Skip to main content

Getting smart on the circular economy

Submitted by Adam Beck on May 23, 2017

The smart cities movement has been part of the arc of technological evolution. Now providing a framework for more liveable, workable and sustainable city making, the smart cities movement promotes these outcomes through the application of information and communications technology (ICT) and intelligent design practices.

In simplest terms, there are three parts to the smart cities framework: collecting, communicating and crunching data.

Ultimately, a smart cities approach to development and management enables the efficient use of natural, human and economic resources. It also promotes cost savings and helps ensure infrastructure lasts longer, does more – and does it for less.

Another way of looking at the smart cities agenda is to look at the barriers it seeks to overcome. These include issues such as:

  • Siloed and piecemeal implementation practices
  • Expensive redundancies
  • Lack of financing
  • Lack of integrated servicing
  • Lack of citizen engagement
  • Lack of a visionary plan.

Each of these barriers to the smart cities movement – which are ultimately barriers to any effective city management practices – has been a defining opportunity to create innovative approaches and solutions using intelligent design, entrepreneurialism and technology.

Many of these barriers have developed through particular mind sets and behaviours, and through the practice of delivering projects designed to solve a single problem, rather than appreciating the catalytic opportunities to leverage one benefit to realise many more.

And this is where the potential intersections of the smart cities movement and the circular economy present some exciting opportunities.

The connective tissue between these movements

In 2015, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, a North American network of local government sustainability leaders, commissioned a piece of work to identify how the gap could be closed between the needs of government sustainability goals and the smart cities offerings of the private sector[i].

Unique to this work was the focus on governmental sustainability goals – reducing greenhouse gas emissions, advancing energy recovery, promoting shared mobility and shifting behaviour to be more sustainable – and creating an environment for more sustainable growth.

Support in procuring smart cities solutions and building partnerships were considered critical if sustainability goals were to advance. The following six areas were identified to help strengthen the way in which the private sector could support government:

  1. Recognise and support the integration of traditionally siloed government operations
  2. Understand the outcome orientation of city staff and policy makers and work to develop solutions that achieve city goals
  3. Develop collaborative partnerships with diverse city government stakeholders
  4. Help city staff master the art of innovation and rapid adoption
  5. Embrace the grassroots civic tech movement as part of the solution for cities
  6. Prioritise information sharing and education on data privacy concerns and realities.

The issues raised highlight that much of our sustainability success hinges on not a technology or environmental agenda, but on incubating successful opportunities for collaboration between the public, private and civic sectors. Opportunities where there is a leadership style from all sectors that expresses a deep commitment to cause, an unrelenting attitude to seek success, and a willingness to let go and share power and opportunity.

This is the connective tissue between these two agendas. And so, beyond the obvious technical opportunities to advance mutually reinforcing actions – mitigate climate change, rebuild our ecosystems and halt resource depletion – it seems we may have a more common agenda than first thought.

It is clear the time is right to nest the smart cities movement within our circular economy aspirations. By using information and communication technologies, big AND small data, and other smart technologies, we have the opportunity to advance closer to meeting ambitious, local, citizen-centric climate goals, for example.

Deep impact

Ideas are flowing, capital is primed and technology is awaiting deployment. Our ambitious targets around zero carbon, zero waste and water positive are real, and are awaiting activation. These outcomes are achievable, and indeed aligned with growth, and consumption (I see you Portland, Oregon![ii]).

The long list of technical and political challenges grows for both the circular economy and smart cities agendas, however, in the true spirit of the collective impact model of growth, a shared vision and mutually reinforcing actions become the key driver of success.

We will evolve our policy environment in a way that not only attracts the decoupling of growth from environmental impact, but the smart cities movement will be a key accelerator.

The smart cities movement will be a catalyst for the circular economy, helping accelerate the innovative solutions we so desperately want to deploy, but that are always denied. Denied by the system, by perceived risk, by entrenched politics (big P and small p), conservative leadership, and by our lack of urgency.

False-start game changers have no place in our dialogue. We will crush incremental boldness and champion a circular economy driven by the necessary sustainability targets we have created through the planning system, our development specifications, and those targets we have embraced as the consumer.

In 2017, we will knit together these two critical conversations and movements, along with other key frameworks – such as the resilient cities movement and shareable cities movement. We will share. We will work together, united by a common agenda and a resolve to create a joint approach to solving these complex challenges.

You see, we all want the same thing, and we neither have the luxury of time nor the capacity to resolve these issues on our own. It’s called collective impact.

We are building a smart cities movement. Join us.

[i] Advancing Smart and Sustainable Cities: Cities on Smart City Technology - Six Strategies for City Deployment. Urban Sustainability Directors Network, 2015

[ii] Local carbon emissions in Portland OR have dropped by 14 percent since 1990 (a reduction of approximately 35 percent per person), whilst at the same time experiencing a population increase of 31 percent and growth in jobs of 20 percent. Portland Climate Action Plan Summary 2015