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Cities in the Circular Economy

November 6, 2017

Cities in the Circular Economy

Cities in the Circular Economy
Cities in the Circular Economy

The Role of Digital Technology

Ashima Sukhdev, Julia Vol, Kate Brandt, Robin Yeoman, Google, The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

At the heart of creativity, innovation and growth, urban environments could become hotbeds of circular economy activity, enabling closed loops of biological nutrients and the re-circulation of durable materials.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (the Foundation) was created in 2010 to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, one that is restorative and regenerative by design. A circular economy relies on three principles

1. Designing systems that work, eliminating waste and pollution 2. Keeping products at their highest value and in use 3. Regenerating natural resources and restoring finite materials to be used again

With its stated vision to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy, the Foundation directs its activities towards the most catalytic actions and actors. As such, the Foundation focuses on cities due to their role in shaping the global economy, with 54% of the world’s population living in urban areas and accounting for 85% of global GDP generation. Cities are also aggregators of materials and nutrients, accounting for 75% of natural resource consumption, 50% of global waste production, and 60-80% of greenhouse gas emissions. This combination of factors creates a unique context for the transition to a circular economy both in terms of challenges and opportunities.

The Foundation has been working with its global partner Google to explore the crucial role of technology in enabling key aspects of the transition towards the circular economy in cities. Google believes in the democratising effect of putting knowledge in the hands of everyone, so we are organising the world’s information and making it universally accessible. Google is committed to doing this in a way that has a positive impact on people and the planet. Google believes that a key enabler to making cities more restorative and regenerative is a circular economy powered by digital technology.

Digital technology can enable city leaders and citizens to extract, refine, and analyse data in ways that use information and networks to create cities that are circular by design. This paper explores the role that some aspects of digital technology can play in creating an urban system that is regenerative and restorative.

Challenges of the linear system

Cities are operating within a global economic system that is based on the linear ‘take-make dispose’ model, and as such, urban economies mirror and amplify the challenges of this model.

A growing global population, largely concentrated in cities due to rapid rates of urbanisation, and a rising urban middle class, has led to an increase in the demands and pressures on urban infrastructure, and an increase in the consumption of resources. Coupled with the lack of restorative or regenerative mechanisms, these pressures are leading to structural waste (and consequently lost economic opportunities) as well as negative impacts including greenhouse gas emissions, reduced air quality, and congestion.

A new way forward – a circular economy

To address the challenges of the linear economic model, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Google and many other partners have been promoting the transition to a circular economy. A circular economy is characterised as an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components, and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, whilst distinguishing between technical and biological cycles. It is conceived as a continuous positive development cycle that preserves and enhances natural capital, optimises resource yields, and minimises system risks by managing finite stocks and renewable flows. The concept of the circular economy is particularly relevant in the urban context as it offers designers, planners, policymakers, and businesses a framework to rethink systems: how we design and operate them in a manner that will preserve, restore and regenerate natural, social and financial capital.

A vision for a circular city

A circular city embeds the principles of a circular economy across all its functions, establishing an urban system that is regenerative and restorative by design. These cities aim to eliminate the concept of waste, keep assets at their highest utility at all times, and are enabled by digital technology. A circular city aims to generate prosperity and economic resilience for the city and its citizens, while decoupling this value creation from the consumption of finite resources.

A circular city will likely include the following elements:

Built environment

A built environment that is designed in a modular and flexible manner, sourcing healthy materials that improve the life quality of the residents, and minimize virgin material use. It will be built using efficient construction techniques, and will be highly utilised thanks to shared, flexible and modular office spaces and housing. Components of buildings will be maintained and renewed when needed, while buildings will be used where possible to generate, rather than consume, power and food by facilitating closing the loops of water, nutrients, materials, and energy, mimicking natural cycles.


Resilient, localised and distributed energy systems that allow effective energy use, reducing costs and reducing our impact on the environment.


An urban mobility system that is accessible, affordable, and effective. A multi-modal mobility structure that will incorporate public transportation, with on-demand cars as a flexible but predominantly last-mile solution. Transportation will be electric-powered, shared, and automated. Air pollution and congestion will belong in the past, and excessive road infrastructure will be converted to serve other needs of citizens. Central to vehicle design will be remanufacturing, durability, efficiency and easy maintenance.

Food systems

A system where nutrients will be returned to the biosphere in an appropriate manner, while generating value and minimising food waste. Nutrients could be captured within the organic fraction of municipal solid waste and wastewater streams, and processed to be returned to the soil in forms such as organic fertiliser – used for both urban and rural agriculture. Through urban farming, the city will be able to supply some of its own food, reusing food waste and sewage in closed and local loops to produce vegetables, fruit, and fish.

Digital Enablement of Circular Economy in Cities
Digital Enablement of Circular Economy in Cities

In 2016, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation published Intelligent Assets: Unlocking the Circular Economy Potential, a report that analysed the potential of digital technology in advancing the circular economy. The report identified the urban environment as a fruitful ground for solutions that combine the design and implementation of intelligent assets with key principles of the circular economy. The Diagram outlines a vision of how digital technologies can enable circular material flows in cities.

Download the overview report and learn more on Asset Tagging, Geo-Spatial Information, Big Data and Connectivity Cities in the Circular Economy The Role of Digital Tech

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