© Martin Reisch from Unsplash

Circular Futures by architect Joni Baboci

December 28 2021

The vision for a circular future is still a patchwork of ideas, concepts and prototypes. It revolves around a complex combination of learning, production, governance and open source collaboration. Various architects, writers and thinkers have expanded on the general lookout of the next millennium. Bjarke Ingels coined the term hedonistic sustainability in describing a world freed from material constraints and environmental concerns.

Bjarke Ingels

"Is sustainability a question of “how much of our existing quality of life are we prepared to sacrifice in order to afford being sustainable”. Almost like this sort ofProtestant idea that it has to hurt to do good. But sustainability can’t be like some kind of a moral sacrifice or political dilemma, or even a philanthropic cause. It has to be a design challenge. Is there a less depressing sustainability? One in which sustainable infrastructure and buildings increase life quality."

Other thinkers believe that not only our unsustainable practices need to stop - we need to roll back by engaging in active degrowth to become sustainable. Giorgios Kallis describes small everyday changes to produce and consume differently - by bringing back local collaboration, interrelation and interdependence. Kallis discusses how in order to lower our impact on the environment we need to change the story we tell about ourselves. Constant and exponential growth scenarios should not be automatically considered beneficial neither to individuals nor to the planet.

In popular culture it’s the most dramatic scenarios that typically achieve stickiness. Scenarios in which the rawness of human nature is revealed by environments of extreme scarcity. Waterworld or Mad Max, for example, portray tribalism, violence and constant ongoing resource wars; taking the form of a vicious forced resolution to our unsustainable practices.

© Alamy

As previously described in the research on the Urban Circular Economy - the exponential growth curves of the past century point to a coming collapse or a potential paradigm shift. Science fiction authors have speculated on the possible futures that we might encounter centuries down the line. The Three Californias trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson for example envisions three completely different futures: one born of collapse and nuclear holocaust (The Wild Short), one born of an extreme extension of modernism and isolation (The Gold Coast) and ultimately an utopia-like eco-focused future (Pacific Edge).

Circularity and Ideology

The transition to a sustainable future however - in practical terms - entails an ideological and deeply political discussion. It is entrenched in matters of ownership, capital accumulation and social fairness. In various forms Malthus, Ricardo, Marx and Smith have analyzed and provided the theoretical background to our economic conditions and ancient inequalities. Piketty in “Capital in the 21st Century” also covers the work of more modern economists like Kuznets or Solow who have provided an optimistic outlook of growth as “a rising tide that lifts all the boats”.

Structural wealth accumulation and inequality scenarios are somewhat similar to the popular culture collapse scenarios described above. On one hand there is a Star-Trek like future where all inequalities are erased and everyone can have whatever one’s heart desires. An utopia with no unfulfilled wants. The end of scarcity. The economy of most science fiction is waved away with a magic wand often termed a replicator. A 3D bioprinter that can print products, food, living cells, organs and even whole animals. On the other extreme there’s the Elysium-like universe, where the rich enjoy abundance, while the poor are left to fend for themselves on an ailing planet. As for most things, the truth is typically always somewhere in the middle. Pragmatically however, the world will end up being circular no matter what we do. In most imagined dystopias circularity is the primary means of survival. In most utopias it is the modus operandi. There are few imagined dystopias with resource abundance, and almost no utopias with piles of burning trash.

Effects of Investment in Education Sustainability in Quintuple Helix
Effects of Investment in Education Sustainability in Quintuple Helix

Generating Synergy

In the 1990s Etzkowitz and Leydersdorff proposed the Triple Helix model of development and growth. The model provided one of the first formal frameworks to approach a world which was only increasing in complexity. The Triple Helix refers to the interactions between universities, industries and government and the set of bilateral relations between research, business and regulation that can accelerate growth. As the world grew more interconnected and complex, so did the number of helices. A decade ago Carayannis and Campbell added a fourth and then a fifth helix to the model. The fourth helix represented the public, while the fifth helix the environment. This complex way of managing and looking at the world’s problems attempts to negotiate solutions with multiple actors and diverging incentives.

In this sense academia should be a key factor in changing the framework of the world’s economy. Knowledge transfer and innovation needs to be coupled with a strong skills development program. The incentives of work, labor and the actual value of production and industry need to be realigned. Producing something in the status quo is a strict exercise in balancing cost minimization with quality control. It is often the case that most manufacturing can only reduce labor costs and therefore the incentives to valorize labor are virtually non-existent. Ultimately universities can serve as a catalyst to advancing the discussion of circularity, but also as formal agents of change by piloting future models without the concern of costs hindering innovation and experimentation. These fully-circular university-based cells could start by connecting and collaborating with one another, gradually establishing a set of rules and conditions upon which a grander circular system could emerge.

