I recently attended the Ecocity Forum on “Circular Economy in Smart Cities” in Thessaloniki, Greece. This three-day event took place from October 3rd to 5th at the beautiful Music Hall on the Thessaloniki sea-walk. This is a reclaimed foreshore area, stretching 5 kilometres that used to be fronted by a road. Today pedestrian and cycling commuters, recreational sailors and fishers, dog-walkers and people seeking a relaxing place to sit or eat, use the seawall. There are plenty of shade trees and several restaurants along the way. The urban transformation from automobile-oriented to pedestrian-oriented foreshore provided a fitting context for the discussions that unfolded over the course of the forum.
Dr. Franz Joseph Rademacher, from The Club of Rome, delivered the opening keynote and he pulled no punches. He reminded the audience of “The Limits to Growth” (Meadows et al., 1972) predictions and the magnitude of change needed to achieve “stability” whether related to climate, water, or food. It is nothing short of a ten-fold reduction in the current rate of energy and material flows in the global economy. Some organizations, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, have been advocating this magnitude of reduction for years (Rees 1995). However, it is not for lack of technology that is already available to enable the shift that progress has been slow (von Weizsäcker et al. 2009). Dr. Rademacher remembered Einstein’s famous observation that “one cannot solve a problem with the same thinking used to create it.” In other words, a global economy predicated on growth cannot achieve the stepwise reductions of energy and materials throughput called for if energy and efficiency savings are continuously re-purposed to fuel more consumption.
In a subsequent plenary session, Carlos Borrego observed that a circular economy “is a strategic concept inspired by nature-based solutions founded on the prevention, reduction, reuse, recovery and recycling of materials and energy.” This description sounds very much like biomimetic concepts espoused by industrial ecology, predicated on an observation of ecosystem relationships in the production, use, decomposition and reconstitution of materials and resources. Such an approach was popularized by Cradle to Cradle (McDonough and Braungart 2002). It fits well with the ecologically informed approach to building “ecocities,” cities in balance with nature espoused by Register (2006). It also aligns with the practice of ecological economics, a different way of thinking about how to generate value through human transactions that recognize the realities of the global ecosystem in which we live.
I was pleased to see the framing of circular economy aligned with ecologically informed systems thinking. Dr. Toregas, a member of the Ecocity Builders Board, and past convenor of the 2015 Ecocity World Summit in Abu Dhabi, provided a closing plenary that contextualized the relationship between circular economy and smart cities. Smart cities are capable of sensing and making sense of multiple feedback that enable quick adaptation to constantly changing circumstances. In the turbulent age of the Anthropocene, this ability to respond effectively in real-time becomes paramount for dampening the impacts of disruptive forces, such as peak storm and flood events, fires, or other resource shocks. I was proud to join Dr. Toregas in the closing plenary to share insights gained from my work with the City of Vancouver about what would be needed to adopt sustainable lifestyles, aligned with the concept of one-planet living. It hinges on understanding how much of global ecosystems are available to support the human enterprise and how a sustainable consumption strategy can be used to mitigate the impacts of ecological overshoot that underpins challenges of climate change, global water scarcity, habitat loss and species decline.
The Ecocity Forum provided an excellent discussion that I am excited to continue at the Ecocity World Summit in Vancouver in 2019 (www.ecocity2019). An important output of this event is the development of a circular economy guide for European cities that I am sure will prove very useful. I look forward to learning more about what the guide contains, and I will be working with the staff and faculty at Ecocity in Athens and the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki to bring these insights to the Ecocity World Summit, under the conference theme “Socially Just and Ecologically Sustainable Cities.” A final word of congratulations is due to conference organizers Christiana Peirasmaki from Ecocity and Nicolas Moussiopoulos from Aristotle University for putting together a fantastic program and very well run event.
McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things. New York: North Point Press.
Meadows, Donnella, Dennis Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William Behrens III. 1972. The limits to growth: A report for the Club of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. New York: Universe Books.
Rees, William E. 1995. Achieving sustainability: Reform or transformation? Journal of Planning Literature 9(4): 343-60.
von Weizsäcker, Ernst., Charlie Hargroves, Michael Smith, Cheryl Desha, and Peter Stasinopoulos. 2009. Factor 5: Transforming the global economy through 80% increase in resource productivity. Earthscan, London.