Circular economy is a complex concept, holding a potential that governments and practitioners are increasingly trying to unlock. More than 100 definition have been counted (Kirchherrc et al., 2017)1; and around 400 scientific papers are available on the subject to date (Korhonen et. Al, 2018)2, while the two editions of the World Circular Economy Forum have already gathered 1000+ expert from 100+ countries in Finland and Japan. Although there is not a unique definition of circular economy – and some scholars believe there should not be one to avoid circumscribe potential applications that do not fit a specific definition-, what is certain is that the attention on circular economy is increasingly raising. National and subnational governments have been setting dedicated strategies, while international organisations, foundations, research centres have carried out a myriad of research projects and programmes to provide policy guidance and support implementation.
In a nutshell, circular economy represents a vehicle to keep the value of resources produced and consumed at its highest, while promoting environmental sustainability, creating jobs and stimulating economic growth. Notably, cities have long been laboratories for experimentation, transformational change and innovation. In a world where half of the global population live in cities – likely to reach 70% by 2050 –, and where cities are responsible up to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions (World Bank, 2010)3 and 50% of global waste (UNEP, 2013)4, being smart, sustainable, green and circular is not so much of a trend nor an option, it is more a necessity.
Circular economy is not a new concept but it is a new driver to sustainable growth and development! While related circular economy theories have been developed since the nineties (Pearce and Turner, 1992), digitalisation, technological progress and new skills are now contributing concretely to implement circular economy in cities as a vehicle to social, economic and environmental sustainability like never before. Dedicated legal and regulatory frameworks at national and supranational level (e.g. China, Korea, European Commission, etc.) lead to the creation of new business opportunities, as well as behavioural and cultural change, contributing to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goal 12 on sustainable production and consumption. Various experiences at local level show that cities have a role as promoters, facilitators and enablers of circular economy, by providing the conditions for circular economy to happen, setting up incentives, infrastructure and catalysing funds. Cities hold in fact relevant roles and responsibilities in key sectors for circular economy, including housing, waste and water.
Circular economy is not only a way to potentially achieve better environmental quality and increased resource efficiency, it is also a means for greater well-being and new job opportunities. In the OECD area the richest 10% of the population earn nearly ten times the income of the poorest 10% and income inequalities are higher within large cities than in other places. This has also a spatial connotation since rich and poor people tend to live in clearly separated neighbourhoods in unequal cities, with consequences on access to goods and services (OECD, 2018)5. For example, Paris created several urban agriculture spaces on the outskirts of the city, which also raised awareness of circular economy practices and created job opportunities in disadvantaged areas; the City of Quillota in Chile is helping women create their own business out of used clothes, by leading capacity building programmes on entrepreneurship. In Seoul, the Sharing City Program, launched in 2013 encourages the culture of sharing, reusing and renting among citizens, cutting costs and building trust.
Circular economy is not a panacea for all the problems that cities are facing and will be facing in the future. However, it provides an opportunity to do more with less, to better use the urban space and the available natural resources, and to transform waste into new resources, to bring social benefits, promote new forms of employment, and tackle inequality. Cities have the bottom up entrepreneurial impetus and the closest link to citizens to make this happen and generate the expected social, environmental and economic benefits of such innovations and pilot-test experimentations.
The OECD Programme on the Economic and Governance of Circular Economy in Cities aims to accompany cities in their transition from linear to circular economy, working hand in hand with local governments and stakeholders at large. The Programme is based on the assumption that circular economy is systemic and transformative. It requires a re-thinking of the overall governance models, including standards and laws, financial incentives, new knowledge and capacities, as well as of the economic and business models with the aim of achieving a substantial behavioural change in production and consumption patterns. Lots remains to be done in order to create the right incentives, stimulate innovation and generate adequate information.
Mayors and city leaders are ready for this challenge, as proven by the increasing activities on circular economy carried out in cities all around the world, from Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and London, to Austin, Phoenix, Yokohama, to name a few. Besides front-runner cities in the field, the OECD Programme is also engaging with “newcomers”: cities that recognise the relevance and potential of circular economy and that are embarking in this transition, such as Valladolid and Granada (Spain), Umea (Sweden) and Groningen (The Netherlands). Cities of all size have one common objective: be functional and liveable places for current and future generation. Circular economy, together with green and smart policies, has the potential to make cities a better (and more sustainable!) place to live in.
4 UNEP (2013), Shifting to Resource Efficient Cities: 8 Key Messages for Policy Makers, http://web.unep.org/ietc/sites/unep.org.ietc/files/Key%20messages%20RE%2...
5 OECD (2018), Divided Cities: Understanding Intra-urban Inequalities, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264300385-en.