Green and smart are not twins

Recently, the European Commission launched a 100-city plan, the EU Mission on Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities. One hundred European cities that aspire to be climate neutral by 2030 were invited to register and count on supplemental funding. And yes, more than 100 did. As the European Commission aspires a simultaneous green and digital transformation, it is taking about green and digital twin. I immediately thought of another 100-city plan, India’s Smart City Mission. In 2015, Prime Minister Modi announced that in six years 100 Indian cities would become ‘smart’ with the goal of solving the uncountable problems that Indian cities face. This connection failed. Therefore, my advice to the commission is, stick to one ambition, becoming climate-neutral.

The main reason of the limited outcomes of the Indian mission is the gap between its ambitions and the nature of the problems that India is facing. Cities are bursting at the seams because of the millions of poor people who flock to cities every year in search of work and a place to live that find them only in the growing slums. The priorities for which the country must find a solution are therefore: improving life in rural areas, improving the quality of housing, ensuring safe drinking water, waste disposal, sanitation, and purification of wastewater, good transport and less polluting car traffic. 

The ‘Mission’ has not tackled these problems at the root, but instead looked for a solution in ‘smartification’.

IC solutions have been concentrated in enclaves where businesses and prosperous citizens are welcomed. The Government of India Special Rapporteur on Housing therefore notes that the proposals submitted had a predominant focus on technology rather than prioritizing affordable housing and doubts the correctness of this choice. Instead of emphasizing the role of digital technology, the focus should have been on equitable, inclusive, and sustainable living areas for all. 

The European Union cherishes the image of a ‘green and digital twin’, a simultaneous green and digital transformation. Digital technology will certainly contribute to the energy transition, for example in ‘smart grids’. However, the reduction of greenhouse gases and digitization should not be seen as extensions of each other. Making a city climate neutral requires much more than (digital) technology, certainly if this aim must be achieved before 2030. This is only possible by focusing on the basics: building wind-turbines, spreading VF-panels, adapting the grid and organize the availability of green hydrogen and finally cherish citizen’ participation.

This post based on by the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)

Content:

Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies

Applications

11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City

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Forget the ***city

In 2009, IMB launched a global marketing campaign around the previously little-known concept of ‘smart city’ with the aim of making city governments receptive to ICT applications in the public sector. The initial emphasis was on process control. Emerging countries were interested in the first place: Many made plans to build smart cities ‘from scratch’, in the first place to attract foreign investors. The Korean city of Songdo, developed by Cisco and Gale International, is a well-known example. 

The emphasis soon shifted from process control to using data from the residents themselves. Google wanted to supplement its already rich collection of data with data that city dwellers provide with their mobile phones to create a range of new commercial applications. Its sister company Sidewalk Labs, which was set up for that purpose, started developing a pilot project in Toronto. That failed, partly due to the growing resistance to the prospective violation of privacy. This opposition has had global repercussions and resulted in many countries in legislation to protect privacy. China and cities in Southeast Asia – where Singapore is leading the way – ignored this criticism.

The rapid development of digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, gave further impetus to discussion about the ethical implications of technology. Especially in the US, applications in facial recognition and predictive police were heavily criticized.

This current situation – particularly in the Netherlands – can be characterized on the one hand by the development of regulations to safeguard ethical principles and on the other by the search for responsible applications of digital technology.

The question is therefore why we should still talk about smart cities. Touria Meliani, alderman of Amsterdam, prefers to speak of ‘wise city’ than of ‘smart city’ to emphasize that she is serious about putting people first. But instead of introducing other adjectives, skipping them all is better.

The best way to understand human life in the city is respecting the complexity of the city and life within it.

Precisely because of the complexity of the city, the use of reductionist adjectives such as ‘smart’, ‘sharing’, ‘circular’, ‘climate neutral’, ‘resilient’. ‘inclusive’ – even my own favorite ‘humane’ – is better avoided. The doughnut-principle is the best way to analyze the city from different perspectives and to define the way people can live in a social and ecological sustainable way, the use of digital technology included.

