A Tale of New Cities

By Jocelyn Blériot

Jocelyn Blériot was part of the team who set up the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, after a career spent in journalism and publishing.

As read in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, “New York City (is) to replace pay phones with free Wifi”. Some could argue that this simple transition is nothing more than a logical evolution of the telecoms landscape, driven by incremental technology advances. Others will lament at the fact that this move represents a big blow for screenwriters – no more characters picking up a random ringing phone to suddenly plunge into a world of adventures – and for Clark Kent himself: where to change into Superman, in the absence of booths?

Coming at this from a slightly different, and perhaps more ‘big picture angle’, one could also see the municipality’s decision as a sign of a transition underway: one that directly impacts the public space – since every street corner becomes a global library – and reshuffles the card decks at big players’ tables. Just think what free voice over IP available everywhere means for phone network operators, as an example…

Cities traditionally have been the place where modernisation hit first and was the most visible, hence their strong power of attraction and rapid growth over the course of the 20th century. Yet even this is an obsolete worldview: since 2007, more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas, and this figure is forecast to rise to 66% by 2050, according to the United Nations. We are no longer experiencing a world of rural exodus as such, most people are already in cities and these will develop endogenously… whilst producing the bulk of global GDP – 85% of it, as shown by the New Climate Economy reports.

Yet systems have histories, and as complex ones cities have accumulated layer upon layer of infrastructural decisions, planning choices and architectural whims. As such, depending on the context in which they evolved, they are sometimes radically different: for roughly the same population, car-reliant Atlanta and Roman-founded Barcelona have respective footprints of 4,280 and 162 square kilometres. What all cities do have in common, however, is the fact that they act as concentrators of materials and nutrients: ‘stuff’ flows to them, but apart from copious amounts of waste and sewage, hardly anything comes out… Cities are not, in our current linear “take, make, dispose” economy, regenerative in the slightest. Think for instance that over the course of the 20th century, the recycling rate of food-derived nitrogen dropped from 40 to 5% in Paris[1].

There is however huge potential for urban areas to take their place at the leading edge of a system revolution that combines pervasive connectivity, reverse logistic chains, precision small-scale agriculture, decentralised (re)manufacturing, multiple use buildings, multi-modal transport systems featuring autonomous vehicles… the list goes on. In the face of increased commodity price volatility, energy concerns and growing awareness of negative impacts, the call for a revised economic operating system is getting louder, and municipalities around the world have taken an early lead in the debate: organisations such as the C40 or the Covenant of Mayors as well as individual cities are driving the agenda forward, fostering circular economy initiatives and creating virtuous loops.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s recent research, sponsored by SUN (Stiftungsfonds für Umweltökonomie und Nachhaltigkeit) and developed in collaboration with the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, focused on three main sectors at European level: mobility, built environment and food – all very relevant to urban environments. Strikingly, considerable amounts of structural waste have been highlighted in the process, as for example the average European car sits idle more than 90% of the time. For buildings, conclusions are very similar, with an occupancy rate seldom exceeding 65%, even during business hours. Both these figures show a very poor utilisation of heavy assets that have required large quantities of materials and energy – not to mention water or valuable labour hours – in their production phase.

Integrating new technologies and business models, which generally are bundled together and generically branded ‘digital revolution’, could generate what we call a “Growth Within”, and create value without resorting to consuming more finite resources. To put things simply, the power of digital networks and intelligent assets can act as the new infrastructure, helping share vehicles, tracking materials, enabling collaborative platforms. Information technologies will play a crucial role in enabling a fully functioning circular economy, by streamlining reverse logistic operations, for product take back, or embedding recycling / refurbishing instructions in the assets themselves. Given the infrastructure already present in cities – the New York example is enlightening in that regard – and the recent global uptake of the ‘Smart City’ concept, one can easily identify the potential at stake.

This optimisation of material flows is not only valid when it comes to metals, polymers and other man-made compounds, and a move towards restorative and regenerative circular models entails significant reconnections throughout the economy – both on a literal and metaphorical level. The traditional divide between town and country is being eroded by new architecture trends which acknowledge the importance of bringing living systems into living spaces, as seen with Singapore’s Skygreen urban farming venture or Milan’s Bosco Verticale.

With a city the size of London being added on the world’s map every 35 days or so, urban areas are at the epicenter of the 21st century’s economic and social transformation. The whole model is impacted by this evolution, with political power gradually shifting from regional to municipal, which enables bold development choices to be made by cities themselves – the fact that many internationally significant ones have chosen to go down the circular economy path can only be seen as an encouraging sign[2].


[1] Prof. Stéphane Guilbert, SupAgro Montpellier – INRA
[2] For example, London has set out to become a ‘circular economy capital’ and is currently developing their circular economy route map. In the same vein, the city of Paris has launched a circular economy plan in 2015, and “>recently published their white paper on the topic.

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