This needs to be rooted in the fundamental realization that meaningful progress on intractable and wicked social issues in the 21st century can no longer be talked about as the responsibility or capability of a single actor, organization, institution, domain or start-up.
While the 20th century was dominated by the unhelpful state-market dichotomy, right now the collective imagination seems to be hung up on the Ubers, Teslas and their civic equivalents — be they FabLabs, Incredible Edibles or energy coops. The age of the large state, the heroic business leader or charismatic start-up founder has led to a convenient set of truths about development, investment, accountability and governance. But acting effectively in a 21st-century context requires multi-actor coalitions, whether at the scale of neighborhoods, city regions or beyond.
So what we really need is a more sophisticated collective understanding of how change can happen, not through a series of singular ventures that compete for resources and attention, but through fostering broad coalitions of start-ups, self-producing citizen collectives, government, innovative city mayors, corporates, community organizations, NGOs and financiers working together. As the economist and chronicler of the commons Elinor Ostrom put it in her 2009 Nobel Prize lecture:
We need to ask how diverse polycentric institutions help or hinder the innovativeness, learning, adapting, trustworthiness, levels of cooperation of participants, and the achievement of more effective, equitable and sustainable outcomes at multiple scales.
Practically, this means that the perspective of the circular city requires us to work on many levels. Just to name a few, we have to:
- Work towards greater supply chain transparency, not just through abstract data but also as compelling stories to show the interdependencies between the stuff we buy and the global effects of sourcing them, in the way that Fairphone has helped us understand how obscure metals such as tungsten can be sourced either responsibly or irresponsibly in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
- Communicate the circular city as an attractive vision beyond the already-converted crowd. Recently, I heard once again the tiresome story of how a social enterprise collecting and reselling white goods such as refrigerators, in this case in Glasgow, finds it near-impossible to sell them to relatively deprived households who could benefit from the excellent prices they offer — merely because of a negative association with “charity,” whereas environmentally focused, high-earning households snap them up.
- Reimagine our tax system to rebalance the consumption of new goods versus reuse, like the Swedish government has recently announced in an effort to promote the repair economy, sharing economy and (re)making movement, aiming to create lots of low- and medium-skilled jobs in the process.
- Imagine and build new ways to invest in systems change rather than just in individual start-ups — based on the social and environmental costs we could avoid through the circular city, rather than being solely focused on the revenue streams from clearly defined individual products and services. The growing FabCity network, initiated by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (which incubated the first FabLab) and the Fab Foundation (the global network of FabLabs) may be a vehicle for such a systems-wide view.
- Create new quality assurance, insurance and contract types enabling the en-masse trading of recycled, upcycled or remade products, just like the metals and plastic recycling industries already have intricate coding systems for scrap of various kinds, equally understood in U.S. scrapyards or in Chinese ports, and in family-run or industrial processing plants.
This stuff is the “dark matter” of systems change — not as eye-catching as individual start-up stories, but necessary if cities are to have dense networks of new ventures, overlapping people and knowledge networks behind these initiatives, funders that “get it” at a deep and long-term level, and an evolving role of the public sector to support and collaboratively regulate all this.
We need both the hyper-local, people-focused, real-world engagements such as the Library of Things and the Brighton Waste House and their invisible, geeky translations to the system world of legislation and finance. It is in the interplay between transparency expectations, tax systems, cultural norms, contract types and investment products that collective expectations start to shift, the threshold to new venturing and investment begins to lower, and new ideas of defining success are developed.
In some sense, that age-old icon of Silicon Valley did precisely this — following a series of boom-and-bust rounds, it dominates the current economic cycle as it defined a discourse and created a new normal, for better or worse. In contrast, the circular city seems a ways away from being the new normal — but we can’t afford to see it as a fringe movement.
Library of Things; London, U.K.
