Future of Cities: The circular city – how will it actually look?

Publication Date: 

Wednesday, 8 March 2017 - 12:59pm


Julia Vol

Imagine a day in your life 20 years from now.

You wake up in your apartment in London, one of the world’s “pioneering circular cities” along with Paris, New York, Beijing and many more. You’ve been living in your flat for 15 years now. First you and your partner got it just for the two of you, when it was still a comfortable studio flat, but when the kids came along, you expanded the place and added a couple more bedrooms. Thanks to its modular construction it was smooth process. Quicker, easier, than  moving flats, and without the disruption of an ‘old fashioned’ extension. One week of work for the construction company and it didn’t even leave a mess, as one of the outside walls was removed and the new construction was attached. Just like Lego.

Once you’re done with breakfast all the leftovers, including the packaging of the food, goes straight into the bio-waste chute, where it decomposes and become fertiliser for the community garden. The kids love to play and help in the garden, and you always have fresh ingredients for your dinner, especially during the summer time.

Could this be the future of shared mobility? Find out about IDEO’s Automobility vision. Image: IDEO

Since the weather isn’t that nice, you decide to skip biking to the train station and instead order one of these self-driving, electric powered cars to your porch. On your way to the station you drop the kids at school, leaving you time to catch up on the news and start planning your work day. The self-driving car drops you off at the station exactly in time to catch your train to work.

These days you work for the city, since the startup that you founded was acquired a few years ago. It’s a materials marketplace, where companies register their by-products and waste materials, putting them in touch with other companies and innovators that needed that exact material for their production. It seems the timing was right, as it grew quickly – also thanks to the acceleration programme offered by the city. Soon after you hit 100 registered companies the city made you an offer for the business, providing you with a city-wide network and policy support. It was profitable for the city to invest in your company as they save massively on landfilling taxes and other expenses related to waste management.

Your “urban marketplace department” now has 18 employees, but since everyone travels so much, or often prefers to work remotely, it makes no sense to keep 18 desks standing empty most of the time. Not to mention the rent and bills costs. So you share an open office space of 30 desks and five meeting rooms with three other companies. The city also offers tax benefits for SME’s who are doing the same, plus you get a great networking effect.

After work you meet your partner and a couple of friends for a quick drink at the local brewery. The place used to be an old electronic equipment outlet, but with so many of those are now being produced for durability and are leased on a contract, no one buys them much these days. The building stood empty for a while, but the city passed a law that all empty buildings should be repurposed for serving social and economic needs of the community. The brewery is running on bio-energy, and all its by-products are used for its rooftop garden whose products are made available for the community and the brewery’s visitors.

Heading home you and your partner plan the weekend ahead. It’s about time you got around hanging those family photos you took last year, and fixing the shelf which broke a couple of days ago. Given the rare frequency you have need for house tools, it’s convenient that your community centre has a local tool library where, for a small fee, you can borrow a good drill, saw and a hammer for a couple of days.

Just before going to bed you check the “energy forecast” for tomorrow. Good news – it looks like low energy consumption is expected in your neighbourhood, meaning you can programme your washing machine and dishwasher to run at low demand times which will save you money at the end of the month.

From fiction to fact

How does this kind of future sound? A bit like science fiction? You’d be glad to know that none of the above is imaginary. All the solutions and technologies mentioned already exist and are emerging around the world. The only difference is they are not yet deployed in a systemic and fully integrated manner. This is where the city comes in and plays a crucial role, in providing the scale and structure for a systemic implementation of the circular economy, whilst also amplifying its economic and social impact.

Cities around the world are growing and increasing their position as centres of economic, social, and political power. However, this doesn’t come without problems. Many of those challenges are rooted within the linear economic model. Whether it’s technical materials like cars, electronics and buildings or biological materials such as food, cities aggregate growing amounts of ‘stuff’. If we can’t harness these flows in a way that’s restorative and regenerative, we’ll start feeling increasing pressure on the social, environmental, and economic stability of our cities.

In response, many cities are starting to rethink flows of materials, energy and information, in order to design and operate urban systems according to the principles of the circular economy.

Cities are a perfect setup for pioneering the circular economy – as concentrators of people over small geographic territories, they act as a hotbed for innovation, while also allowing easier exchange of resources, energy and information, and sufficient population for the trial of new business models such as incentivised return or products as services. They can leverage the massive data collected every day to optimise system effectiveness, whether through energy demand, parking or public transport.

In the right hands, tool sharing could become a public utility. Click to read the case study.

Cities are not machines. They’re more like a living body. Urban metabolisms are complex and interdependent, and you can’t change one function without having some impact on the others. So, as the challenges of cities grow, we need an approach that will help to build resilience, instead of simply creating new, deferred problems. As well as stimulating innovative business opportunities, the circular economy can help urban decision-makers to work with this complexity, rather than against it.

There’s an enjoyable trail of trends or technologies that made the leap from science fiction to reality, and aspects of the circular economy that might seem far-fetched or idealistic today could be just around the corner. Spotting and supporting such innovations may prove key in helping cities maintain their economic power while providing a better life for their citizens.

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