This post based on by the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)

Content:

Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies

Applications

11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City

Forget the ***city

In 2009, IMB launched a global marketing campaign around the previously little-known concept of ‘smart city’ with the aim of making city governments receptive to ICT applications in the public sector. The initial emphasis was on process control. Emerging countries were interested in the first place: Many made plans to build smart cities ‘from scratch’, in the first place to attract foreign investors. The Korean city of Songdo, developed by Cisco and Gale International, is a well-known example. 

The emphasis soon shifted from process control to using data from the residents themselves. Google wanted to supplement its already rich collection of data with data that city dwellers provide with their mobile phones to create a range of new commercial applications. Its sister company Sidewalk Labs, which was set up for that purpose, started developing a pilot project in Toronto. That failed, partly due to the growing resistance to the prospective violation of privacy. This opposition has had global repercussions and resulted in many countries in legislation to protect privacy.

The rapid development of digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, gave further impetus to discussion about the ethical implications of technology. Especially in the US, applications in facial recognition and predictive police were heavily criticized.

This current situation – particularly in the Netherlands – can be characterized on the one hand by the development of regulations to safeguard ethical principles and on the other by the search for responsible applications of digital technology.

The question is therefore how useful the term ‘smart city’ is. Touria Meliani, alderman of Amsterdam, prefers to speak of ‘wise city’ than of ‘smart city’ to emphasize that she is serious about putting people first. But instead of introducing other adjectives, skipping them all is better.

The best way to understand human life in the city is respecting the complexity of the city and life within it. Exactly because of the city’s complexity, the use of reductionist adjectives such as ‘smart’, ‘sharing’, circular, climate-neutral’, ‘resilient’ is better omitted. The doughnut-principle is the best way to analyze the city from different perspectives and to define the way people can live in a social and ecological sustainable way, the use of digital technology included.

This post based on by the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free

Collect meaningful data and stay away from dataism.

I am a happy user of a Sonos sound system. Nevertheless, the helpdesk must be involved occasionally. Recently, it knew within five minutes that my problem was the result of a faulty connection cable between the modem and the amplifier. As it turned out, the helpdesk was able to remotely generate a digital image of the components of my sound system and their connections and saw that the cable in question was not transmitting any signal. A simple example of a digital twin. I was happy with it. But where is the line between the sense and nonsense of collecting masses of data?

What is a digital twin

A digital twin is a digital model of an object, product, or process. In my training as a social geographer, I had a lot to do with maps, the oldest form of ‘twinning’. Maps have laid the foundation for GIS technology, which in turn is the foundation of digital twins. Geographical information systems relate data based on geographical location and provide insight into their coherence in the form of a model. If this model is permanently connected to reality with the help of sensors, then the dynamics in the real world and those in the model correspond and we speak of a ‘digital twin’. Such a dynamic model can be used for simulation purposes, monitoring and maintenance of machines, processes, buildings, but also for much larger-scale entities, for example the electricity grid.

From data to insight

Every scientist knows that data is indispensable, but also that there is a long way to go before data leads to knowledge and insight. That road starts even before data is collected. The first step is assumptions about the essence of reality and thus the possibility of knowing it. There has been a lot of discussion about this within the philosophy of science, from which two points of view have been briefly crystallized, a systems approach and a complexity approach.

The systems approach assumes that reality consists of a stable series of actions and reactions in which law-like connections can be sought. Today, almost everyone assumes that this only applies to physical and biological phenomena. Yet there is also talk of social systems. This is not a question of law-like relationships, but of generalizing assumptions about human behavior at a high level of aggregation. The homo economicus is a good example. Based on such assumptions, conclusions can be drawn about how behavior can be influenced.

The complexity approach sees (social) reality as the result of a complex adaptive process that arises from countless interactions, which – when it comes to human actions – are fed by diverse motives. In that case it will be much more difficult to make generic statements at a high level of aggregation and interventions will have a less predictable result.

Traffic models

Traffic policy is a good example to illustrate the distinction between a process and a complexity approach. Simulation using a digital twin in Chattanooga of the use of flexible lane assignment and traffic light phasing showed that congestion could be reduced by 30%. Had this experiment been carried out, the result would probably have been very different. Traffic experts note time and again that every newly opened road becomes full after a short time, while the traffic picture on other roads hardly changes. In econometrics this phenomenon is called induced demand. In a study of urban traffic patterns between 1983 and 2003, economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner found that car use increases proportionally with the growth of road capacity. The cause only becomes visible to those who use a complexity approach: Every road user reacts differently to the opening or closing of a road. That reaction can be to move the ride to another time, to use a different road, to ride with someone else, to use public transport or to cancel the ride.

