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Circular economy on a city scale

Viridor ERF

In November 2015 it was Peterborough, not Dubai or Moscow, also in the running, which was crowned Smart City of the Year by the Smart City World Congress.

The judges were said to be impressed with its commitment to becoming the UK’s first ‘circular city’ and its vision to become the UK’s environment capital – by pledging to live within the resources of one planet by 2050. They also liked the collaborative approach it was taking to involve its citizens in the journey.

Delivered by economic development company Opportunity Peterborough along with Peterborough City Council, the Peterborough DNA Smart City Programme is focused on growth, innovation, skills and sustainability with the goal of making Peterborough a better place to invest, work and live.

Steve Bowyer, chief executive of Opportunity Peterborough and project director for the DNA programme, explains that resource management is at the core of the circular city concept.

“We view resources a little differently to most people operating in this field,” he says. “Our work looks at resources from the broadest perspective: how we can make the most of places, people and products to gain maximum benefit for all stakeholders.”

He adds that resource management underpins its recognition that cities “are not really any different to any other living organism”.

“We use raw materials, which are transformed in some way – locally or elsewhere – to create specific products or services and, somewhere along the line, waste is produced,” he says. “But cities exist because of people, and a whole new dimension of resources enters into consideration here: skills, transport, education, health, communities, recreational activities and so on.”

Back in 2012, the Technology Strategy Board, now Innovate UK, ran a Future Cities competition which saw 30 cities in the UK granted £50,000 each to develop innovative schemes and come up with a proposal for a large-scale demonstrator to show how new technologies could be used to deal with urban challenges such as transport, housing, health, energy and pollution. Glasgow secured the winning £24m for its demonstrator project, and Peterborough, Bristol and London were each awarded £3m.

Since securing the funds, Peterborough has been working on establishing its vision, growing its network and developing test bed projects.

Charlotte Palmer, the council’s environment, transport and future city manager, explains that, for its Future Cities application, a full feasibility study was carried out to ascertain what challenges the city faced in the smart city context. It then looked at a series of interventions that it could make to these: “One of the areas that we determined needed focus was smart business.”

Peterborough knew there were a few challenges in this area, such as large and small businesses finding it hard to work together. It also knew that a lot of small companies tended to operate in isolation from each other. For example, it had found during a previous project that, at a certain time of day, a particular road in an industrial area would get particularly busy and cause congestion. The reason was that each company was sending people out to get their invoices and correspondence in the last post.

While this situation has probably now changed due to use of email, it did reveal how everybody operating in isolation could cause bigger issues in the city.

Palmer explains that Peterborough decided to create a collaborative community of businesses within the Fengate industrial area “to encourage them to talk to each other, to share ideas, to share challenges – and see if there was a way to start to solve problems by working together”.

The council started talking to businesses and got them to meet on a regular basis.

It then listened to them for about a year to try to understand their challenges before suggesting what interventions could be made. Palmer explains that this approach enabled it to build trust with the business community and helped it to see how their issues fitted into larger concepts, such as the circular economy (CE).

She adds: “They started talking about creating a CE – but without using that terminology.”

Peterborough then conducted a series of ‘swap it’ events to encourage businesses to see what waste resources – people, products and places – they could share with each other. As a result of such initiatives, Peterborough’s CE started to grow, and it then looked at the issue from a city-wide perspective.

Palmer says that Peterborough sees itself as “a system of systems”, with “lots of raw materials coming into the city and lots of waste streams coming out of it”.

The challenge was therefore how to close those loops, and it believes that connecting people across the city so that their resources are connected is part of the solution. This concept has led to the development of the Share Peterborough online platform that allows businesses to swap whatever resources they have going spare.

Getting people together to discuss the issues collectively, rather than individually, has been a key tactic. Peterborough held a CE launch day in November 2015, attended by more than 80 people from all communities: businesses, the council, charities and residents. Palmer says this allowed the council to see what was already happening that could be capitalised upon. Bringing together people from different sectors also meant that more robust projects could be developed, and it could crack on with putting plans into action rather than simply being a talking shop.

At the start of March this year, it held another event that gathered a wider audience with wider expertise on the CE, alongside stakeholders, so that it could create a manifesto about what Peterborough’s circular city aspiration and vision is all about, and to decide on projects that it could develop in distinct pilot areas: manufacturing, food and the built environment.

It has also started a piece of work with University College London, which involves students examining the value chain within some of these sectors – looking at the flow of resources, the opportunities to share and to use resources in a slightly different way. The hope is that, as each pilot area is developed, the city will be able to map out its value chain and identify people who are not engaged that need engaging, so that it can make the most of its resources.

As Palmer points out, Peterborough is a similar size to a lot of other UK cities so, if it can find solutions that work, these are more likely to work across the country. The Smart City award and Future Cities funding put the city in the spotlight, while its approach to putting people before technology has also made it stand out.

While Bowyer says it is too early to say what its key learnings have been so far, he does reveal: “One of our lessons is, don’t be afraid to think big but don’t underestimate the power of acting small. Delivering small tangible interventions that people can get behind, believe in and grow can make a real difference.”

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