The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is transforming our cities. The Internet of Things (IoT) is connecting all manner of devices delivering networks capable of driving efficiencies, delivering improved services, enhancing security and allowing better management of resources. 

However, whilst technology has the potential to make cities more pleasant places to live, they are also struggling against an unprecedented population boom that is straining infrastructure, resources and government services and worsening carbon footprints.

Cities around the world are forced to accommodate thousands of new people each year. Almost without exception, cities are attracting previously rural residents in search of better jobs, services and culture. As a result, it is estimated that cities currently consume 60% of the world’s energy and generate 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and global waste. This is leading to infrastructure that can no longer sustain its inhabitants, growing disparity between poor and rich communities within each city, and worsening carbon footprints. Consequently, we can no longer afford – environmentally, politically or economically – to ignore the effect our booming cities are having on the planet. 

Therefore, in order to create smart cities capable of delivering the potential of the 4IR, they must challenge traditional ways of thinking, carefully balancing the needs of a growing population against tackling the impending climate crisis.

The concept of the circular economy provides the opportunity to rethink how we make and use the things we need and allows us to explore new ways of ensuring long-term prosperity in our urban environments. The implementation of a circular economy model can bring tremendous economic, social, and environmental benefits to the city. For instance, according to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation embracing smart city elements can enable a; 

The report suggests that a city’s planning, design, making, accessing and maintaining need to implement a circular approach to every element to achieve the above benefits. 

Here’s how;

  1. PLANNING: The report explains that in cities that embed circular economy principles, there should be closer proximity between where people live, work, and play. This encourages people walk and cycle to work, boosting health and interactions with local businesses and communities. The layout and design of cities using a circular economy approach also changes the way materials and products move around them. Instead of throwing materials ‘away’, a new distributed system of resource management, nutrient flows, and reverse logistics makes the return, sorting, and reuse of products possible. 
  2. DESIGNING: Circular economy principles transform the design of elements within cities meaning that infrastructure, vehicles, buildings, and products are designed to be durable, adaptable, modular, easy to maintain and repurpose. A key part of this is making sure the  materials initially selected are non-harmful, locally sourced and renewable are chosen and emphasis is placed on materials that can be recycled, and reused.

    The design of smart cities using a circular model requests renewable energy as the power source. In addition, using a circular design, nature should be used when considering solutions for cooling, heating, networking and manufacturing, replicating structures and systems found within our natural ecosystems, as the result of thousands of years of evolution. 
  3. MAKING: The circular economy requires municipalities to consider how to manufacture buildings, vehicles, and products using techniques that design out waste. To do this, the circular model favours decentralised, distributed, local production within cities, creating products and parts on-demand and on-site. 
  4. ACCESSING: Circular smart cities ensure residents gain access to what they need in new ways - be it space, products or transport. Within this approach, products are shared rather than owned, allowing people to connect to their neighbours and communities, and maximising the product or materials associated with a service, as far as possible. 
  5. OPERATING AND MAINTAINING: The circular economy ensures products used within a smart city are repaired and refurbished at an individual, community, and commercial level. From vehicles and infrastructure, to roads to street lights, all elements are operated and maintained so that materials, energy, and water are used effectively and can be reused and recycled. Running a city in this way creates new industries and jobs. It also allows the smart city to bolster its resilience and independence, protecting it from economic and environmental shocks. 

If organisations throughout our cities implemented a similar approach, billions of dollars could be saved and millions of lives, improved. Indeed, as the Ellen MacArthur foundation explains: “implemented alongside the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and climate objectives, the transition to a circular economy will support city leaders as they deliver against their priorities, which include housing, mobility, and economic development.” 

City governments are uniquely positioned in the transition to a circular economy as they can enable, lead and involve key stakeholders from across the public and private sectors, using the wide range of policy levers and measures at their disposal. 

Ultimately, the transformation of our economic model might be daunting, but the climate change statistics demand drastic action. Yet, the circular economy does not just offer a way to reduce our impact on the environment, through collaboration, it will enable cities that are at breaking point to gain a new lease of life, becoming a city that is liveable and resilient, and that use materials that are kinder to the environment and improve the population’s well-being.

Throughout modern history, urbanisation has been a major driver of development and poverty reduction. The emergence of the concept of the circular smart city allows us to redefine urbanisation, ensuring it becomes driving force for prosperity as well as a source of development that holds the power to change and improve lives.

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