Carlos Gershenson, a Mexican computer specialist, has examined traffic behavior from a complexity approach and he concludes that self-regulation is the best way to tackle congestion and to maximize the capacity of roads. If the simulated traffic changes in Chattanooga had taken place in the real world, thousands of travelers would have changed their driving behavior in a short time. They had started trying out the smart highway, and due to induced demand, congestion there would increase to old levels in no time. Someone who wants to make the effect of traffic measures visible with a digital twin should feed it with results of research into the induced demand effect, instead of just manipulating historical traffic data.

The value of digital twins

Digital twins prove their worth when simulating physical systems, i.e. processes with a parametric progression. This concerns, for example, the operation of a machine, or in an urban context, the relationship between the amount of UV light, the temperature, the wind (speed) and the number of trees per unit area. In Singapore, for example, digital twins are being used to investigate how heat islands arise in the city and how their effect can be reduced. Schiphol Airporthas a digital twin that shows all moving parts at the airport, such as roller conveyors and stairs. This enables technicians to get to work immediately in the event of a malfunction. It is impossible to say in advance whether the costs of building such a model outweigh the benefits. Digital twins often develop from small to large, driven by proven needs.

Boston also developed a digital twin of part of the city in 2017, with technical support from Esri. A limited number of processes have been merged into a virtual 3D model. One is the shadowing caused by the height of buildings. One of the much-loved green spaces in the city is the Boston Common. For decades, it has been possible to limit the development of high-rise buildings along the edges of the park and thus to limit shade. Time and again, project developers came up with new proposals for high-rise buildings. With the digital twin, the effect of the shadowing of these buildings can be simulated in different weather conditions and in different seasons (see title image). The digital twin can be consulted online, so that everyone can view these and other effects of urban planning interventions at home.

Questions in advance

Three questions precede the construction of a digital twin. In the first place, what the user wants to achieve with it, then which processes will be involved and thirdly, which knowledge is available of these processes and their impact. Chris Andrews, an urban planner working on the ESRI ArcGIS platform, emphasizes the need to limit the number of elements in a digital twin and to pre-calculate the relationship between them: To help limit complexity, the number of systems modeled in a digital twin should likely be focused on the problems the twin will be used to solve.

Both the example of traffic forecasts in Chattanooga, the formation of heat islands in Singapore and the shadowing of the Boston Common show that raw data is insufficient to feed a digital twin. Instead, data are used that are the result of scientific research, after the researcher has decided whether a systems approach or a complexity approach is appropriate. In the words of Nigel Jacob, former Chief Technology Officer in Boston: For many years now, we’ve been talking about the need to become data-driven… But there’s a step beyond that. We need to make the transition to being science-driven in …… It’s not enough to be data mining to look for patterns. We need to understand root causes of issues and develop policies to address these issues.

Digital twins are valuable tools. But if they are fed with raw data, they provide at best insight into statistical connections and every scientist knows how dangerous it is to draw conclusions from that: Trash in, trash out.

3. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

This post is the third episode in the series Better cities: The contribution of digital technologies. It deals with the rise of the smart city movement, the different forms it has taken and what its future can be.

The term smart cities shows up in the last decade of the 20th century. Most definitions  refer to the use of (digital) technology as a tool for empowering cities and citizens, and a key to fuel economic growth and to attract investments. Some observants will add as an instrument to generate large profits.

Barcelona, Ottawa, Brisbane, Amsterdam, Kyoto, and Bangalore belong to the forerunners of cities that flagged themselves as ‘smart’. In 2013 approximately 143 ‘self-appointed’ smart cities existed worldwide. To date, this number has exploded over more than 1000.

