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The Circular Economy Opportunity for Cities

A circular economy is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Where sustainability is good at defining the problem, around the world, people are looking to circular economy models to provide the solutions we need. But how can we move from circular theory to practice in the context of our cities?

Debbie O'Byrne (pictured) is a circular economy thought leader and practitioner. Since her Master's thesis which focussed on the circular economy, she has worked with a range of government organisations, crown research institutes and Iwi, and large corporates in New Zealand to integrate circular economy principles into the redesign of their business strategies. Currently, Debbie is a circular economy lead at Lake Macquarie Council in Australia. She's working on projects relating to policy material flows, and post coal economic development.

As a professional, Debbie has always been interested in sustainability. She says that despite the warnings from environmental scientists we didn't seem to be shifting the dial on sustainability issues. The core issue was clear to her.

“This is not an environmental problem. This is a business problem and a human behaviour problem.”

The Roles that Cities Play

Debbie points out that sustainability issues around cities require a systemic response. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation provides a framework for cities that looks across city systems -- the built environment, the energy system, the transport system, the urban bioeconomy, and production systems and how they all interact with each other. To drive change at the city level, one must consider:

  1. Initiatives that will create the most impact.

  2. Launch initiatives in parallel, or do things at different speeds. Identify low hanging fruit that can be addressed immediately and then build actions into a planning framework.

  3. Balance the city’s current needs with a plan for the future.

The Buildings as Material Bank framework in the EU is an excellent example. A pilot programme in the EU that treats new buildings as material banks for future buildings. This means information about materials, components and functionality or how they're assembled, or potentially disassembled is key knowledge. This information can be captured in circular material passports which is critical as often, the functionality or the purpose of a building wears out before its material components. So material passports and designing for disassembly help us plan for end of life over the long term. This allows us to consider buildings and their functions in an adaptive, modular way.

How cities can start to formulate a circular economy strategy

Start with the energy system

A good place to start is the energy system because one of the fundamental principles of a circular city is that it's built on renewable energy. Every city has an energy system and one of our key goals is to decarbonize cities. It makes sense to look at where the largest sources of carbon are, and that's often in the energy system.

  • So how is the city fueled currently?

  • What might the city decarbonisation roadmap look like?

  • How can the energy system be more distributed?

It’s important to remember, particularly for circular economy champions, that circular economy is not in and of itself the goal: the goal is to create better environmental and social outcomes. We urgently need to decarbonise, so our cities’ energy systems are a good place to start.

Re-thinking collaboration

Cities are systems, and circular solutions require a lot of collaboration across a system. Usually, councils and businesses aren’t equipped to respond to systemic challenges. The policy and funding mechanisms and forums/fora needed aren't set up to solve these complex problems. We're currently not as good as we need to be when creating systems change and New Zealand cities are - like many around the world - at an early stage of maturity when it comes to collaboration.

Defining systemic variables for city challenges

Circular economy practices tend to happen at the boundaries, whether that's the boundaries between departments inside an organisation, or between sectors or between organisations. This can be challenging.

Referencing Dr. Warren Weaver, whose 1948 Scientific American paper on "Science and Complexity" identifies three problems when considering stages of development in scientific thought, Debbie applies this thinking to cities:

Some problems are problems of simplicity, with two variables. Others are problems of disorganised complexity where there are billions of variables. Finally, there are problems of organised complexity with between 10 to 20 different, but interrelated, factors. Cities are problems of organised complexity.

It’s therefore tricky to grasp how cities’ problems can be untangled, and we don't necessarily have the methods of analysing how solutions might work. We often want quick answers, yesterday. And that's not easy to do when you're trying to solve complex problems across a city system.

Setting data free

There's no doubt that data and information are critical to a circular economy transition. We have some phenomenal tech tools at our disposal, the Internet of Things, RFID chips etc, to enable much better data capture.

One of the challenges is that there's no consistency as to what metadata cities might want to capture, and a second challenge is the lack of open data. If we’re not willing to share our data, how do we make sure that we innovate and create a cluster of potential opportunities for industrial symbiosis, and entrepreneurs?

There are ways to clean data by anonymising and aggregating it to avoid commercial confidentiality challenges: New York City has an annual Open Data Week in celebration of the New York City Open Data Law which came into effect on March 7, 2012. The Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) is New York City’s civic intelligence center which allows the City to aggregate and analyze data from across City agencies, to more effectively address crime, public safety, and quality of life issues. The office uses analytics tools to prioritize risk more strategically, deliver services more efficiently, enforce laws more effectively and increase transparency. Quite simply, this open data initiative is helping them crowdsource innovation. Other cities could learn from this.

The COVID-19 manufacturing opportunity for cities

The current pandemic has highlighted the fragility of our complex and long supply chains. This presents a host of opportunities including for reshoring supply chains to create / ramp up local manufacturing and remanufacturing, maker spaces and citizen labs providing access to 3d printing (additive manufacturing).

With houses now being ‘printed’, instead of making a product and shipping it thousands of miles, could we print products locally from locally-available biomass materials? The bio-economy presents a huge opportunity. Let’s aim for a future where knowledge has no boundaries, but the manufacturing of products takes place in a much tighter geographic and circular loop. A city the size of Auckland fills a geographic space of 1,086 km², but the ecological footprint of that city is far greater (a 2003 report by Garry Mcdonald suggested Auckland City’s adjusted ecological footprint was 9.17 ha per capita.) So now is the opportunity to have a conversation around shrinking the size of that ecological footprint.


To hear Debbie talk about the circular economy opportunity for cities, listen to Episode 4 of Moonshot:City

Do you have any comments on this topic? We'd love to hear from you. Email Juhi and Priti at:

Learn more about Debbie O'Byrne's work here

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