Scaling up Circular Cities (a WCEF 2019 report)

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By Freek van Eijk, Holland Circular Hotspot and Hayley Bagnall, Circle Economy:

The 3rd annual World Circular Economy Forum brought together more than 2,200 of the world’s key circular economy thinkers in Helsinki, Finland. Participants explored how to scale up the transition to the circular economy.

Holland Circular Hotspot (HCH) and Circle Economy (CE) co-hosted over 60 participants at a session dedicated to: “How can we make cities more circular, in both developed and developing countries?”. The session built on the themes highlighted in the recent Circular Cities brochure by HCH and CE.

In the city, everything comes together

In the introduction Annerieke Douma from CE and Freek van Eijk from HCH shared the reasoning behind the topic supported with facts and figures. In the city, everything comes together. Cities are places where a vast majority of us live and work. They create the social and economic fabric for human ingenuity, the crucible in which to forge our common future.

HCH and CE showed the various topics in a city that can benefit from circular action, like housing and infrastructure, mobility, energy, water, food, consumer goods, plastics and industrial parks.

Based on evidence in cities around the world they shared the 8 lessons for cities to accelerate circularity:

  1. Provide a platform to showcase best practices in your city
  2. Discover the circular potential of your city and set priorities and ambitions
  3. Involve businesses from the start and give room for experimentation
  4. Understand the barriers to circularity and start addressing them
  5. Facilitate interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral collaborations
  6. Lead by example and build on successes
  7. Introduce and mainstream circular thinking into all education and trainings
  8. Monitor, adjust and scale

Circular economy is a system change requiring action from all stakeholders. The organisers wanted to explore more in-depth what is needed from the various stakeholders within a city. That is why the session was organised into eight concurrent round-table discussions, representing  Holland Circular HotspotCircle EconomyCircular Change SloveniaCircular NorwayTCEN/ITRIExchange4Change BrasilPolish Circular Hotspot (Innowo), Zero Waste ScotlandAmsterdam Economic Board, Circular FrieslandAfrican CE NetworkOREEL’institut national de l’économie circulaire, and the Circular Economy Platform of the Americas (CEP-Americas) 

We are pleased to share key take-aways from these discussions, to help circular pioneers in other cities to kickstart these processes on their home turf. Our session tackled the following topics:

1. The role of municipalities in developed countries

Focus areas for municipalities in developed countries include regulation as a catalyst for circularity, increasing consumer awareness, engaging businesses around collaboration vs. competitiveness, public procurement and waste as a valuable resource.

“The role of cities in accelerating the circular economy is now clearly evident. From facilitating opportunities through dialogue with citizens, the development of infrastructure to support new business opportunities, the re-shaping of public procurement to create new markets for circular economy businesses as well as through direct leadership, cities will be the place where innovative ideas are not only nurtured but scaled up for real impact. Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland

Challenges facing municipalities in developed countries include re-imagining business models and thinking long-term, selecting priority resource flows and finding support for investment in circular solutions.

“The circular economy is not limited to the issue of waste alone, but involves a global strategy on resources, taking into account territorial knowledge, and inducing a transformation of the whole society for greater resilience, efficiency and wealth creation.” Marline Weber, Institut National de L’Economie Circulaire

2. The role of the public sector in developing regions

Local governments set ambitions, and can define challenges in ways that are manageable and measurable. Policy-makers set boundary conditions, nurture experimentation and generate ‘pull’ factors through public procurement.

In developing regions, we explored the scope for cities to create regulatory environments for government-driven sectors such as waste management, involving both formal and informal sectors.

Focus areas for municipalities in developing countries include ways to measure impact, effective cross-sector collaboration, building on existing community practices e.g. repair culture in Nigeria and finding examples of positive deviance to learn from. Municipalities are ‘confined areas’ making them a good starting place to map material flow and metabolism within their local regions.

“We realize more and more that in the American and African Continents there is already a lot of indigenous and ancestral knowledge and circular economy practices which need to be re-integrated in our modern cities and societies”

Kevin de Cuba, Circular Economy Platform of the Americas and Peter Desmond, African Circular Economy network

Municipalities in developing countries need to take a systems change approach, eliminate existing ‘perverse’ incentives in policy and correct mis-definition of the Circular Economy leading to push backs from business and re-branding of sustainability initiatives.

3. Beyond city limits: the urban value chain

We examined the role of value-chains which stretch beyond city limits, where urban policy can combine with a regional approach.

Focus areas for Regions include enlisting the help of high-level champions and front runners to accelerate the uptake, legislation and putting pressure on, regional cooperation that combines the role of universities, academic institutes and start-ups in helping drive change in the transition, such as independent institutes Circular Friesland and Amsterdam Economic Board. Challenges for Regions to overcome include funding (who will pay?) and how to get the mandate to enable a Circular Economy – is it government or business initiated?

We can collectively make it happen by forming unlikely partnerships between those who can AND want to lead the change. Marjolien A.J. Brasz, Amsterdam Economic Board

4. The role of business and entrepreneurs

Local entrepreneurs have the courage and imagination to take risks, invest, accelerate change and are responsible for the largest part of scaling up the circular economy in cities.

Key areas connected to a circular transition of companies include education around consumer awareness, transport issues, waste as a material, eco-design, connecting stakeholders and facilitating opportunities, as well as public procurement that can create a major pull for new circular initiatives.

“Events like this demonstrate that despite cultural differences, businesses around the world are the same and that through knowledge exchange and co-creation we can adapt circular solutions from one region to another and demonstrate that Circular Economy can bring value creation for both developed and developing countries.” Beatriz Luz, E4C Brasil

For business a circular transition is often a journey that starts with a focus on resource efficiency and cost reduction that extends from their own backyard to their value-chain. By going down that road new insights lead not to a cost but a to a value perspective, business models are renewed and new coalitions are shaped.