Five smart city tales

In their article Smart Cities as Company Story telling Ola Söderström et al. document how technology companies crafted the smart city as a fictional story that framed the problems of world cities in a way these companies can offer to solve. Over time, the story has multiplied, resulting in what I have called the Smart city tales, a series of narratives used by companies and city representatives. I will address with five dominant ones below: The connected city, the entrepreneurial city, the data-driven city, the digital services city and the consumers’ city. 

The connected city

On November 4th 2011, the trademark smarter cities was officially registered as belonging to IBM. It marked a period in which the company became the leader of the smart city technology market. Other companies followed fast, attracted by an expected growth of this market by 20% per year from over $300bn in 2015 to over $750bn to date.  In the IBM vision cities are systems of systems: Planning and management services, infrastructural services and human services, each to be differentiated further, to be oversighted and controlled from one cenral point, such as the iconic control center that IBM has build in Rio de Janeiro.  All systems can be characterized by three ‘I’s, which are the hard core of any smart city: Being instrumented, interconnected and intelligent.

The corporate smart city

In many cities in the world, emerging and developing countries in the first place, administrators were dreaming about building smart towns from scratch.  They envisioned being ‘connected’ as a major marketing tool for new business development. 

Cisco and Gale, an international property development company, became the developers of New Songdo in South Korea. New Songdo was in the first place meant to become a giant business park and it is set out to enable a decent corporate lifestyle and business experience for people from abroad, offering houses full of technical gadgets, attractive parks, full-featured office space, outstanding connectivity and accessibility. 

Quite some other countries took comparable initiatives in order to attract foreign capital and experts to boost economic growth. For example, India, that has planned to build 100 smart cities.

The data driven city

The third narrative is fueled by the collection and refined analyses of data that technology companies ‘tap’ for commercial reasons from citizens’ Internet and mobile phones communication. Google was the first to discover the unlimited opportunities of integrating its huge knowledge of consumer behavior with city data. 

Sidewalk Labs – legally operating under the umbrella of Alphabet – responded to an open call for a proposal for redevelopment of Quayside, brownfield land around Toronto’s old port, and  won the competition. Its plans were on par with contemporary urbanist thinking. However, that was not Sidewalk Labs’ first motive. Instead, its interest was ‘ubiquitous sensing’ of city life’, to expand Google’s already massive collection of personalized profiles with real-time geotagged knowledge of where people are, what they are whishing or doing in order to provide them with commercial information. 

As could be expected, privacy issues dominated the discussion over the urbanist merits of the plan and most observers believe that therefore the company put the plug out of the project in May 2020. The official reason was investors’ restraint, due to Covid-19.

The consumers’ smart city

The fourth narrative is focusing on rise of urban tech targeted on consumers. Amazon, Uber and Airbnb are forerunners disrupting traditional sectors like retail, taxi and hotel business. They introduced a platform approach that decimated the middleclass in in the US. Others followed, such as bike- and scooter-sharing companies Bird and Lyme, co-working companies like We Work and meal delivery services like Delivero.

City tech embodies the influence of entrepreneurship backed by venture capitalists and at the same time the necessity for city governments to establish a democratic legitimized framework to manage these initiatives.

The smart services city

Thanks to numerous ‘apps’, cities started to offer a wealth of information and services to citizens concerning employment, housing, administration, mobility, health, security and utilities. These apps enable city administrators, transit authorities, utility services and many others to inform citizens better than before. With these apps, citizens also can raise questions or make a request to repair broken street furniture.

Some cities, for instance Barcelona and Madrid, started to use digital technologies to increase public engagement, or to give people a voice in decision making or budgeting. 

All aforementioned narratives suggest a tight link between technology and the wellbeing of citizens, symbolizing a new kind of technology-led urban utopia. In essence, each narrative puts available technology in the center and looks for a good-looking rationale to put it into the market. Probably, the fifth one witnesses an upcoming change into a more human-centric direction.

An upcoming techlash or a second wave of smart cities

It is unmistakably that business leaders, having in mind a multi-billion smart city technologies market overstate the proven benefits of technology. Garbage containers with built-in sensors and adaptive street lighting are not that great after all, and the sensors appearing everywhere raise many questions. According to The Economist, it is not surprising that a techlash is underway. As I accentuated in last week’s post, politicians are becoming more critical regarding behemoths like Google, Amazon and Facebook, because of their treatment of sensitive data, their lack of transparency of algorithm-based decision making, their profits and tax evasion and the gig economy in general. Skepticism within the general public is increasing too. 

