While 10% of surveyed cities and regions define themselves as “advanced” performers in the circular economy field and 39% see themselves as “in progress”, 84% are using pilots and experimentation to foster the circular economy (OECD study The Circular Economy in Cities and Regions, 2020).
Piloting and experimenting is usually affordable, but upscaling requires substantial funding and strong political commitment. What are the enablers or accelerating pipelines to move circular economy initiatives beyond just activism and piloting and into the mainstream? First, cities should promote initiatives with an expanding/upscaling effect. Second, the circular economy must be embedded properly within a number of robust and well-funded (European, national and regional) agendas with transformative goals. More on this below.
Community building around circular business models
The more refined an entrepreneurial and innovation local ecosystem is, the more rapidly that local economy will become more sustainable and circular. The entrepreneurship support field has been paying special attention to acceleration and scaling up over the past years. But, what if the numerous start-up acceleration programmes were focused mainly on circularity? And what if those programmes were periodically fuelled by challenge-based local calls and contests related to the circular economy? The EIT Climate-KIC Accelerator programme, focusing on cleantech, is one such example. For instance, the Circular Weekend, hosted in some Spanish cities, aims to stimulate participants to re-think business models in a circular way and create community. And this pathway to upscaling doesn’t need to just be a side-project: cultivating a circular start-up ecosystem in the city is, for example, one of the central ways in which in The Hague’s Circular strategy is trying to scale up circular initiatives.
Circular economy hubs
Circular economy hubs offer the demonstration capacities and expanding effect intrinsic to having a number of hotspots and actors focused on the circular economy operating in one city. Such hubs adopt a variety of forms and purposes. For example, the Municipality of Athens organized a public tender to re-open and give new life to a former historic food market, the Kypseli municipal market. The tender was awarded to Impact Hub Athens with a programme focusing on cultural, social and circular economy activities. This hub provides a way to normalise new patterns of production and consumption through a neighbourhood´s daily life, beyond activism and “hipster” circles. As such, it functions as a significant circular economy hub for the Greek capital.
The massive adoption of circular behaviours by multiple actors within a specific area can have a scaling up effect at the city level. Recognising this, some actors are creating circular area management supporting tools for site managers - for example, PlatformU. Indeed, the idea of Urban Resource Centres, as introduced by the Urban Agenda Partnership on the Circular Economy, can also be understood as knowledge-oriented circular economy hubs.
Embedding circularity in public procurement
Cities do not have a significant stake in regulatory frameworks regarding design and manufacturing of more sustainable products. Nevertheless, embedding “circular principles” in (local) public procurement can have a big scaling up effect. Some cities are betting big on this way to scale up circularity. For instance, the City of Oslo has created the position of coordinator for sustainable procurement. For cities looking for guidance, the booklet “Public Procurement for a Circular Economy”, delivered by the European Commission in 2017, offers a number of simple and useful guidelines.
Sector-focused strategies promoting circularity
The New Circular Economy Action Plan for a Cleaner and more Competitive Europe underlines the importance of scaling up the role of circular economy actors “from front-runners to [...] mainstream economic players”. It also highlights a number of “key value chains” where the circular approach could have a bigger impact – electronics and ICT, batteries and vehicles, packaging, plastics, textiles, construction and buildings, food, and water and nutrients.
Focusing on sectors with high scalability potential can work as an accelerator of circular transition. Amsterdam´s Circular Strategy 2020-2025, for example, focuses on three priority value chains – food and organic waste streams, consumer goods and built environment. Here, cluster organizations can be useful allies, allowing a city to re-think value-chains through the lens of circularity and find out and spread on subsequent adjusted/new business models.
At this point, it is worth noting that besides the most obvious sectors –bioeconomy, cleantech, food, etc– other domains can also serve as fast-tracks to expand circular economy principles. For example cultural heritage valorisation and adaptive reuse, which focuses on reconnecting the city of the past to the contemporary city, is a great example of circular city principles being applied in a field that is often overlooked when it comes to circularity. The ethos of modern heritage management is actually circular by nature.
Placing the circular economy at the heart of smart specialisation strategies
For funding reasons, the so-called Strategies for Smart Specialisation matter because of their close link to the European Structural and Investment Funds via Operational Programmes. In fact, S3 was established as an ex-ante conditionality by the European Commission for all member states and regions to access ESIF-funded OPs. As a result, S3 has become the mainstream innovation policy in Europe in record time. That is why, duly managed, smart specialisation strategies can work well to scale up circular economy plans.
And the good news is that the upcoming S3 designs (now branded as strategies for sustainable and smart specialisation S4) are being mandated to work as boosters of the new European Green Deal framework strategy, which includes the Circular Economy Action Plan. To ensure this, the empowerment of cities (local authorities) as S4 key actors or developers would be helpful, since many of them are driving the transition to more circular economies.
Circularity as a driver of the forthcoming European recovery and resilience plans
The Covid-19 crisis is being seen as a potential accelerator of the transition to a genuinely sustainable and digital economy and society. To fuel the transition and repair the economic and social damage caused by the pandemic, the EU has mobilized an unprecedented amount of resources through its long-term budget for 2021-2027. It includes new and temporary financial instruments like NextGenerationEU, with 750 billion Euros to fund recovery and resilience plans. This new funding scenario is opening up a negotiation at the sub-national level. This offers cities a precious opportunity to scale up their circular economy agendas within Europe’s framework strategy focusing on the next economy and resilience.
Urban transformation agendas
Domain-focused transformation agendas – digital agendas, smart city roadmaps, circular economy blueprints, and so on – can certainly work as acceleration frameworks, but only if addressed as major organisational challenges with cross-cutting impact. The Amsterdam City Doughnut, headlined as a tool for “transformative action”, is one such example. It is framed as a “stimulus for cross-departmental collaboration within the City, and for connecting a wide network of city actors in an iterative process of change”. In the end, then, it doesn’t matter if we accumulate different domain-focused transformation agendas or draft a single overarching framework. To scale up the circular economy, the key driver is a genuinely integrated approach and the capacity to implement and have impact. In this vein, helpful new concepts are emerging, such as the impact economy or impact investment, which emphasize and promote circular projects’ ability to engender real change.
It is time to move circular economy actions beyond the piloting logic and make circular thinking mainstream. Generally speaking, upscaling is increasingly recognised as a key component of the implementation framework and should, therefore, be considered in the action planning process right from the beginning. In a study on smart city projects, Willem van Winden and Daniel van den Buuse from Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences discovered that even the pilot stage should be carefully designed with an eye on later upscaling.
The massive funding mobilisation at the EU level for the recovery and the transition towards a more resilient and sustainable “new normal” is a unique opportunity to scale up circular economy practices more systematically. But it will require a significant effort in terms of vertical multi-level governance for cities to have their say. And, in this respect, cities should not sit and wait but, if necessary, they should pro-actively knock on the door of the regions and member states to claim their role as key actors for change.