REFLOW Handbook
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Operational Infrastructuring

Essential 1 | Understand your local system - Urban diagnostic and metabolism

Collective sense-making of city’s strengths, opportunities, existing assets and gaps is key to any strategy. It helps developing the baseline upon which to design, set in place actions, monitor and evaluate progress. Urban metabolism approach seeks to understand cities from the lens of material and energy flows. It helps to identify and visualize the interactions between natural and human systems in a given urban environment. Urban metabolism research field aims to address sustainability challenges, such as dematerialisation, decarbonisation and the closing of material loops (Musango, Currie and Robinson 2017). These studies generally develop indicators, identifying sustainability targets and developing decision support tools. Various methods are offered to quantify resource flows: accounting approaches; input-output analysis; ecological footprint analysis; life cycle analysis and simulation methods. Flow approaches often attempt to incorporate human activities as part of the urban metabolism. Cities are analysed in terms of inputs and outputs of resources, materials, and energy. As cities have typically designed their infrastructures following linear metabolisms (e.g. resource-consumption-waste), shifting from a linear metabolism to a circular metabolism perspective provides new opportunities. A circular metabolism is more similar to a natural ecosystem with an efficient consumption, recycling and reuse of resource flows (Doughty and Hammond 2004), thus reducing its footprint and dependence from far away areas.
Examples from the city models:
  • The metabolism scan in Brussels allowed to identify the materials that could be valued to minimize the need for new inflows. Economic activity in the Brussels-Capital Region is mainly tertiary (services, administration, etc.). With the exception of activities related to construction, the industry occupies a marginal place in the Brussels economy. The flows it generates can, however, be relatively homogeneous and have economic value. These residual materials or co-products were prioritised in the sectoral focus of the regional programme.
  • The urban metabolism scan in Buiksloterham allowed to map material flows from an integrated perspective, via three main layers of analysis: current context, by evaluating existing activities, strategies, policies and initiatives in the area; stakeholders’ vision, by identifying relevant actors, their interests and level of participation in activities; and the actual urban metabolism, which included the scenario of energy, material, ecological and socioeconomic flows and conditions in the area.

Essential 2 | Understand gaps in data and technological assets

While we increasingly recognize the ‘systemocracy’ underpinning major urban challenges, our capacity to understand interdependencies and causal loops in systems is still generally limited. Paradoxically, cities have large amounts of data which often tend to remain in silos, and whose value is often captured by third parties and privatized digital markets. Moreover, while technological innovation is largely acknowledged as a key enabler for the circular transition, there is still poor knowledge on which technologies can be used and for what specific purpose(s) and benefit(s). Moreover, in order to manage data more transparently and effectively, citizens’ participation has become crucial to improve cities’ digital infrastructure, not only by allowing wide data collection and capture but also enabling citizens to take decisions more democratically and achieve improvements in public services. The interplay between circular economy, new technologies and citizens distributed intelligence can provide a fertile ground for innovation and shared value creation. When seeking to extend the useful life and maximise the utilisation of assets, technologies can provide useful knowledge about assets’ location, condition, and availability, thus enabling a broad range of opportunities. While it is a hard task to predict all possibilities going forward, there are already numerous conceivable ways in which this interplay can drastically change the nature of both products, business models and city functions.
Examples from the city models:
  • Barcelona Digital City Plan strives for a more transparent, participatory and active governance in the city. The plan brings the importance of data and technology for transforming the city and this idea goes beyond the smart city concept. Within this plan, Barcelona City Council aimed to co-create an innovation ecosystem that rethinks a model that prioritises citizen participation. The plan includes a wide range of customised digital training and capacity-building in order to give back to the citizens’ greater control and power over their data, enabling them to discuss, articulate and decide their own priorities. To achieve the goal for technological sovereignty, the City Council supports the idea of data as a common asset, in order to make certain datasets available to individuals and organisations. In this direction, different initiatives have been developed in the city, fostering a pluralistic digital economy based on the transformation and digital innovation of the public sector and its implication with companies, organizations, universities, people and communities.
  • Accessible data may inspire and encourage municipalities and institutions to build applications based on open public data. In Warsaw, the 19115 City Contact Centre application was created to allow the use of open data for collecting and categorising issues in the city. By encouraging citizen participation, the city was able to develop a more efficient and transparent tracking system. Many other platforms have been developed in the city in which residents are able to share ideas to improve the public services and make decisions on participatory budget.

