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From Smart to Sustainable: Digital Solutions Enabling New Circular Cities

Cities are the key to solve tomorrow’s biggest challenges, including sustainability and emerging countries are leading the way (ie. a week ag, the World Bank approved a $560 million loan to help Turkey build sustainable cities). In 2030, 750 cities will represent 60% of the world’s GDP. The part of urban population will continue to increase in the next 30 years, from 50% today, to 70% (+2.5Bn) in 2050, while middle class citizens will represent 4.9 billion people in 2030 against 1.8 billion people in 2009. Yet, our cities are still operating within a global economic system that is based on the linear “take-make-dispose” model and as such, urban economies mirror and amplify the challenges of this model.

Cities can also be at the heart of new and more sustainable economic models such as the circular economy or the sharing economy. Projects such as “C40 CITIES” regroup cities willing to take action against climate change and lead the way toward a healthier and more sustainable future. Most of these projects draw on smart technologies such as interactive planning tools developed by the MIT to explore trade-offs around factors like density, transportation and walkability.

A circular economy is characterized as “an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times while distinguishing between biological and technical cycles”. This concept is particularly relevant in an urban context where those cycles are more concentrated. Digital innovations such as Asset tagging, Geo-spatial information, or the Internet of Things are key in allowing us to consider new usages to limit the impact of future cities on their surroundings.

Source: Ashima Sukhdev, Julia Vol, Kate Brandt, Robin Yeoman, Cities in the circular economy: the role of digital technology
Digital enablement of circular economy in cities (from Intelligent Assets: Unlocking the Circular Economy Potential by the Ellen MacArthur foundation and adapted for Cities in the circular economy: the role of digital technology, by A. Sukhdev et al.)

Smart and sustainable cities of the future will enter the circular economy by becoming key resource producers in terms of energy (ex. solar panels on roofs) but also farming (ex. organic recovery from compost and urban farming) or mining (ex. minerals recovery from wastewater). These steps would lead to better management and better distribution of resources contributing to closing the loop as well as short cycles.

Cities will also become socially inclusive labs through a democracy of proximity, a dynamic healthcare, a sharing economy or inclusive social networks. These trends are allowed thanks to the development of data management or connectivity which boost efficiency and reduce costs, hence improving the quality of life of citizens by allowing more interactions, better management of health, etc.

Smart cities foster innovations and are key to build tomorrow’s sustainable planet. Decentralized solutions such as microgrids technologies, renewable generation and power storage are best placed to scale up solutions to solve the current challenges.