Strategies for cities

Hannah Lesbirel reflects on how the circular economy could boost cities’ resilience

The ‘take-make-dispose’ linear consumption pattern is facing constraints as resource availability declines. This, coupled with the rising demand from the world’s growing and increasingly affluent population, has led to higher price levels and volatility in many markets. The linear system’s generation of waste, pollution, materials and value leak makes it difficult to solve the social, political, economic and environmental issues that compromise cities’ resilience against shocks. 

Urban problems can be addressed by applying circular economy and resilience thinking to decision-making, in both 
the developed and developing world. 
A circular economy is restorative and regenerative and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles. Circular economies will benefit from substantial net material savings, mitigation of volatility and supply risks, positive multipliers, potential employment benefits, reduced externalities, and long-term resilience of the economy. 

Tools for resilience

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is at the forefront of circular economy research and action. It developed the ReSOLVE framework (Figure 1), and has shown the value of applying circular economy principles to structural design and development. The framework is a tool for generating circular strategies and growth initiatives, featuring six action areas. 

100 Resilient Cities (100RC), which wound down in July 2019, led several city resilience strategies, partnering with organisations across the world. With Arup, it also developed the City Resilience Index, which provides a comprehensive, technically robust, globally applicable basis for measuring city resilience. The index reflects the overall capacity of a city (individuals, communities, institutions, businesses and systems) to survive, adapt and thrive no matter what kinds of chronic stresses or acute shocks it experiences. It comprises 52 indicators, which are assessed based on responses to 156 questions through a combination of qualitative and quantitative data.

There are several opportunities for implementing circular economy initiatives to improve city resilience: 

  • Technological innovation can create an ever-greater opportunity to support circular economy business models
  • Consumer acceptance of alternative business models, and young consumers’ lifestyle choices, can shift the economic model away from the linear system 
  • Responsible investment and green bonds have increased significantly in recent years; many investment firms are encouraging mainstream adoption of responsible investment 
  • Increased urbanisation means many asset-sharing services and those collecting and treating end-of-use materials will benefit from higher drop-off and pick-up density, simpler logistics, and greater appeal and scale. Centralised use should mean reverse logistics become more efficient and cost effective.

Linking the circular economy and resilience can achieve many benefits, including net material savings, reduced exposure to price volatility, increased innovation and job creation potential, and increased resilience in living systems and the economy.  

Figure 1: The ReSOLVE framework

Shifting to renewable energy and materials, reclaiming, retaining and regenerating the health of the ecosystems

Maximising utilisation of production, sharing them among different users, reusing them through their entire technical lifetime and prolonging their lifetime through maintenance, repair and design for durability

Increasing performance and efficiency of products, removing waste in production and supply chains, leveraging big data, automation and remote sensing 

Keeping components and materials in closed loops, and prioritising inner loops

Dematerialising resource use by delivering utility virtually

Replacing old with advanced non-renewable materials, applying new technologies and choosing new products/services

Hannah Lesbirel is co-chair of IEMA Futures

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