August 12, 2020

Challenge Accepted: Scoring Circular Economy Opportunities for Every City in the World

Marijana Novak
Marijana Novak
Data Strategist
Marijana Novak

Many advisory frameworks and examples of circular projects exist– but the challenge for urban changemakers working towards a circular economy is how to prioritise these opportunities towards a strategy and action plan that is useful to their own work, in their own city, within their own sphere of influence. 

In other words– how do you prioritise which opportunities to select, in a way that is meaningful and relevant to a specific context?

This was the question we at Circle Economy tasked ourselves with answering for not just one, but every city in the world. A question that arose from our research across a range of cities with consultants, project developers and policymakers who were interested in complementing their local work on circularity with digital tools that offer guidance, frameworks and evidence– and who were interested in the possibility to connect with a global knowledge community supporting the transition to circular cities. 

To this end, we created the Circle City Scan Tool, launched in March 2020. The tool allows users to uncover relevant circular opportunities for their city. As they narrow down the focus of their search by city, sector, materials and impacts, the tool presents them with relevant opportunities, scored on relevance against their search criteria. 

But what’s in a relevance score? 

We invite you to explore our logic in this article.

The circular opportunity radar


Such a vast modelling exercise was a daunting but exciting challenge: how do you boil down the relevance of a particular–often quite abstract–opportunity, across thousands of different contexts, to a single score?

Fortunately, our team was not setting out empty-handed. At Circle Economy, we’ve been working closely with over 15 cities over the last seven years. We have experience studying and compiling different city typologies, developing and using circular economy frameworks and using different data modelling techniques. Our organisation has also developed a comprehensive overview of ‘strategies’ for a circular economy, which we call the 7 Key Elements Framework. This is an ever-growing hierarchy of industry-agnostic strategies – 80 currently – which, when scored, appear in the tool as ‘opportunities’.

As a user navigates through the Circle City Scan Tool, they are prompted to select their ‘focus’: which city they are considering, which sector, which materials or material groups and which impact goals (think saving water or reducing emissions).

With these variables selected, the opportunity radar is able to display an ordered set of opportunities clustered thematically. The ordered set changes for every unique user selection, of which there are thousands. 

How are opportunities scored?

Our prioritisation method examines each opportunity through an expert and an algorithmic lens and creates a relevance score using a combination of the two.

Let’s take the ‘open loop upcycling’ opportunity for example.

Experts assess how relevant ”open loop upcycling” is to different sectors, materials, and impacts by assigning relevance scores to the opportunity across these three dimensions. The final expert score is the average of all expert assessments as to how relevant an opportunity is to a given sector, material or impact.

An algorithm then evaluates related case studies, organisations and research on the Knowledge Hub around ‘open loop upcycling’ in order to score the relevance of the opportunity against these same dimensions. 

We combine the expert assessment and algorithmic values into one score.

Opportunity-to-sector, -material, and -impact relevance scores

To what extent is an opportunity relevant to a certain sector or material?  

Consider ‘open loop upcycling’ again, which deals with the flow of materials across sectors. This opportunity is directly relevant to manufacturers and waste collectors who deal with volumes of secondary materials that can be upcycled. This makes cities strong in these sectors well positioned to delve into this opportunity. This opportunity is also related to a resilient logistics sector who can support reverse logistics, space for warehousing, progressive legislation, and can potentially even be linked to an IT sector that can implement a digital platform for trading these materials. We created a heat map of which sectors are most closely related to opportunities and are continuously working on improving it. 

Materials follow the same logic: we score the relevance of each material for each circular strategy. For example, how relevant  is ‘open loop upcycling’ to metals? What about biomass? Similarly for impacts, we measure the propensity of an opportunity to bring about a certain impact directly. How likely is ‘open loop upcycling’ to save water? What about increasing the quality of jobs? 

Our framework simplifies the relationship between sectors, materials and impacts with opportunities and in doing so creates a powerful, intuitive method to help users distinguish and rank opportunities for their context.


Opportunity-to-city relevance scores

In determining the relationship of opportunity to city, consider the following: cities have regulatory targets to meet, as well as ongoing distributed research and innovation. In the future, a combination of these targets as well as the representation of these cities in the literature and across alternative datasets profiling the city would allow us to assess the extent to which certain strategies “tie into” the type of city they want to become. 

For example, if a city is focusing on becoming a smart city both in terms of targets, and in terms of articles, research, and businesses supporting this in the city, then opportunities related to digital technologies in the circular economy might be a more appropriate starting point to drive circularity. In contrast, energy efficient cities with both official targets and research concerning electrification and the provision of renewable energy, will be more likely to explore circularity through the lens of regenerative energy. 

It is not possible for our experts to rate the relevance of every opportunity to every city in the world. Indeed, that is exactly the challenge that the algorithm is trying to support!

Sibling Cities: Developing a comparability index for cities 

In our algorithm, we needed to make sure that opportunities are presented consistently across similar cities. We wanted to be able to say that if an opportunity works or doesn’t work in a certain context, then that is an indicator for whether it will work in your city– dependent on the similarity between that context and yours. 

Cities are used to friendly comparison and competition across regions and borders and urbanists usually have sets of favourites that are used for comparison. For example, Amsterdam and Copenhagen compete on better biking infrastructure, higher quality of life, drearier weather; and New York and London are a common pair when contrasting culture and real estate prices. 

We look behind the scenes and weave these kinds of references across cities into our algorithm. Urbanists would argue that opportunities in Amsterdam must at least be considered in Copenhagen. For the reasons above, yes, but also for reasons concerning economic activity, populations, and climate profile.

The city comparability index we created is based on indicators about cities–such as GVA, population and distance apart–and relates each city to its ‘siblings’ around the world.

Qualifying such relationships is important for a comprehensive yet unbiased algorithm, not to recommend what’s expected, but to reduce the propensity for bias. We aim to ensure that our comparability index will offer cities a diverse and inclusive set of strategies from cities around the world. Perhaps Paris’s sibling city is not New York, but Buenos Aires. Perhaps Cape Town would do well to learn from Bonn, not Amsterdam.

This is v1. Now what?

Our opportunity radar is only as complete as the data underpinning it. We are currently working with knowledge partners such as the Circular Economy Club, the EU Circle Economy Stakeholder Platform and One Planet Network to build the community that will foster the knowledge about circular economies and cities around the world. 

Our aim is to house city-specific frameworks that accurately reflect relevant opportunities in the city– frameworks that are overseen by local experts and practitioners and that are interesting to diverse city stakeholders who are keen to take action towards a just circular economy.  

We are also working to build out the indicator framework we use for the city comparability index, drawing from ISO 37120 and EU guidance on indicators for a circular economy transition in cities and more for all 4000+ cities represented in our Circle City Scan Tool and are looking to collaborate with urbanists and experts doing the same across regions. 

We are looking for local consultants and circularity experts to work with us on improving our scoring system. We are looking to validate the scoring of opportunities in cities and we are looking for local knowledge partners and circular solution providers to help define how opportunities can be practically implemented in different contexts.

Sign up for updates on Circle Economy’s digital tools here.

The opportunity radar would not be possible without the work of Mathijs Nelemans from Geofinite, who designed and built the supporting data infrastructure and CMS for the tool.

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