gain buy-in for future to bestates,
well in advance of simply building early-stage prototypes and MVP’s to test with individual
consumers or customers. The result is increased likelihood of disruptive and high-impact solutions
to social and environmental challenges, spanning broad ecosystems of actors already committed
to facilitating change. Finally, Scale360° is an approach extending innovation heuristics and lean
entrepreneurship by proposing tools and approaches operating at the lean strategy level down to
more widely applied tactical team level within ecosystem groups.
Main lessons learned in the development of a broadly applicable framework for novel purpose
driven heuristic such as Scale360° include appreciation of the amount of resources required to
navigate complexities in fully understanding and synthesizing multi-sided stakeholder
perspectives, needs, previous innovation experience, and cultural nuances, particularly when
aligning with broad purpose-driven outcomes (such as UN’s Sustainability Goals). Furthermore,
such frameworks require extensive piloting and testing before scaling, in multiple contexts to learn
and improve from by incorporating iterative feedback loops. This ensures suitability of purpose in
a wide range of global stakeholder use groups to bolster further adoption and usage.
The full paper will elaborate on the theoretical, managerial, and ethical implications of wicked
acceleration and toolkit development in the context of sustainability (de Bakker et al., 2019; Mena
& Palazzo, 2012), when a dynamic control stance (Dattée et al., 2018) and ecosystem-level
adjustments are needed not only to co-create a shared vision regarding grand challenges but
ultimately to achieve solutions across boundaries synchronously (George et al., 2016; McGahan,
2020). Finally, the full paper will further elaborate on the epistemological and practical
underpinnings of the Scale 360° Initiative, as well as on what will be needed to ensure wide
adoption, criteria for successful interventions as well as scaling across countries, governments and,
regions, with stakeholders embedded in different cultural and political regimes and time horizons
(Reinecke & Ansari, 2015). The paper concludes with the main lessons learned and a discussion
of the boundary conditions and generalizability as well as avenues for further research and toolkit
development in this critical societal domain.
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... Therefore, the created ecosystem needs to make sure that it addresses all relevant stakeholders on a global scale, brings them together, motivates them, and enables cross-disciplinary innovation projects. By specifically addressing all intrinsically motivated stakeholders simultaneously, the Better Building Initiative will therefore be able to substantially accelerate the adoption of circular economy innovations [28]. ...
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