In the 21st century urbanisation has taken flight. Today, over half of the world’s population live in cities, a share that is expected to increase to almost 70% by 2050. Furthermore, economic activity is concentrated in cities and amounts to over 80% of global GDP. It is hardly a surprise that cities are at the centre of the main challenges that we must face today: cities produce 70% of all greenhouse gases and consume two thirds of the global energy supply. They are hotspots for air pollution, overcrowding and the consumption of resources, and are often the stage for segregation, unemployment and inequality.
What is more, these problems can grow exponentially if we continue with urban business as usual. In cities, what we plan, design, and build today will continue to exist and affect other developments for many years to come. Buildings in the urban environment have a lifespan of two to four generations. Therefore, infrastructure depicts the boundaries of the system these buildings are embedded in (think of mobility and waste management). These urban systems create interdependencies and lock-ins, and hence the way in which they are conceived has long term effects. Cities must tackle the problems of yesterday, today and tomorrow in order to avoid an unsustainable lock-in for future generations.
However, urban concentrations have the potential to become positive elements that propel sustainable development: circular cities capture this potential through systemic solutions that provide an answer to the challenges related to people, the environment and the economy.
If cities are constituted by the systems that provide for societal needs (such as communication, mobility, healthcare, housing and nutrition), circular cities provide for these needs in a fundamentally new and sustainable way. Their constituting systems make circular the way in which we live, eat, travel and work by designing circular products, deploying product-as-a-service models and adopting policies that put man at the centre. As these systems coincide in space and time, they interact with each other and their effects multiply. A circular city is more than the sum of its circular systems.
Today, the world is only 9% circular. Cities can close this circularity gap by exploiting their incredible capacity through three main drivers: urban innovation systems, a market for digital platforms and locally rooted governments.
Urban innovation systems
The technological barriers that the circular economy is facing can be resolved with urban innovation systems. Cities are characterised by economies that require a high level of competence and concentrate the more innovative economic activities, creative industries and cultural and research institutions. This concentration translates into potential for innovation. Therefore, it is in cities that circular innovations are developed, both in terms of circular products and new financing models. At the same time, cities are often too densely populated and too strictly regulated to house large-scale industrial processes. This requires coordinated interaction with the wider territory.
The transition towards the circular economy requires both the development of new technologies, and the scaling of innovative solutions which arise from a city’s interaction with its surroundings.
Prodock is an accelerator in the Port of Amsterdam that focuses on a decarbonised, bio-based, and circular economy. The hub offers infrastructure for startups that have outgrown their testing environment. For example, this happens with startups from the Innovation Chemistry Lab Amsterdam. The lab is located in the city’s Science Park, which houses multiple universities, research institutes, and businesses. It offers a testing space for entrepreneurs and researchers who would like to market their innovations. Amongst these are: 30MHz, which provides smart sensing solutions to optimise agriculture; NPSP, that employs natural raw materials such as flax and hemp fibres to reduce the environmental impact of composites used in the production of vehicles, furniture and machines; and The Calcite Factory, that has developed a technology to reuse calcite pellets for water softening.
As such, Amsterdam proposes itself as a breeding ground for circular innovations, which can then be up-scaled. The city serves as a laboratory for circular innovations, its surroundings as the grounds for scaling.
Digital platforms for cities-as-a-service
Digital platforms, which enable the implementation of models based on the transformation from product to service, find the ideal context in cities as they enable asset tracking and are essential for the services used in sharing and leasing schemes. Service models change our relationship to material consumption and hence contribute to the realisation of the city-as-a-service. If asset tracking is not a unique requisite of urban environments (keeping track of resources is just as important in cities, as in industrial and agricultural areas), the success of peer-to-peer, B2C or product-as-a-service models is based on digital platforms in densely populated urban environments.
When adopted by commercial and productive businesses, public institutions and citizens, these business models rely heavily on efficient logistics. Snappcar and Turo enable individuals to rent their cars, thus reducing the number of vehicles that need to be produced. Peerby enables the lending of goods between people in the same neighbourhood, working in a similar fashion to car sharing apps. TooGoodToGo allows for shops, restaurants, and caterers to advertise their unsold meals, in order to sell them at a reduced price at the last minute, thus reducing food waste. Parallel to these peer-to-peer platforms, B2C models employ digital platforms in a similar way for sharing and renting, thus facilitating the shift from ownership to use. These platforms proliferate in cities; their success is often dependent on the physical proximity of users, and the fundamental “network effect” of cities.
Locally rooted governments
City governments can take a central role in favouring the development of a new mind-set, which is essential for the promotion of a long term transformation: by implementing locally rooted policies and taking on the role of “pilot consumer” as a trigger for the transition towards a circular economy. Local administrations are in close contact with citizens and businesses and as a consequence they are generally more trusted than other levels of government. This close contact also favours the formulation of policies that are able to answer specific questions that emerge on a local level: the circular economy manifests itself in many shapes and forms, and can certainly not be interpreted as a one size fits all paradigm. What is more, local governments often carry a mandate that directly impacts resource flows, for example with public procurement, and the planning of spatial management and land development.
City administrations have the possibility of “understanding” the reality that they govern better than anyone else and hence can develop innovative policies to promote the kind of circularity that is specific to their city.
Since 2013, the Bogota Zero Waste Programme reduced waste production and increased recycling rates: a key element to this was formalising the statute of waste workers, and as such increasing safety standards and salaries. The Green and Digital Demonstration Programme deployed by the Vancouver Economic Commission provides access to city-owned assets such as streets, buildings and digital infrastructure to test and promote products and services. An initiative geared towards attracting global talent to the city and increasing its overall economic appeal.
Cities provide the knowledge systems needed to develop and disseminate circular innovations, possess the markets for digital platforms that enable circular business models and are home to locally-rooted government administrations that can create the favourable conditions for a transition to the circular economy. When all the active subjects in a given urban context align and get involved with the realisation of a “circular city,” they can effectively give life to policies and practices that are able to transform the relationship between resources, society and territory, thus becoming areas of inclusive and prosperous life.
Top image: Roma ©NASA