Get up to speed on circular cities

Publication Date: 

Monday, 4 September 2017 - 2:43pm


Joe Iles

Julia Vol, Portfolio Manager, Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Little doubt remains regarding the significance of cities in influencing economic, social and environmental change. It is therefore pertinent to ask how a circular economy could unfold in an urban context, and how this framework could steer cities towards greater prosperity, resilience and livability. To that end, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation recently published the paper Cities in the circular economy: an initial exploration, and Circulate spoke with Julia Vol, one of the researchers behind the study to hear why this paper is needed now, who inspires her in the cities space, and how you can get a glimpse of a circular city – without the plane fare.

What was the idea and the need behind writing this paper?

The idea came from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation working more closely in the cities space, both through the Circular Cities Network that we established last year, with the participation of 12 cities around the world, and the different smart cities events we’ve been involved with. We found that people asked us “what does the circular economy look like in cities?” and there was not one comprehensive and agreed answer to that. There was so much information and so many data points out there but not one comprehensive framework and vision, so we decided to sit down, compile all the different research and put it together into one concise document. We wanted to find out what a circular economy can do for a city and why cities provide the space in which the circular economy can flourish. So we worked with the diverse cities in our network and looked at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s research from the past six years that relates to cities, and developed our thinking further to articulate the circular cities vision. This is an important step, as it gives us an initial framework that we can now start populating with further research and insights, and it can be used by cities to guide what they’re doing and be used as inspiration for future action.

Who should read it and why?

First of all, urban decision makers should read it as it can help push their thinking beyond viewing circular economy simply as a waste management approach, and show how it can also be relevant to issues such as built environment, mobility, bioeconomy, local production and employment in cities. The circular economy is an economic framework that can support urban decision makers in addressing growing challenges in many different sectors such as the built environment, mobility and livability, and can help enhance competitiveness, which is really important for policymakers – so they are the prime audience. It’s also a response to growing interest  from the people we work with in Circular Cities Network and the CE100. They needed the framework for reference for circular economy and cities, and we already know just a few days after release that it’s serving that purpose. They’re happy to see these themes together in one document.

Did you get input from these decision makers? They must be bombarded with new reports or guides to read – how did you make this relevant?

That’s true – the cities space is so crowded with green, smart, eco…and we needed something that distinguishes the circular economy as a framework that addresses the different agendas and actually offers an economic rationale for doing so.

Through the Circular Cities Network, recurring webinars and many more face to face meetings, we were able to use direct input from the member cities about what are the most relevant aspects of circular economy and cities, discussing with them key content such as definitions and frameworks, and we kept asking them ‘does that make sense to you?’ So they’ve definitely been an important part of the process.

So what’s actually different about a circular city compared with all the other city movements we’re hearing about: smart city, green, eco cities, etc?

The circular city lens is one that promotes and applies systems thinking in a way that can provide economic, social and environmental benefits in cities, supported by an economic rationale for doing so. Other frameworks are very strong on one aspect, in the way that ‘green’ or ‘eco’ cities have a strong environmental case but are lacking on the economic point of view – how you can do it and justify it. So the circular city offers more systemic approach that can solve problems whilst generating profit and improving quality of life in cities.

Why are cities so important in the transition to a circular economy?

Well, cities are sort of the mirror of our economy. Cities are responsible for more than half of global population and 85% of global GDP, so if we want to transition our economy then we need to focus on cities. Furthermore, cities can also be the hotbed for testing, and can amplify the impact of the circular economy. Through proximity of people, materials and data in a small territory, the city opens opportunities for new business models such as reverse logistics, material collections, reuse, leasing and sharing. They offer a point of convergence, with an abundance of materials that if better utilised can create new opportunities. Having so many people also creates local markets and provides potential for local business models, production and  remanufacturing. Something else that makes cities receptive to the circular economy is that local policy makers tend to be more flexible and agile compared with national governments, which are often heavier, more bureaucratic structures. It’s common for more people to trust their local governments to do what’s right for them, compared with national government, as they’re closer to the people and the local context. So being in touch with these policymakers and empowering them could  generate change much faster. Of course there’s the challenge that city government have limited authority like in the USA, as federal government can easily cancel commitments taken by cities. But we still think that with the growing infrastructure and built environment projects around the world that cities will be able to incorporate local decision making in the process. Also, cities are going to be growing so much in the next 30, 40 years. Almost half the infrastructure we’ll need by 2050 hasn’t been built yet, so that gives us the chance to avoid some linear lock in that we have here in the West especially. Finally, there’s digital technology, which isn’t city specific, but cites are much faster to adopt digital solutions, whether it’s new apps, maker spaces, sharing platforms – it starts to bloom in cities. Usually the  population is open to new technology, and the concentration of people and things can make it easier to gain momentum as it touches upon a real need, like sharing rides or spaces because there isn’t so much space and transport is expensive.

