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  • Writer's pictureJoachim Jake Layes

Why Circular Smart Cities are the Future

Throughout history, cities have always occupied a unique role in shaping the development of human societies. As early as the first settlements, cities provide structural benefits over single, remote households. At first, they offered protection and security; as they evolved from fortified medieval and feudal towns to modern cities, or today’s megacities, they present a robust economic dynamism.

Cities have the potential to provide a far more efficient way to manage resources and systemic structures, for employment, education, health care, social and physical mobility while allowing space for social interaction and entertainment. Today’s city governments understand that with a large, concentrated population come rising social and environmental challenges; they recognize that the impact they have collectively can trump national policies in speed, efficiencies, and value.

The Crisis of Climate Change and Linear Consumption Patterns

Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities; by 2030, it’ll be close to 65%. As urbanization continues to grow, cities will have to prepare for an increased demand for resources, sanitary systems, mobility infrastructure, safety, security, food, and adequate social living spaces. The rise in the urban population brings new and unprecedented difficulties, very different from those in medieval times. Today’s most pressing issues for cities is a combination of climate change crisis and the amplified effects of our linear consumption patterns.

First, climate change challenges, e.g., hotter temperatures in summer, storms, droughts, flooding, and rising sea levels, are already stretching the resilience of cities, and even their survival. Cities also contribute to the climate change crisis as the world’s largest consumer of energy, as well as the most significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions. Organizations such as C40 and ICLEI initiate actions for cities to build the foundation for a low-carbon society.

Secondly, if we do not change our linear consumption patterns, urban areas will be faced with an insurmountable challenge of managing issues of energy, waste, and water. Our linear way of consuming - designing, manufacturing, and using products that land in the rubbish bin often just in mere seconds after use - deplete resources and creates mountains of waste. The high growth and population density of cities further amplify the consequences of the consume-&-waste economy.

There is no Waste, Only Value

The circular economy redefines our understanding of products and services, moving away from end-of-life and towards value delivered throughout all parts of the lifecycle. We need to relearn that resources never lose their value regardless of shape, form, composition, or usage phase. Retaining that value and making it accessible, even after a product no longer can provide its function, requires different approaches to product planning, design, and development. In the circular economy, this value is not thrown away or leaked, but recognized: re-used, re-cycled, re-purposed.

In the last couple of years, the concept of smart cities has gained traction, initially driven by technological advances in IoT, sensor technologies, and harvesting’ big data’. There is, however, more than just technology implementations. Smart cities need to accelerate the move towards a circular economy; they need to be sustainable cities - that means, in the words of the Brundtland definition, meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” economically, ecologically and socially. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide various targets for every smart city.

Leveraging the Smartness of Cities

The often complex urban interactions and connections of people, products, buildings, and infrastructure are a trove of dynamically changing data-points. Leveraging the ‘smartness’ of smart cities is the activity to gain valuable insights from these connections; to formulate a foundation for a circular city economy; and to collaborate with all stakeholders to shape solutions, appropriate to the geographic, cultural and societal characteristic.

All of a city’s components and stakeholder can contribute to greater resource efficiency and productivity, less waste, and circular lifecycles; initiatives need to focus on:

  • Changing to renewable energy renewable sources and introducing smart demand and supply management; this also includes providing feed-in opportunities for individual households

  • Providing for recycling infrastructure and reducing waste; this should consist of decisions on banning single-use plastics and products or goods without a path to circularity

  • Increasing the resiliency of urban infrastructure according to local risks of extreme weather; this means upgrading existing infrastructure, optimizing drainage systems, and accelerating the greening of cities

  • Securing water supply and arranging for wastewater treatment; this includes water management to optimize delivery, finding alternative water sources as well as incorporating natural ways of storage or sponge capacity

  • Providing a sustainable transport system; this includes rethinking mobility planning and could mean car-free zones in city centers and optimized public transport routing systems

  • Securing appropriate food systems that are environmentally friendly, supporting local businesses, and inclusive; actions here can be the support to vertical farming.

  • Promoting health and well-being and providing for adequate housing for all.

Circularity is the Future

There is a lesson for cities in the great efforts that go into realizing the ambitious goal of space travel. Going on a months-long trip to Mars means traveling within a closed-system environment with limited supplies, right from the start. We should treat our cities (and our planet) the same way as we operate a spaceship: as a self-sustaining ecosystem with a finite provision of precious resources, vital for our survival. Fortunately, we do know now that the old linear make-to-waste lifestyle never was the right approach.

As cities increase their socio-political influence, they need to be smart by combining economical, political, and environmental responsibilities. They will then show the world that circularity is the foundation for a sustainable future for all.

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