‘Loops’ First Episode on the Digital Circular Economy

On Wednesday 8th of July, we streamed live our first webinar for Loops, a webinar series about the innovation occurring in the field of the circular economy. Our speakers, Dr Demetriou and Vasilis Katos, both outlined key elements of their work on the circular economy and highlighted the necessary steps and precautions, the future holds. This article sums up the key points of their presentations and the main takeaways from the discussion that followed.

Dr Demetriou and CE-IoT

After giving a detailed overview of the policy history of the circular economy in Europe, Dr Demetriou outlined the purpose and objectives of the CE-IoT project. Flanked by a wide range of project partners, Dr Demetriou is part of the Circular Economy Research Center (CERC), leading this investigation. A core aim is to develop an ‘ecosystem of the circular economy’, identifying areas of value creation for business models. They intend to go beyond the interplay between CE and IoT, research the potential of many other other ‘technologies’ including big data, blockchain, AI and robotics. 

To point out how technology and circular economy can work together to produce a more sustainable outcome, Dr Demetriou highlighted the Deloitte’s Edge building in Amsterdam, the most sustainable building in the world. The building’s 32 000 sensors enable tremendous data flow to optimise airflow, heating and lighting, among other things. It produces 10% more energy than it is consuming. The Edge building, on a mass scale, is what would create the smarter, more sustainable cities that the world needs. 

Vasilis Katos and IDEAL CITIES

To highlight the relevance and the need for ‘IDEAL CITIES’ Professor Katos pointed to a recent example of where big data and smart technologies can help make cities better. Recently, on the UK’s hottest day of 2020 so far, over 500 thousand people flocked to Bournemouth beach (almost three times as many as the city’s population). The city declared a ‘major incident’. The lessons learned? A circular economy approach would allow a city to be better prepared to prevent this, and any corresponding emergencies. For example, if a doctor was on the beach and consented to be contacted, they could be the first responder to another beach medical emergency. Circular economy approaches go beyond ‘waste management’ and use data to make more efficient response systems to a range of problems. 

IDEAL CITIES explores how to create ‘better’ cities by leveraging the value of big data. For example, to make cities more inclusive to residents who are visually impaired, sensors and data alerts could be used to inform a citizen what barriers are in their path as they go from point A to point B. Barcelona is an example of a city which has employed CE approaches to managing traffic – creating ‘superblocks’ to keep cars of certain streets, and streamlining incentives to disincentive the use of cars. IDEAL CITIES is creating a ‘maturity’ model for Smart Cities, mapping pathways for cities to reach the optimal level. These ‘responsive’ cities can adapt, re-shape and answer the needs of its citizens, no matter the scenario. 


Questioning our Experts: Three Main Takeaways

Education is Critical

Both of our experts stressed that before Smart Circular cities can be created, the benefits must be learned, and understood, by those in the position to implement them. As Dr Demetriou pointed out, nearly 90% of the public has no clear understanding of what the ‘internet of things’ is; without that, circular economy approaches will struggle to move beyond their innovation phase. Professor Katos also made this clear; we cannot reduce the circular economy’s potential to strategies for ‘waste management’. 

There is a large gap between the technical innovations already in existence (making our cities already ‘Smart’), and the understanding citizens have of these technologies, inhibiting the potential for business models to change. This gulf must be eliminated; the reformation of economic models towards circularity must be both transparent and equitable, as well as financially viable.  

Circular Economy Adaptation is Not a Question of If, but When

Technology is not new to cities: ‘smart’ technologies have been in use for many years: from smartphones to traffic light sensors, to automated fire-alert systems. Although the transition is already occurring, these investments needed to make a greener, more sustainable Europe should to be made in the short term rather than in the long term; especially if we are to meet the targets of the Green Deal. Coronavirus has shown that healthcare can be given outside of hospitals, with social distancing for example. Data and analysis of crowds and corresponding COVID-19 cases will continue to be integral to the policy response. The pace at which global economic life become almost entirely ‘digital’ is unprecedented: a work-from-home revolution occurred in a matter of weeks. This change could likely spark and speed-up the adaptation to a circular economy (if this momentum is harnessed by political leaders). 

Nonetheless, there will always be a difficult relationship between the need to regulate and the need to the innovate: as Professor Katos highlighted, on paper, the ‘gig’ economy maximised people’s time and resources, but in practical terms, it violated the rights citizens by circumventing profits and denying workers and job-security. Hence, we must also pay close attention to how the economy becomes more circular. 

Balance is Key to a Successful Circular Economy

Both experts acknowledged privacy has, is, and will continue to be a key issue when it comes to Smart Cities. We, as a European community, must build on GDPR’s protections, broadening the range of stakeholders in privacy debates beyond big-tech and governments, to, for example, local councils and small businesses. As Dr Demetriou pointed out, data is the new “gold”. Caution must be taken to place incentives to innovate without violating our fundamental rights (as the ‘gig’ economy example shows). 

The question of ‘balance’ also comes into play when addressing resource depletion. While the current ‘take-make-dispose’ economy relied on heavy depletion, investments in technologies also require significant investment to create in the appropriate capacities of ‘energy’ (physical power, such as electricity)  and analytical (human power, to understand data) terms. To help businesses adapt, we should not ‘demonise’ profit, and instead, help them absorb the sunk cost (as the EU is already doing).  

Thank you to all who watched the webinar live and asked the questions that facilitated this interesting and thought-provoking discussion. Our next webinar will take place at 11 am on the 22nd of July, where we will talk to another pair of speakers about how their research can transform our communities and cities. 

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