Nevertheless, a second wave of smart cities is upcoming. The first wave lacked openess for the ethics of urban technology and the governance of urban development. The second wave excels in ethical considerations and intentions to preserve privacy. Intentions alone are insufficient, politics will also have to break the monopolies of Big Tech

Besides, in order to gain trust in the general public, city governors must discuss the city’s real challenges with residents, (knowledge) institutions, and other stakeholder before praising the role of technologies of all kind.  Governance comes prior to technology. As Francesca Bria, former chief technology officer of Barcelona said: We are reversing the smart city paradigm. Instead of starting from technology and extracting all the data we can before thinking about how to use it, we started aligning the tech agenda with the agenda of the city

Apart from Barcelona, this also happens in cities such as Amsterdam, Boston, Portland and the Polish city of Lublin. The question is no longer which problems technology is going to solve, but which exactly are these problems, who is trusted to define them, which are their causes, whose intersts are involved, who is most affected, and which ones must be solved most urgently. Only after answering these questions, the discussion can be extended to the contribution of (digital) technology. In a next contribution, I explore digital social innovation, as a contribution to a revised smart city concept.

This post is a brief summary of my article Humane by choice. Smart by default: 39 building blocks for cities in the future. Published in the Journal of the American Institution of Engineers and Technology, June 2020. You will fine a copy of this article below:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/3rmrwnzdoph114w/SMC-2020-0030-FINAL.pdf?dl=1

Beyond smart cities: Digital innovation for the Good of citizens[1]

Next months, these posts focus on the challenges of Earthlings of to bring humane cities closer. These posts represent the main findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.

Citizens involved in a participative policy formulation process

About ten years ago, technology companies started to provide cities with technological tools, luring them with the predicate ‘smart(er)’, now a registered trademark of IBM.  At that time Cisco’s vice-president of strategy Inder Sidhu described the company’s ‘smart city play’ as its biggest opportunity, a 39,5 billion dollar-market. During the years, that followed, the prospects rocketed: The consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan estimated the global smart city technology market to be worth $1.56 trillion by 2020. 

The persistent policy of technology companies to suggest a tight link between technology and the wellbeing of the citizens, angers me. Every euro these companies are chasing at, is citizens’ tax money. What has been accomplished until now is disappointing, as I documented in the IET Journal.  According to The Economist it is not surprising that a ‘techlash’ is underway: Many have had it with the monopolistic dominance of behemoths like Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like, because of their treatment of sensitive data, the lack of transparency and accountability of algorithm-based decision making and the huge profits they make from it. 

Regaining public control

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater and see how digital innovation can be harnessed for the Good of all citizens. Regaining public control demands four institutional actions at city level.

1. Practicing governance

Before even thinking about digitalization, a city must convert into best practices of governance. Governance goes beyond elections and enforcing the law. An essential characteristic is that all citizens can trust that government represents their will and protects their interests. Therefore, it is necessary to go beyond formal democratic procedures and contact stakeholders directly, enable forms of participatory budgeting and deploy deliberative polling. 

Aligning views of political parties and needs and wants of citizens takes time and a lot of effort. The outcome might be a common vision on the solution of a city’s problems and the realisation of its ambitions, and a consecutive political agenda including the use of tools, digital ones included. 

2. Strengthening executive governmental power

Lack of cooperation within the departmental urban organizations prevents not only an adequate diagnosis of urban problems but also the establishment of a comprehensive package of policy instruments, including legislation, infrastructure, communication, finance and technology. Instead, decisions are made from within individual silos, resulting in fragmented and ineffective policies. Required is a problem-oriented organization instead of a departmental one and a mayor that oversees the internal coherence of the policy.

3. Level playing field with technology companies

Cities must increase their knowledge in the field of digitization, artificial intelligence in particular. Besides,  but they should only work with companies that comply with ethical codes as formulated in the comprehensivemanual, Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, drafted by the influential Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)

Expertise at city level must come from a Chief Technology Officer who aligns technological knowledge with insight in urban problems and will discuss with company representatives on equal foot. Digitalisation must be part of all policy areas, therefore delegating responsibility to one alderman is a bad idea. Moreover, an alderman is not an adequate discussion partner for tech companies.