Year started: 2014
Industry: Consumer goods
Category: Sharing economy, library, social enterprise
Founders: Rebecca “Bex” Trevalyan, Sophia Wyatt, Emma Shaw and James Tattersfield
Cities are filled with an ever-expanding collection of consumer goods, but how much of it is really necessary to own? In a circular city, citizens should optimally use materials, components and products; owning too many underused items is simply uneconomical and rather foolish. One way to reduce material consumption is to borrow products that are often little used. Take, for example, the sharing economy’s iconic power drill (more on power tools in the following case study), which a person usually uses for minutes and owns for years. Library of Things gathers useful items, like a drill, and with the support of its neighbors, is creating more with less.
At Library of Things, members can borrow a wide range of items as diverse as camping supplies, kitchen equipment and musical instruments. Items that are only needed once in a while, such as a PA system, are rented to members at a low price. In addition, those with a DIY inclination can receive one-on-one instruction or attend workshops to learn how to use things such as power tools and sewing machines. All and all, everyone can access useful items that might be rarely needed or too expensive to buy. It also offers a way to explore new hobbies or crafts without material commitment.
Organized as a nonprofit, Library of Things is a people-focused community project. Beyond the core team of founders, they are reliant on volunteers to help run the library, conduct community outreach and maintain products in good condition. After a successful pilot in a public library and months of searching, Library of Things found a more permanent location. Operating out of a pair of retrofitted shipping containers adjacent to a food surplus supermarket and regional recycling center, they help round out a small community of resource-savvy organizations. The space is a place to meet neighbors and exchange knowledge on how to use different items.
As Library of Things matures, it aims to be a community-owned business that is flexible enough to adapt to the needs of any local population. By offering a toolkit and boot camp to others, they hope to create and share a replicable model for other interested communities. In libraries fitting this model, profit and ownership are not the main drivers of commodity use. With people able to borrow instead of buy, access to goods is decoupled from an increase in resource consumption. This new social contract encourages community, knowledge sharing and collaborative consumption in lieu of conventional ownership.
— Duncan Baker-Brown
Brighton Waste House; Brighton, U.K.
Year started: 2013 (started), 2014 (opened)
Type: Teaching space and office
Industry: Construction, architecture
Category: Education, commodity broker, building
Founders: Duncan Baker-Brown, BBM sustainable design, University of Brighton/ cat fletcher feegleuk/the mears group
The Waste House, an educational facility built on the central campus of the University of Brighton, was born out of a novel idea: to create a fully permitted, permanent building from construction waste. With about 20 percent of construction materials wasted in the U.K., the Waste House sought to build from these overlooked resources. Ultimately, construction incorporated discarded materials of all kind, including denim jeans, VHS tapes and toothbrushes.
The finished building serves as a classroom, meeting hall and living laboratory. As an exploration of building with scraps and rubbish, the Waste House is commendable, but the pedagogical methods surrounding its construction are equally relevant to the discussion of circularity. The design and construction included students from both the University of Brighton’s architecture program and those studying construction nearby at City College Brighton Hove vocational school. Over 360 students worked together to construct the building and solve some of the most pressing issues as they developed.
When designing with waste, materials can become available with very little notice. As a result, portions of the building must be designed on the fly, sometimes without precedent. The exterior of the building is clad in some 2,000 old office carpet tiles, a material that was only realized two months before completion. The corner detail of the unorthodox cladding was an invention of a 15-year-old carpentry student. Being a new material application, the tiles had to be fire tested on site to meet fire safety regulations. Storage of diverse building supplies also proved a challenge. With typical construction, building material is sourced from suppliers and delivered when needed. With the Waste House, the building and design team acted as a commodity broker and kept material on-site, fortunately having city council’s approval to use a neighboring building for VHS cassettes repurposed as cavity insulation ongoing material storage.
Today, the Brighton Waste House stands monument to how we can challenge our perceptions of waste and education. Through the hands-on engagement of students, untapped assets can be discovered and repurposed with imagination and ingenuity, inspiring this generation and those to come to better identify and manage valuable, overlooked resources. Education is paramount in the societal shift required to make circular cities a reality.
— Duncan Baker-Brown