Advanced Manufacturing

In order to imagine the future of the circular economy it is crucial to start thinking about the future of manufacturing and production. The fourth industrial revolution is a framework for the future of human growth and development. Klaus Schwab, the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum describes it as a platform that “will enable firms to extend the use-cycle of assets and resources, increase their utilization and create cascades that recover and repurpose materials and energy for further uses, lowering emissions and resource loads in the process. In Schwab’s words the future of industry means that the tables will be turned and most importantly the incentives will be aligned towards sustainability. He describes how carbon dioxide might transform from a harmful and reviled greenhouse gas to an economic asset, how carbon capture and storage can morph from an added sustainability cost, to a profitable and useful enterprise. Echoing ideas from hedonistic sustainability, his book argues that such a revolution is already underway. He claims the world is already changing at an exponential speed, with innovation accelerating because of the confluence of wide ranging and interconnected technologies. Ultimately such a change implies a systemic impact in how it will transform not just individual companies but society as a whole.

The future of manufacturing is highly unpredictable and will probably not look like anything we imagine today. The current technological acceleration means that individual inventions in any field might have outsized impacts in widely different fields: an artificial intelligence algorithm can impact biomedicine, advancement in robotics can speed up autonomous vehicles, innovation in nanomaterials or materials science can have revolutionary ramifications in 3D printing.

Klaus Schwab

"Gene sequencing, for example, could not happen without progress in computing power and data analytics. Similarly, advanced robots would not exist without artificial intelligence, which itself, largely depends on computing power. In agriculture, the use of drones – combined with data analytics – will enable more precise and eficient use of fertilizer and water, for example."

In terms of the state of play in the future of manufacturing, research10 suggests it is concentrated around seven important themes:

– Nanoengineering of materials and surfaces

– Additive and precision manufacturing

– Robotics and adaptive automation

– Design and management of supply chains

– Green sustainable manufacturing

– Next-generation electronics

– Continuous manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and biomanufacturing

This complex network of high-tech relations enhances the importance of synergy in the future of manufacturing and producing. The supply chain of materials could also be drastically changed by local value loops supplanting global value chains. The 2020 pandemic evidentiated the single points of failure in our economies. Additive manufacturing and open source or royalty-based 3d designs could fuel a local circular economy facilitated by a global network of knowledge. Databases of digital designs could be seamlessly downloaded or transacted and then produced through additive manufacturing by using local materials. This methodology of production could have positive social changes by combining trust in local manufacturers with global excellence in design. Furthermore it would allow for extra value added through customization, delivery speed, and repair. In terms of sustainability, local production capitalizes on the global need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change; it allows for the benefits of interconnectedness without the useless pollution generated by global goods transportation.

The next step of innovation in materials science is adding self-healing and self-repair features to familiar materials. These novel products might respond to environmental, temperature, or humidity changes in their surroundings and provide contextual cues to existing products. Self-healing concrete is one of the most well-known examples of autonomous materials. More than a dozen experimental approaches already exist for concrete: some use living organisms as organic symbionts to the concrete, with bacteria springing into action when cracks are detected; other models use more familiar adhesive-liquids, while more innovative methods integrate carbon nanotubes to the most used material in construction11. All of these approaches allow concrete structures to last longer and to automatically fix hidden defects which often have terrible consequences to human lives. This organic approach to static materials also reflects the changes that need to happen at the governance scale. As mentioned throughout these essays, top-down hierarchical organizations are like static old concrete.

Self-healing and self-repairing organizations can happen by ensuring diversity and networked, but independent teams. Another interesting innovation is materials that are able to preserve, change or revert back to their original shapes. These adaptable materials are one step behind the “smart dust” often mentioned in science fiction: a cloud of material particles that can serve as sensors but potentially also change according to the needs of its users12.

These lighter and stronger materials are still at the forefront of science but will start having wide-ranging impacts in our everyday:

Klaus Schwab

"Take advanced nanomaterials such as graphene, which is about 200-times stronger than steel, a million-times thinner than a human hair, and an eficient conductor of heat and electricity. When graphene becomes price competitive (gram for gram, it is one of the most expensive materials on earth, with a micrometer-sized flake costing more than $1,000), it could significantly disrupt the manufacturing and infrastructure industries."

Graphene, Illustration by Krista Shapton

Construction and Buildings

Cities are in fact the original platform that leverages the power of crowds. With the growth of cities in the past century however, urban governance has gradually moved away from the community. Furthermore some cities are now more similar to other cities on the other side of the world, than to most of their national neighbors. What Saskia Sassen calls the financialization of the urban fabric has moved beyond real estate. Consider the logistics of labor as a commodity: 25% of the population of Saudi Arabia is composed by more than thirteen million foreign workers. The Line, the latest effort to disrupt cities by drawing them differently, will probably be built by foreign workers whose families live in slums. Such extremes cannot co-exist for long and they are antithetical to the sustainable aspirations that are bubbling all around the world.