4. Approving and supporting local initiatives

Decentralization of decision-making and delegating responsibility for the execution of parts of the policy to citizen’s groups or other stakeholders helps to become a thriving city. Groups of citizens, start-ups or other local companies can invoke the right of challenge and might compete with established companies or organizations.

Steps towards seamless integration of digitalization in citizen-orientated policy

  1. Define together with citizens a vision on the development of the city, based on a few central goals such as sustainable prosperity, inclusive growth, humanity or – simply – happiness.
  2. Make an inventory of what citizens and other stakeholders feel as the most urgent issues (problems and ambitions).
  3. Find out how these issues are related and rephrase them if desirable.
  4. Deepen insight in these issues, based on available data and data to be collected by experts or citizens themselves.
  5. Assess ways to address these issues, their pros and cons and how they align with the already formulated vision.
  6. Make sure that digital technology has been explored as part of the collected solutions.
  7. Investigate which legal, organizational, personnel and financial barriers may arise in the application of potential solutions and how to address them.
  8. Investigate undesired effects of digital techniques, in particular long-term dependence (‘lock-in’) on commercial parties.
  9. Formulate clear actions within the defined directions for dealing with the issues to be addressed. Involve as many expert fellow citizens as possible in this.
  10. Make a timetable, calculate costs, and indicate when realization of the stated goals should be observable.
  11. Involve citizens, non-governmental and other organizations in the implementation of the actions and make agreements about this.
  12. At all stages of the process, seek support from those who are directly involved and the elected democratic bodies.
  13. Act with full openness to all citizens.

I can’t agree more than with the words of Léan Doody (smart city expert Arup Group): I don’t necessarily think ‘smart’ is something to strive for in itself. Unlike sustainability or resilience, ‘smart’ is not a normative concept…. The technology must be a tool to deliver a sustainable city. As a result, you can only talk about technological solutions if you understand which problems must be solved, whether these problems are rooted in the perceptions of stakeholders and how they relate to other policy instruments.


[1] This article was posted before at the Amsterdam Smart City website

Amsterdam: Heading for a circular economy

Demolition waste – Photo Jim Henderson Licensed under Creative Commons

Possibly, in 2050 the word wastecan be removed from our dictionaries. At that time, the Dutch economy will be circular according to the government. Meaning in essence, that all raw materials are reused infinitely. In order to reach this goal, an agreement with respect to the use of raw materials has been concluded between 325 parties. Its first milestone is halving the use of primary raw materials before 2030[1].

Many are skeptical of the outcomes of this agreements. Admittedly, 38.7% of the Dutch population feels that we are on the right track, although progress is slow. Jan Jonker[2], professor of business administration at Radboud University, is more pessimistic:  We do not think circular yet. Institutions, from legal to fiscal, are fully geared to the linear economy.

Amsterdam is making progress. In 2015, the municipality explored opportunities for a circular economy, which have been published in Amsterdam Circular: Vision and roadmap for city and region[3]. Dozens of projects have been started, albeit mostly on a small scale and starting from a learning-by-doing perspective.

The report Amsterdam circular; evaluation and action perspectives[4](2017) is an account of the evaluation of these projects. It concludes that a circular economy is realistic.  The city has also won the World Smart City Award for Circular Economy for its approach – facilitating small-scaled initiatives directed at metropolitan goals. Nevertheless, a substantial upscaling must take place in the shortest possible time.

Below, I focus on the construction sector, which includes all activities related to demolition, renovation, transformation and building. Its impact is large; buildings account for more than 50% of the total use of materials on earth, including valuable ones such as steel, copper, aluminum and zinc. In the Netherlands, 25% of CO2 emissions and 40% of the energy use comes from the built environment.

