How to rework the productive city? The project Urban Circular Economy was presented and debated upon with peers during Isocarp 2o15 Antwerp.


With the theme ‘How to rework the productive city’ Isocarp Antwerp invites workshop participants to explore ways to reassure the productive role of cities. Even in a post-industrial economy, production must regain its place in the city.


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In 1968 the Club of Rome warned about it already, but now it is becoming truly tangible: there is a limit to the growth and raw materials are becoming scarcer. The scarcity of raw materials forces emphasize that our current linear economic system is under pressure and that also consumers will have to take more informed choices. This is not a threat; on the contrary, by questioning the system itself, space for a system change is created.

One such system change is the emergence of circular economy. Companies are seeking to keep their raw materials in balance by optimizing material flows, water, energy, waste heat, ... Today this optimisation of different flows is mainly used by and happening between large companies because they are benefited by their large concentrated masses. Thereby, the circular economy is still a long way off the daily life of the average consumer.

However, recently some circular entrepreneurs have been focusing on the profit that can be acquired from the consumers. They aim to share and lease rather than buy products or valorise the hidden value of household waste. In addition, these enterprises are especially interesting for the impact they have on their customers. Whereas the industrialization made consumers of their customers with waste as a by-product, the Urban Circular Economy has the potential to turn customers into circular consumers, prosumers (combining consumer and producer) or users with more social contact as a by-product.

Due to this system change, the design team formulated the following central question of the research: what would the city look like when the Urban Circular Economy is mainstream, starting from the current circular users and entrepreneurs in the city? However, before the design team can define the spatial impact, is it necessary to specify the economic and social structures of a user driven society.

To do so, the design team interviewed current Urban Circular Entrepreneurs and got feedback from many early adaptors. From this, the design team was able to come up with three scenarios, illustrating what would happen if the current niche markets in the Urban Circular Economy would become mainstream.


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The three scenarios are all an extreme effect of a specific relationship between customer and producer. Each of the scenarios starts from a shortage of materials and the average family budget. However, each scenario leads to a different ratio of urban dwellers compared to the products a person uses or consumes on a daily, weekly or yearly basis.

In the scenario ‘Business almost as Usual’ the customer is a circular consumer and owner of the products he/she buys and afterwards disposes. The sustainability of the supply chain (and goods) depends on the producer (Unilever, Colruyt). This scenario is closely linked to the strengthening of a circular economy between companies. In the scenario ‘Sustainability as Pocket Money’, the prosumer will still buy the product, but as the owner of the product he/she will rent out its temporary use (Airbnb) or lend it. (Peerby). When the product is at end of its lifetime the owner shall return it (Marktplaats) or sell the materials (Afval Loont). As more products are in circulation and being reused, the user will play an active role in the sustainability of the product and the supply chain. These two scenarios focus as much as possible on resolving the waste problem afterwards. The third scenario ‘Sustainability as Lifestyle’ goes a step beyond in trying to avoid waste at the source. Here, the user no longer buys the product but will, through for instance the establishment of cooperatives; regulate the use of the product from a supplier (Greenwheels, Cambio). Besides cooperatives, other forms of cooperation are possible. Again products circulate longer and at the end of their livetimes the materials are still reused as a result of which the user also plays an active role in increasing the sustainability of the product and thus chain.

In the scenarios ‘Business almost as Usual’, production will be located outside of the city, as it is still focused on mass production. In the scenarios ‘Sustainability as Pocket Money’ and ‘Sustainability as Lifestyle’, the citizen becomes a stronger player in the circular economy and as a result (part of) production of goods can be located in the city.