The Line © Neom

Traditional models of housing construction seem more appropriate to our current conditions and can probably contribute to averting the climate crisis. Building societies - similar to mutuals - are financial institutions that are owned by individuals and run in the interest of their members rather than third party investors or shareholders. Individuals pool their resources in providing mortgages and in doing so eliminate the possibility of speculation. I believe that if the interests that drive the financialization of the urban realm can be curtailed, power devolution to the community level is not all that difficult. The future of the urban fabric needs to be fragmented and mutually owned.

Furthermore, issues of construction, building and housing are also a matter of adaptability and change. Architects around the world echo back to adaptability, with spaces and interiors becoming ephemeral areas of social interaction which change at the whim of its users. It is foreseeable that this trend will continue with compatible land uses shifting and combining to increase the efficiency of use and lower the cost of maintenance and amortization. This reprogrammability of buildings encounters an aesthetic barrier however. Pervasive Scandinavian modernist interiors are not the rage they were in the 2000s. Buildings - just like cities - are incremental. They gain complexity through a slow and iterative process of accretion. Charles Lindblom first delved on the topic of incrementalism in his seminal 1959 paper on public administration “The Science of “Muddling Through”. In his future work Lindblom termed the process of incremental changes driving systems disjointed incrementalism. These are small iterative changes that slowly improve the process in the long term. Lindblom argued that such changes are more appropriate to the way we typically work: we muddle through, we deal with what’s more important first and review our priorities daily, depending on a context of perpetual shifting conditions. Urban accretion generates character. The slow collection of dust and defects makes places feel original. New buildings lack grit - they need time to settle in our psyches, time to accumulate wrinkles in their skin. We can’t stand cracks on our phone screens but subconsciously yearn for cracks in our public realm. This unnatural combination between technology and grit will probably define the cities of the future.

Successful cities are able to digest and metabolize incremental change. Really successful cities are even able to welcome change and constantly absorb it.

Christopher Alexander describes how the urban patterns of his pattern language emerge organically and gradually of their own accord: “every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there.” This emergent and resilient approach to change is also evident in our attempts to make architecture waterproof. It is typically extremely difficult, costly and a high-maintenance endeavor to keep a house 100% waterproof. More intelligent techniques employ materials that can easily absorb and release moisture with little long-term consequences.

An interesting case study in citymaking that totally reimagines urban life and our connection with the environment and food production is Denmark’s kolonihave. Urban gardening is popular around central Europe with some countries - most notably Germany and Austria - offering small gardening and vegetable plots to its urban citizenry. These small plots typically include a shed, which allows individuals to tend to a small garden and make some of the produce they consume. Kolonihaves take this concept a step further. They allow Danish citizens to own a small allotment of land cum summer house often close to the urban centers. Copenhagen’s “concrete fingers'' plan, provides green space in between linear urban developments that stem from the centers. The space is often used as a kolonihave - with urbanites cultivating a relationship with agriculture and nature while at the same time preserving the comforts and optionality of urban living.

© Copenhagen's Kolonihave

Sidewalk Labs Toronto Waterfront concept Source Sidewalk Labs
Sidewalk Labs Toronto Waterfront concept Source Sidewalk Labs


Advanced technology and sensors in novel vehicles is preventing accidents and improving outcomes for individuals involved in crashes. Autonomous driving is now within reach, with Tesla being the first car company to offer an autopilot option on some of its newer vehicles. This raises a number of issues: from ethical concerns on potential accidents damages, to a still unclear legal framework governing the future of driving. Furthermore the subscription model Tesla is following raises some nagging questions: while the hardware one has purchased and owns indefinitely is autopilot-enabled, a 200$ per month software subscription service is required to authorize autonomous functions. You can own the hardware, but manufacturers can still brick your device with over the air updates. Another concern to the future of mobility is the risk of hacking, with the term “my car got hacked” not being something extraordinary anymore20. Improved health outcomes and increased pedestrian safety however are some great results of the innovation in automobile tech. Greener, more dense cities also are bound to increase the adoption of public transport - car ownership is in decline with millennials favoring cloud-car companies and car-sharing services to the fixed costs of owning your own vehicle. The adoption of car sharing and digital routing has also increased the efficiency and usability of roadspace. Google maps provides free traffic routing virtually around the world - a service that only until a few years ago had a high price and low reliability.

Unused capacity in existing vehicles has already been leveraged by car-pooling in ride-sharing apps.

Sidewalk labs experimented with smart infrastructure in its unrealized attempt to reimagine the urbanscape of Toronto’s waterfront. The planned “from the internet up” neighborhood had high sustainable ambitions including a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 89%, a novel pneumatic trash collection system, walking and biking as the primary means of moving around and “an extensive network of sensors that would have continuously collected urban data to help guide resource-eficient housing and trafic decision-making.” Good ideas are rarely enough however and complex systems like cities can not be "designed", they need to grow in an iterative collaboration between designers and communities.


This research is made possible by the generous contribution of our Partner ENI

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