Circular thinking: the way forward for true sustainability
Sweco international contributors: Alastair Carruth, Martin Ringstrøm, Amanda Borneke, Carlo Negri, Elisabeth Gammelsæter, Kathleen Van de Wer
On the road to becoming more circular, cities are facing a slew of challenges, from stakeholder engagement to investment in new infrastructure (energy, public transport and blue-green networks) through to planning and implementation.
Throughout 2022, Sweco’s Urban Insight focus will be on Circularity – the various practical strategies for achieving circular flows that will unlock society’s ability to fight climate change, prevent biodiversity loss and address crucial social needs. Here, we talk to some of our key Circularity experts from across the world, to find out more about what is set to be an increasingly critical topic.
What does a circular economy mean to you?
Alastair: “The development of a deliberate and designed process for returning resources back to the system in a self-sustaining manner.”
Martin: “To me, it’s about using the resources that are already available. It’s like going back 200 years in our building culture. Firstly, use what is already available. Secondly use only materials that can go into new loops of circularity. It’s about optimizing every kind of use, in every aspect.”
Amanda: “Three years ago, I realised that the demolition process in the construction industry is often referred to as the end of life, death. I decided to find out what circular behaviour I could enable by just renaming the process ‘the beginning of life’. What would happen if there were no endings, only beginnings?”
Carlo: “To an architect like me, it’s about innovative design. When it comes to cities, we are not only molding our built environment, but circularity needs to be designed into what we’re doing on many levels.”
Elisabeth: “A circular economy is a good way to solve the issue of finite resources. However, it’s not enough, because we need to keep adding virgin materials in order to solve, for example, the green transition and the climate crisis.”
Can you define a ‘circular way of thinking’ for us?
Amanda: “Even if I put my waste over there, ‘over there’ is ‘over here’ for someone else. The waste does not disappear just because you don’t see it. To me, a circular system way of thinking is about taking responsibility and about social justice, but it’s also the most effective way to achieve Sweden’s promise of climate neutrality.”
Carlo: “Before Covid-19 we hosted many delegations from China and other countries and have often taken them to Hammarby Sjöstad because it’s a good model of circular systems. For example, the waste-to-energy process: combustible waste that can be used to create heat and power or waste water to generate biogas used to run the buses in Stockholm.“
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How could circularity help to transform society?
Martin: “If you want to score a few points higher in lowering emissions, you just have to switch a panel or two in a building to a more sustainable material, but we don’t think that is enough. I would like to put the goal limitations aside and think about sustainability and circularity in every detail in the building itself and the construction process. We have to think big, raise the bar. In fact, reusing old materials does not make a building more expensive, but could reduce emissions to a third or quarter of what they would be otherwise.”
Carlo: “One of our founders, Gunnar Nordström, talked about the importance of providing clean air, clean water and clean energy. Very simple in some ways, but highly complex in others. Circular thinking has the ability to do that. But it also leads to better public spaces, job creation and wellbeing and health in society.”
What are the main obstacles to becoming a circular society?
Amanda: “The perception that a circular economy is a drain on the bottom line, the laws and regulations that hinder the growth of circular supply chains, and the lack of consumer education.”
Carlo: “We should decide how to assign value. A lot of people talk about cost, but if you say that it’s valuable to have longevity and good spaces, you assign a value to the space in a building instead of just cost per square meter.”
Elisabeth: “We have a Norwegian circular strategy that has identified several barriers to circularity, on the regulatory and political levels, on the economic and technological levels, and on the structural and cultural levels. So, what we really need is a new mindset. Things that have been done and that have worked before are not going to work anymore. We need to continue to challenge each other to become more circular.”
How can we increase innovation and speed up the pace of circular transformation?
Kathleen: We need to start with mindset. The role of architects, urban planners and engineers in the transition to a circular economy is evolving from one of being a master planner to a ‘partner in transition’. In my opinion, Sweco has the expertise that is needed to connect scientific research with policy support and to translate policy frameworks into the concrete implementation of the necessary spatial interventions, such as for mobility networks, energy networks, robust ecosystems and more.
