How to get urban economy going from linear to circular

Transitioning to a circular economy and utilising resources efficiently in cities is necessarily a collaborative effort. We interviewed two experts, Jaana Pelkonen and Heikki Sorasahi, to learn what they thought are the things to consider in addressing these urban challenges.
Portraits of Jaana Pelkonen and Heikki Sorasahi
Jaana Pelkonen and Heikki Sorasahi. / photo of Heikki Sorasahi: Miikka Pirinen

As part of the Erasmus+ project Urban GoodCamp, our Aalto team has studied local urban challenges in the Helsinki metropolitan region. The central part of this research was a series of expert interviews, where we discussed the most relevant urban challenges in the Helsinki metropolitan region. The expert interviews provided us with many great insights into the challenges we are currently facing. In this series of articles, we share some of those insights and ideas. 

This is the first in the series of four thematic articles providing some insight from our expert interviewees and addressing the urban challenges in the Helsinki region. 

Systemic challenges require systemic solutions

In creating a sustainable city, Helsinki aims to transition from a linear economy to a circular one. A key idea in the circular economy is keeping products and materials in circulation for as long as possible by reusing products and recycling materials to be used in new products at the end of their service life. Circular economy is also closely connected to the sharing economy, which focuses on using products efficiently instead of owning them, for example, through renting and sharing. Re-using materials reduces the need for new products. Long term goal of Helsinki is to operate in a carbon-neutral circular economy by 2050. 

Jaana Pelkonen, a Leading Specialist at Smart & Clean Foundation, notes that cities have good and ambitious goals and roadmaps towards a circular economy and carbon neutrality. She finds, however, that the main challenge is that cities have not gathered capacities to grab climate solutions on a systemic level. 

‘There is too much focus on single solutions. The climate challenges are systemic by nature: if you want to solve the energy problem, you must change the whole energy system,’ says Pelkonen. 

Circularity is seeing value differently

At the core of a circular economy is an efficient use of resources we already have at our disposal. Construction is one of the fields, where actions can be taken to increase resource efficiency. Finnish Ministry of the Environment senior specialist Heikki Sorasahi mentions, for example, that securing space for deposits of overflow construction material and landmasses would be needed for effective reuse of construction materials. ‘Adding circularity requirements for procurement processes is another important tool for tackling sustainability challenges,’ he says. 

In the construction sector, efforts are made to adopt increasingly sustainable practices. The goal of the city of Helsinki is to implement a carbon-neutral circular economy in land use and construction by 2035. Actions towards this goal are, for example, adding circular economy requirements to the planning and implementation of service buildings and housing and compiling comparable data on the lifecycle costs of construction projects.

While these efforts are promising, the adaptation of circularity has been incremental and insulated. Pelkonen points out that there is not enough understanding of the whole circle of material and value when creating circular-economy solutions. 

‘Lack of good quality data and knowledge is hindering the circularity from emerging. This creates points of disconnection and discontinuity in the circle and optimises only parts in the circle,’ she says. 

The climate challenges are systemic by nature: if you want to solve the energy problem, you must change the whole energy system.

Jaana Pelkonen

Collaboration takes patience and coordination

Managing and bringing forth solutions to systemic challenges necessarily requires interdisciplinary collaboration. Pelkonen, who has extensive experience in managing collaborative networks, knows first-hand the challenges of nurturing systemic change. She states that because of the lack of immediate and tangible value created in the collaboration, there are lots of difficulties between public and private sector partners. Organisational logics might differ greatly, so patient nurturing of trust between partners is needed for the collaboration to achieve its goals. 

Adopting circular economy practices widely requires not just internal communication within the networks, but also well-managed outreach. Sorasahi highlights the importance of public participation. 'Extensive involvement of citizens in addressing urban challenges is important and developers should especially pay attention to opinion-leaders on topics that are being addressed,' he thinks. 

Pelkonen thinks that higher education institutions have an important role in unlocking fruitful collaboration through their capacity for knowledge creation.

'Without good knowledge and data, good initiatives and solutions are not possible. Good collaboration between higher education institutions and industry partners is needed to ensure the knowledge created is useful in practice,' Pelkonen says.

Collaborative networks can be great ways of addressing urban challenges such as adaptation of circular economy and efficient use of resources. These collaborative networks need to be created and managed correctly to yield the best results. 

'During the first phase of a collaboration to address urban challenges, it must first be defined what exactly is the challenge to be solved. Next, clarity is needed on what the solution could be and what impacts it would have. Only at this point is it sensible to start building the ecosystem of relevant stakeholders. Too often it’s the other way round, with stakeholders first coming together and only then thinking about what they could be doing. There needs to be specific ecosystems for specific challenges and ecosystems need someone to coordinate them,' Pelkonen finishes.

Jaana Pelkonen is a Leading Specialist at Smart & Clean Foundation, a five-year ‘step change’ project with 29 public-private partners from the Helsinki Metropolitan cities, leading businesses, universities, research institutions, and state actors. The project ran from 1st July 2016 to 30th June 2021.

Heikki Sorasahi is a Senior Specialist of circular economy at the Finnish Ministry of the Environment. 

The Erasmus+ project Urban GoodCamp aims to empower Higher Education Institutions and their urban stakeholders to tackle pressing urban challenges. The project’s primary mission is to develop and implement multidisciplinary learning interventions for university students, researchers, and life-long learners and establish real-life solutions to pressing urban challenges. Learn more about Urban GoodCamp from the project webpage and from our previous article

The Urban GoodCamp partners: Madri+d, Bespoke, Institut Mines-Télécom Business School, The University Industry Innovation Network, Aalto University, Institute for Innovation and Development of University of Ljubljana, Advancis, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, and Ca’ Foscari University.

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