Google's search for business value in circular cities

Two Steps Forward

Google's search for business value in circular cities

Today, at VERGE 17, Google and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are launching a report on Cities in the Circular Economy: The Role of Digital Technology. It’s part of an ongoing exploration both organizations have been undergoing for the past two years on how to harness the flow of energy and materials in the urban environment.

"At the heart of creativity, innovation and growth, urban environments could become hotbeds of circular economy activity, enabling closed loops of biological nutrients and the recirculation of durable materials," write Ashima Sukhdev and Julia Vol of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), co-authors with Kate Brandt and Robin Yeoman of Google.

The paper is a reflection of a burgeoning movement of "circular cities" — municipalities that have committed to a range of energy, waste, food, buildings and other initiatives that aim to keep materials flowing locally with minimal if any waste and using renewable resources, including energy. A Circular Cities Network was launched last October by EMF with 12 cities. The network includes cities you’d expect (London, New York, Vancouver) — and some you might not (Ljubljana, Slovenia; Peterborough, U.K).

As the report explains:

A circular city embeds the principles of a circular economy across all its functions, establishing an urban system that is regenerative and restorative by design. These cities aim to eliminate the concept of waste, keep assets at their highest utility at all times, and are enabled by digital technology. A circular city aims to generate prosperity and economic resilience for the city and its citizens, while decoupling this value creation from the consumption of finite resources.

"We’d been thinking quite a bit about the role of cities in the circular economy," Ashima Sukhdev, who leads EMF’s Government & Cities Programme, told me recently. "A lot of the cities that we work with were asking more and more about what role they play, what the circular city looks like and what the vision is for that."

Google, for its part, also has been thinking about the circular economy, in particular how the concept can be incorporated into its operations; its products, such as Nest thermostats; and its hardware-intensive data centers. The sprawling company, including its parent, Alphabet, sees how a number of its products and services, from Flow to Waze, can be brought to bear on the vision.

That effort has led Brandt, Google’s lead for sustainability and the lead for its partnership with EMF, to work with teams across the company, including in real estate, data centers, supply chain and consumer hardware. "It’s a cross-cutting initiative for us within the company," she told me.

The idea that information technology can play a leading role in transforming how energy, materials, vehicles and other things flow through cities isn’t exactly new. A host of technologies — the cloud, cellular communications, the internet of things, smart traffic signals and others — are already transforming how cities operate, not to mention the lives of those who live, work and play in urban areas.

Four key technologies

In their report, Google and EMF identified four technologies that will enable and accelerate circular economy activities in cities going forward:

  • Asset tagging — the ability to track the condition and availability of products, components or materials, which can help extend the use of an asset, increase its use, loop or cascade it through additional use cycles and also help regenerate natural capital.
  • Geospatial information providing visibility on the flow of materials, components, products and people across the city, facilitating such things as mobility routes, energy demand, traffic flow and waste generation.
  • Big data management — computational capability overlaying general patterns of human behavior on top of aggregated data received from asset-tracking and mapping activities, such as predicting energy consumption patterns or suggesting the most efficient transport options or routes.
  • Connectivity — ubiquitous smartphones and apps facilitating increased connection between people, and between people and products, enabling circular business models such as leasing and sharing platforms, reverse logistics, take-back systems and distributed manufacturing.

All of this, stated the report, will enable the collection and analysis of data on materials, people and external conditions, offering "the potential to identify the challenges of material flows in cities, outline the key areas of structural waste and inform more effective decision-making on how to address these challenges and provide systemic solutions."

Explained Brandt: "We thought there was some value in sharing how we’re thinking about this and some of the insights that we have through technology that we offer to users." She pointed to some technologies that Google is using and piloting in its own operations.

For example, she said, there’s Portico, an online web app designed to create healthy work environments by using building products that promote human and environmental health and transparency. The popular mapping app Waze helps reduce traffic congestion and, through its Connected Citizens Program, allows nearly 400 municipal and emergency response teams to harness real-time insights to make better-informed planning decisions. LeanPath generates data around food waste at 129 Google cafes around the world and enables, among other things, Google’s purchase of hundreds of thousands of pounds of "ugly" fruit unsellable in stores by virtue of their imperfections. Another food-related startup, Freight Farms, has enabled Google to grow its own produce inside a repurposed shipping container for its Bay Area campus using the Leafy Green Machine.

Not all of these may seem like some people’s understanding of a circular economy, which often centers around recycling and the capture and reuse of products and materials. Google, EMF and others view the notion of circularity more holistically, including the ability "to preserve, restore and regenerate natural, social and financial capital," as the report put it.

Material difference

Still, the flow of materials is at the heart of most circular thinking and is becoming a field of rapid increase.

"The reason that there’s so much interest in cities right now is they’re basically the perfect hotbed for this kind of activity," explained Sukhdev. "It offers the proximity, people and concentration of materials. So there’s really a lot that can happen at the city level and in the next few years, we definitely would like to see more of those pockets of activity and pilot projects emerge."

To facilitate part of that vision, Google, EMF and the engineering giant Arup are launching the Circularity Lab, a new, bicoastal demonstration project in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area to illustrate the opportunities and challenges circular design brings to cities and buildings. The lab will demonstrate new economic models for the valuation of real estate assets and showcase technical solutions for the building industry focusing on design for disassembly, materials innovation and digital solutions for the circular economy.

"The idea is to demonstrate what the circular economy model looks like in the setting of the built environment," explained Brandt. "So, looking at designs for disassembly, material innovation, technical and digital solutions, all of which is very relevant to the circular cities discussion."

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, for its part, is planning additional research in the coming year that will focus on "what kind of economic activity is created in cities as a result of circular economy activity," said Sukhdev. "We’re keen to see how the circular economy can enable reduced low-carbon systems and how that plays into cities’ climate action plans."

No one is underestimating the enormity of the task. "We’ve been locked into this linear take-make-dispose model since the Industrial Revolution," said Brandt. "It’s going to take us some time to move in this direction, but at Google, we’re really thinking about how materials move through the loops within the circular economy. How can we keep assets at their highest value for as long as possible? How do we design for remanufacturing and reuse?

"There’s a lot of opportunity but fully achieving a circular economy is a journey and still a long way off."