Essential 3 | Develop multi-level impact frameworks

While the benefits stemming from the circular economy are largely conceptualized in literature, there is still poor empirical evidence demonstrating how far such benefits can go beyond the purely environmental aspect. Developing multi-dimensional impact framework is thus beneficial not only to advance scientific knowledge on the topic, but more crucially is a key precondition to drive further investment, as well as to support increasing integration. For example, measuring and assessing the impact of circular practices over health, living conditions in neighborhoods, education or service provision can help improve both horizontal and vertical strategies of urban development, identifying ‘cross-cutting’ goals that are pursued across city departments, as well as ‘cross-cutting’ indicators that drive spending and budgeting.
Examples from the city models:
  • Circular City Prato is an ambitious policy that combines both the smart and green city strategies. The City is working in close collaboration with local universities and research centres to develop an extensive diagnostic of all green infrastructure of the city, and - based on that - to design an articulated impact assessment framework able to combine multiple benefits stemming from the adoption of circular and green initiatives and practices promoted by the Municipality itself.
  • Amsterdam embraces the approach of a circular economy and is keen to adopt different sustainable strategies in order to reduce pollution, create a participatory environment and boost the economy. To do so, the city has been incorporating the combination of smart mobility, ICT solutions, and collaborative governance in many of its initiatives. In 2015 Amsterdam was the first city in the world to present an in-depth study on the potential for transition towards a circular economy, the publication Amsterdam Circular: Vision and Roadmap for City and Region. Its results were used to launch two programmes centred around the concept of ‘learning by doing’: 'Amsterdam Circular, Learning by Doing' and the 'Circular Innovation programme'. Both programmes went through an interdisciplinary evaluation in which were identified the main lines of the project results and the lessons learned. The Report Amsterdam Circular Evaluation and Action Perspectives was commissioned by the Municipality of Amsterdam and carried out by Circle Economy and Copper8. The evaluation indicates which action perspectives are possible to further accelerate the transition to a circular economy and include roles for market parties and issues for the municipality during the next years.

Essential 4 | Establish strategic alliances for overcoming regulatory barriers

When applied to the context of the circular economy, a number of rules, including environmental ones, can lead to the creation of legal-administrative barriers to innovation, hindering the development of new activities which are environmentally friendly. Identification of legal-administrative barriers and the development of adapted solutions are key in any transition towards circularity. The hotspot approach, previously mentioned, can help prioritize regulatory analysis in a specific sector or for specific materials, also via strategic partnerships with utility and service providers.
Examples from the city models:
  • In the context of Prato Circular City initiative, the Municipality is currently implementing a number of strategic partnerships at the district level, in order to overcome regulatory barriers that hinder the reuse of specific materials (ex. Wool waste) that could be meaningfully re-entered in production processes. Importantly, as a formal partner of the Urban Agenda Thematic Partnership on the Circular Economy, Prato is working in close collaboration with the European Commission and the other cities involved in the Partnership to create a more favourable environment at EU level.
  • The Brussels circular economy programme is seeking to address this issue by developing a governance scheme involving the private sector. The measure seeks to identify, prioritize and provide solutions to the legal administrative aspects that are necessary for the deployment of the circular economy (through the deployment of incentives) and those that constitute legal-administrative barriers and must be eased, while still maintaining a high level of environmental protection in accordance with the standstill principle.

Essential 5 | Develop business case scenarios

Poor understanding and awareness around existing opportunities for business model innovation is often a major barrier to make emerging markets thrive, and adopt circular, sharing or green economy approaches. Combining training, awareness-raising, entrepreneurship support measures with the set-up of open source repositories and catalogues may help to create a vibrant ecosystem for business model innovation. Moreover, existing assets such as networks of makerspaces and innovation hubs can be leveraged into ‘urban programmes’ for circular-based innovation, tapping into local talent and innovation champions.
Examples from the city models:
  • Milan Sharing City has invested massively in the creation of an enabling environment for the sharing economy in the city. Combining measures such as the establishment of one-stop-shop services and dedicated shared working facilities, open catalogues, incentives for young people and social entrepreneurs - while developing a transversal action of networking and community-building -, Milan has indeed become one of the most vibrant cities in Italy in terms of spreading of sharing-based models and services.
  • Barcelona is a pioneer in generating new practices in the market in terms of business models that pivot on open code and open-service practices. The city has become very attractive for technological companies of many sizes as it counts with a dedicated department that supports entrepreneurs, professional improvement and job creation in Catalonia. Barcelona Activa offers a comprehensive model including technical coaching, feasibility assessment, tailor-made training and incubation programmes. These incubators have different areas of business work, including the topics of artificial intelligence, the internet of things (IoT), robotics, space technology and nanotechnology. By supporting business development, the city council promotes the creation and growth of companies with high technological impact, which contribute to economic development and to generate qualified jobs in the city.