Digital technology is unlocking new possibilities when it comes to the circular city. Check out the Intelligent Assets report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation for more.

I guess sometimes the problem businesses, startups and designers are trying to solve might be a result of urban living – such as bad traffic or lack of space – but at the same time the audience is also there for you to test out a solution.

That’s right – these are the sort of enabling conditions we’ve been looking at.

Aside from policymakers, why should the rest of us be interested? Why would a circular city be a desirable place to live?

I think that it helps to address the key challenges that cities are facing, the symptoms of which are becoming more visible to those of us who live in cities. There’s a lot of pressure on already constrained resources, which will only increase along with the population growth, so if we help to remove some of the budget constraints through utilising assets, then governments and city planners can have more budget for things like education or green spaces. The circular economy can also help raise disposable income, which is relevant for all of us. And it can help create business opportunities in cities which is appealing for the business and innovation community. In this paper we outline the opportunity that’s created with having a lot of people in a small area that is rich with data and digital communications that can enable more local business models, innovation that feeds off rethinking asset utilisation and keeping products and materials at their highest utility and value at all times. So I hope this can inspire business leaders and innovators as well.

Click to read Cities in the circular economy: an initial exploration in full

Is a circular city a future ideal or something that’s happening now? Are there limits to what an existing city can achieve – would a circular city need to be started from scratch?

Of course big existing cities have linear lock ins that can be challenging, but the current development trajectory means that a lot of infrastructure is still being built in many cities. Even if you take a city like London which has been around for at least 1000 years, they are one of the pioneering cities in the circular economy. They both look at what they can do with existing infrastructure, how they can restructure within the existing setup, but they also look at all the new infrastructure that’s going to be developed around London in the next decade and incorporate the circular economy into the built environment there. Cities will keep growing even in Western markets, we will go from 50% of the population living in cities today to 75% in 30 years. But also when you look at topics like mobility and local business models which do not necessarily need to rebuild the infrastructure, it’s actually about being smarter and more aware of how we use assets, that’s something that any type of city can do.

You only need to go on London’s tube at rush hour to realise that existing infrastructure is ripe for disruption…

Exactly. And if you look at climate issues which are a top priority for the big cities like New York, London, Paris, if they want to get to zero or even half their carbon emissions by 2050, they’re going to have to re-think mobility systems in the city, as well as food systems, water systems…so it’s going to happen anyway, but if you incorporate circular economy you can have a more systemic approach with a stronger economic rationale.

If I wanted to visit a circular city, where would you recommend?

There a lots of cities that are doing things that could really be visible in the next decade or so. I’ve mentioned London, which is really pioneering an ambitious project on built environment. But also a small city like Peterborough, that is working on engaging local business society around the circular economy, and they developed an online platform called Share Peterborough with over 100 local business online sharing assets that they are currently under utilising, such as materials, machines sometimes even people, really creating this local ecosystem of businesses that work and benefit together. If you go there you might not see it on the street, but you can visit their website to see how sharing platforms in cities can enable interesting business development.

Who are your circular city idols?

We work with a great group of inspiring people from Rio to Tel Aviv who are pushing hard towards circular economy, so naturally they’ve all been influential. One article that really inspired me is Zipcar founder Robin Chase’s piece on autonomous cars. In this article she explains that autonomous car in cities is inevitable, but we have to create the economic and infrastructure, policy framework that can help them bring prosperity to cities, otherwise it could be a disaster. For me, this great article really helped to understand that change is coming anyway, and our actions can influence whether that change will lead to positive or negative outcomes.

What’s your favourite part of the new paper?

I really enjoyed writing the vision piece. It’s where we allow our imagination to run a little bit wild.  Let’s say that tomorrow the city becomes complete ‘circular’: what does it mean for the houses we live in, how we commute, how we work, where our food comes from? Of course it’s not scientifically based, but it’s a fun piece that exemplifies how we can envision things. Reports and papers often spend a lot of time convincing readers of the numbers – with cities, it’s also important to try and take them there.

What happens next?

This paper is the foundation, in which we wanted to define what a circular city is and outline challenges and opportunities. In doing, so we found many more challenges to uncover on the journey, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is now launching a year-long research to try to identify the economic opportunities and quantify them. The paper concludes with a set of questions. We ask questions like what kind of economic activity the circular economy will generate in cities, and at what scales, whether the circular economy can increase urban resilience, and which tools and methodologies are needed in order to enable policymakers to make the transition. So the paper is a call to action for others to engage in this space and join us in further understanding the circular city.

Head to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website to download Cities in the circular economy: an initial exploration

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