By circular construction we mean design, construction, and demolition of houses and buildings focused on high-quality use and reuse of materials and sustainability ambitions in the field of energy, water, biodiversity, and ecosystems as well. For example, the Bullitt Centerin Seattle, sometimes called the greenest commercial building in the world, is fully circular[5]

Photo: James Provost licensed under Creative Commons

The construction sector is not a forerunner in innovation, but of great importance with respect to circularity goals. The Amsterdam metropolitan region is planning to build 250,000 new homes deploying circular principles before 2050.

The evaluation of the projects that have been set up in response to the Amsterdam Circular Planhas yielded a number of insights that are important for upscaling: The most important is making circularity one of the key criteria in granting building permits. The others are the role of urban planning and the contribution of urban mining, which will be dealt with first.

The role of urban planning

Urban planning plays a crucial role in the promotion of circularity. It is mandatory that all new plans depart from circular construction; only then a 100% reuse of components after 2050 is possible. The renovation of existing houses and buildings is even more challenging than the construction of new ones. Therefore, circular targets must also apply here. Dialogue with the residents, and securing their long-term perspective is essential. The transformation of the office of Alliander in Duiven into an energy neutral and circular building is exemplary (photo below).

Photo: VolkerWessels Vastgoed 

The contribution of urban mining

Existing buildings include countless valuable materials. The non-circular way of building in the past impedes securing these materials in a useful form during the demolition process. Deploying dedicated procedures enables the salvation of a large percentage of expensive materials. In this case we speak of urban mining. Unfortunately, at this time re-used materials are often more expensive than new ones. Therefore, a circular economy will benefit with a shift from taxes on labor to taxes on raw materials.

Issuing building permits

The municipality of Amsterdam made a leap forwards with respect to issuing building permits to enable circularity[6]. Based on the above-mentioned definition of circular building, five themes are addressed in the assessment of new building projects: Use of materials, water, energy, ecosystems as well as resilience and adaptivity. Each of these themes can scrutinized from four angles:

  • The reduction of the use of materials, water and energy
  • The degree of reuse and the way in which reuse is guaranteed.
  • The sustainable production and purchase of all necessary materials.
  • Sensible management, for example a full registration of all components used.

Application of these angles to the five themes yields 32 criteria. A selection of these criteria is made in each project, depending from whether the issuing of building permits or renovation is concerned, and also from where the building takes place. For instance, a greenfield site versus a central location in a monumental environment. 

One of the projects

In recent years, the municipality of Amsterdam has included circular criteria in four tenders: Buiksloterham, Centrumeiland, the Zuidas (all residential buildings) and Sloterdijk (retail and trade). On the Zuidas, the first circular building permit was granted in December 2017. 30% of the final judgment were based on circularity criteria.

The winner is AM, in collaboration with Team V Architects. In their project Cross over, they combined more than 250 homes with offices, work space for small businesses and a place for creative start-ups. The project doesn’t have a fixed division between homes and offices. Reuse in future demolition is facilitated by a materials passport and by building with dry connections, enabling easy dismantling. 

Crossover – photo Zwartlicht 

Need to organize learning

The detailed elaboration of the 32 criteria for circularity to be applied in tenders, covers more than 40 densely printed pages. One cannot expect from potential candidates to meet the requirements routinely. It would therefore be welcomed if the municipality of Amsterdam shared its knowledge with applicants collectively during the submission process.

I also would welcome ‘pre-competitive’ cooperation by communities with manufacturers, knowledge institutions, clients and construction partners with the aim to develop circular building. This involves for instance standardization of the dimensioning of components (windows, frames, floorboards) and the ‘rehabilitation’ of ‘demolished’ components while maintaining the highest possible value. This might be combined with a database in which developers can search for available components. 

In Zwolle, another strategy is followed: the municipality, housing corporations and construction companies have formed a Concilium[7], which aims to significantly expand the already planned construction of houses, using circular principles.

Circularity requires closing circles. Collaboration within the supply-chain is one of these.


[1]https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/rapporten/2016/09/14/bijlage-1-nederland-circulair-in-20

[2]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/circulaire-economie/27945/de-stand-in-het-land-zijn-we-al-een-beetje-circulair

[3]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-0/

[4]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[5]http://www.bullittcenter.org

[6]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[7]https://www.weblogzwolle.nl/nieuws/61325/ambitieus-plan-voor-zwolse-woningmarkt.html