Challenges for Businesses to overcome include current systems e.g. being locked into incineration technologies and carbon capture.

“If a Circular Economy wants to boom, we need to create and share maximum value!”

Caroline Louis, OREE

5. Meaningful participation for citizens and residents

The workshop explored ways to stimulate engagement of residents and other stakeholders in the circular transition.

Focus areas for the creation of a Circular Culture include understanding the different stakeholders involved to orchestrate their interests and support a mindset shift.

“Circular Culture is recognised as the ‘key ingredient’ for a successful circular economy transformation. Relations are built on shared values and aligned interests of people willing to co-create instead to compete. Enhancing the sense of community is what leads to the circle of wholeness.” Ladeja Godina Košir, Circular Change

Challenges for the creation of a Circular Culture to overcome include involving industry and micro-companies, enhancing a sense of community and common language, organic growth, mixture of education and regulation and making circularity visible for citizens to see value in a circular culture.

6. The role of research and knowledge institutions

Academics, researchers and scientists can contribute new insights, improve measurement and analytics, validate ideas and boost awareness.

Educating the leaders, and consumers, of the future is another essential step, while making sure no-one gets left behind. Focus areas for knowledge institutions include relevant technical challenges e.g. textile recycling and accelerating e-transportation, public education, connecting government to industry and the general public, and fostering a balanced debate by speaking truth – both good and bad truths – to power.

In a Circular Economy the challenge might however be 20% about technological innovation and 80% about social innovation connected to (amongstothers): culture, awareness, trust and coalition building.

Circular Economy is about changing mindset and perspective. It’s a super complex issue with multiple dimensions and transition must be done in close cooperation with a broad range of stakeholders. There is nothing black or white and one -zero approach just doesn’t work. Therefore dealing with all shadows of grey need some bravery but caution at the same time. I think research Institutes as INNOWO and Polish Circular Hotspot are crucial in transition into circular economy. Our role is to show the real impact of transition and to bring all stakeholders together to achieve one common goal which is closing the loops. Agnieszka Sznyk, Polish Hotspot / INNOWO

Challenges for Knowledge institutes to overcome include research budgets from the public and private sectors, linear mindsets of people, and governments still funding unsustainable projects.

7. The contribution of Circular Hotspots

Circular Hotspots and hubs have an important role to play in sharing best practices from business and local governments and adapt them to the local situation. They share insights and validation from knowledge institutes, both technical and social. They play a crucial role in bringing new coalitions together. Match circular offers and demand, or create access to finance. They create awareness and can be instrumental in capacity building. Both their actions and voice can be powerful if they combine strength and resources in projects or in circular advocacy.

“Stimulating circular hubs and hotspots to collaborate promises to accelerate time to market for new economic initiatives, give a boost to innovation and bring solutions for the societal goals within reach”. Freek van Eijk, Director Holland Circular Hotspot

Scotland has learnt so much from Circular Economy Hotspots not just in attending but also hosting our own. The sharing of what is already happening and what is possible in the future creates an energy at both a grass-roots and policy level to shift the dial for local economic and environmental renewal”. Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland.

“The side event hosted by Circular Hotspot was in my experience the best networking opportunity at the WCEF2019. It focused on workshop activities giving the opportunity to discuss and get insight in joint issues from representatives from countries that I wouldn’t normally have interacted with in the same way, in this case Poland and the African Circular Economy Network. My learning was that Sweden share a lot of the challenges we have with other countries e.g. the general focus on waste streams rather than on business model transition. I also think that the topics for all tables were highly relevant giving insight from several perspectives e.g business, cities, the role of the hotspots and the challenge in developing countries..” Josefina Sallen, RISE Research Institutes of Sweden

8. The Amsterdam City Doughnut

The city of Amsterdam wants to be a regenerative and inclusive city for all citizens while respecting the whole planet. But how to realise the radical and ambitious vision to make such a thriving city?

Applying principles from Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, the Amsterdam City Doughnut is a pioneering and deeply collaborative process involving more than 100 officials and businesses from the city. The participants have worked together to co-create an agenda for systemic change, to create a circular Amsterdam that works for both city residents and the planet.

“It is an incredibly interesting journey to apply the doughnut model to the urban context with the mission to provide societal needs for all within the planetary boundaries. Learning by doing, which is Amsterdam’s credo, is the way to do it. Seeing how this integrated approach can be taken to the development of cities strategies and actions, while fostering cross-departmental collaboration towards circular city is game-changing”.  Annerieke Douma, Director Cities and Regions, Circle Economy 

The workshop discussion practically explored how strategies can impact both socio-economic, and environmental elements. For example how products-as-a-service have the potential to boost access to high-quality goods and services, all while decreasing material and energy consumption.

An integral factor to successfully apply the City Doughnut and a potential challenge is how to ensure deep collaboration between stakeholders, both throughout the city (including citizens and businesses), as well as within the city government itself (between the various municipal departments). This is crucial to ensure that circular strategies meet the needs of all.

Final remarks

The 15 participating circular hotspots and hubs have shown the power of a combined circular ideas network, in this case dedicated to identify new approaches for cities. It helps all of them, within each region, and beyond — to swiftly take practical action to drive the transition to the circular economy.

It is an initiative that is worth replicating both at the institutional level for example at international Climate and Resource Conferences, UN gremia, World Expo’s and future WCEF’s but especially at the actionable level of cities and regions!

We will actively seek how we can accelerate this process and invite all to think with us to make that happen.

If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. 

African Proverb

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