Martin: “Sweco has developed an internal compass for circularity, so everyone who gets a new assignment is automatically screening the project for sustainability. We want to keep to a certain standard for all our projects without the clients having to ask for it. In this way, we’re educating our staff, the clients and the users.”
Amanda: “Consumer education is key. People who climb one rung of the consciousness ladder never descend again. This could lead to the implementation of a global circular economy within one generation.”
What are the most important steps to take right now?
Alastair: “Demonstration of the benefits in clear terms that decision makers understand. We need to avoid the hazy visions of circular systems and just be specific about what the environmental and financial savings are and what changes you have to make. And what the risks of not doing so are.”
Carlo: “We need more co-creation, more learning, not least by listening to the next generation. There are a lot of brilliant minds out there, and we can also help to educate them. Education is key. If you walk out in the street and ask people what a circular economy is, there is probably not a great understand of what this actually means. Therefore, public engagement is of great importance to move forward.”
Elisabeth: “We need to zoom out. If you take the map metaphor, we’re all in our own valleys. We can’t see across the hill to what’s on the other side. We need to get that helicopter perspective so that we can see all the different information and get an overall picture of what is happening
What makes Sweco’ s expertise in circular projects unique?
Alastair: “We can actually tell you how to get there. We don’t just talk about the goals, we talk about the road towards those goals. We can help with practical solutions, whether they are within design or engineering, or systems that use digitalisation.” I am not sure if this makes Sweco “unique” but sometimes it’s simply about being better, which I believe Sweco is.”
Amanda: “Sweco employees act as resource detectives in a unique way. Sweco could come up with flows of resources for a neighborhood, or for an entire city, as well as identify end-of-life-processes and loop them to a beginning-of-life process instead.”
Kathleen: “Our clients are seeing a total mind shift that goes beyond mere building and budgeting, one where even potential tenants are asking about their sustainability credentials and how they are addressing equity and social issues. And, in addition to design and engineering, they are seeing a greater need to establish partnerships and manage all the flows.”
Circularity in five years, where will we be by then?
Alastair: “I think we will arrive at a tipping point where circular type models and approaches become the accepted norm. We’re seeing more adoption of business models where products are returned to production instead of being disposed. We have loads of tools, information and data about the benefits of circular approaches that will make it a no-brainer to adopt them. We’ll probably look back and wonder why on earth were we making, using then disposing of things. In 5 years’ time we will be much closer to that.”
Martin: “I think it will be like in 2008-2009 when we had to change over to new rules on energy use; it happened really fast. In five years, we’ll be able to illustrate the amount of circularity in all our programs and projects.”
Elisabeth: “I hope for better traceability in the value chain so that we can demand sustainability and circularity from producers and that they can more easily document that.”
Alastair is a consultant within the waste and resource management group at Sweco Sweden. He has a background in waste management, driving numerous circular economy projects since 2013.
Martin is an architect and Sustainability Project Leader at Sweco Denmark. He is a sustainability leader on all local projects in and around Aarhus. He is an expert in cradle-to-cradle and the circular economy.
Amanda is a specialist in circular economy at Sweco Sweden. She describes herself as a powerhouse and a personal trainer in sustainability: “You hire me when your project needs a climate diet.”
Carlo is an International Director for overseas projects at Sweco Sweden. As an architect, he works on building projects, urban design and masterplan projects, where the focus has been on China and the Middle East.
Elisabeth is a senior advisor at Sweco Industry in Norway. She is an economist at the Norwegian Ministry of Industry and Secretary-General of Norwegian Mining and Quarrying Industries, the trade association for the Norwegian mineral and mining industry.
Kathleen Van de Wer
Kathleen is an urban planner at Sweco Belgium and is highly skilled in Urbanism, Public Space, Spatial Planning, Sustainability and Urban Planning – she also has an MA focused in Housing and Urbanism.