Under the current urban paradigm, cities consume more resources than they produce. Changing this trend by optimising ‘urban metabolism’ means actively involving citizens, completely redesigning products, relocating production and rethinking urban spaces.
It is no mean feat, but thanks to the EU-funded REFLOW project, the cities of Amsterdam, Berlin, Milan, Cluj-Napoca, Paris and Vejle now have a better idea of how to get there. Stakeholders in the six cities spent the past 3 years testing out products, software and business models with the potential to enable a truly circular economy that works for everyone.
“Our FabLabs (digital workshops that can be used by the public to transform creative ideas into tangible prototypes) and makerspaces were the main driving force for project innovation,” says Cristiana Parisi, coordinator of REFLOW from Copenhagen Business School. “In Milan, for instance, we developed BOTTO – an automated communication system that facilitates the reallocation of surplus food. It enables close cooperation between fruit/vegetable wholesalers and associations working against food waste or helping people in need.”
As in other pilot cities, team members in Milan used REFLOW OS – an operating system designed by project partner DYNE specifically for communities who want to create federated and secured economic networks across a value chain. The OS, which is based on GNU/Linux distribution technologies, helps incentivise circular practices in local ecosystems by monitoring and optimising urban metabolic processes.
Six cities testing solutions for circular waste
“The cities have been the real driving force of the project. Local communities responded very positively and actively engaged with the project, also providing additional funding and participating in local initiatives organised by the municipalities, the FabLabs and the makerspaces. They were able to truly reinvent themselves with the help of REFLOW OS,” notes Parisi.
Each city had its own projects built around local needs. In Cluj-Napoca, the REFLOW Knowledge Hub provides essential resources to those interested in energy saving. In Amsterdam, participants worked on denim supply chain sustainability by making post-consumer recycling the industry standard. In Berlin, they focused on wastewater heat: partners developed an app in the style of a radar to map wastewater heat supply and demand while connecting suppliers with users. Finally, in Vejle, the Value Chain Mapping Game helped outline the whole value chain flow of retail plastic through gamification. “The separate collection of plastic, organic waste and dangerous waste has been enhanced in all 360 REMA 1000 stores in Denmark and across the Reitan group (1 900 stores in the Nordic countries),” Parisi explains. The game is also being tested within the public elderly home Sofiegården, which shows how it can be used even in other branches and sectors.
Milan and Paris both piloted various solutions. Besides BOTTO, partners in Milan also implemented Prima-Seconda – a project recycling bread surplus to make beer – and Food Market 4.0 – an integrated system of both hardware and software that enables market managers to manage fruit and vegetable flows and make the process more sustainable. The latter solution is being tested at the Morsenchio Municipal Covered Market. In Paris, stakeholders created Re-Label – a certification for objects and furniture promoting good reuse practices among local makers – and the Driven Incubator Start-up Studio, which facilitates the financing of innovative start-ups in the construction sector.
An innovative result was also the application, for the first time, of the Social Return on Investment (SROI) to the circular economy. In other words, SROI tells the story of how impact is created by measuring social, environmental and economic outcomes and ascribing monetary values to represent them.
Work on the project by its 28 partners across Europe ended in May 2022. Parisi hopes to see these efforts continue in one form or another. “My main goal is for the project to inspire other cities and citizens to take action and embrace the circular economy. I received numerous invites from universities and private organisations already considering the replication of REFLOW, and maybe there will be a REFLOW 2.0. I feel like this is just the beginning.”