Cities–home to half the world’s population–are already ahead of national governments in meeting goals to cut carbon emissions. Many are now also beginning to think about one of the next steps in sustainability: building a “circular economy,” one that is restorative and regenerative by design.
Google is trying to help lead that push. For the last two years, the tech company has been working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organization focused on building the circular economy, to figure out how it can embed circularity into its own organization–and how digital technology can help others, particularly cities, make the transition to a circular economy.
“I think for us, because the circular economy framework is a systems approach, it fits very well with how we think at Google,” says Kate Brandt, lead for sustainability at Google. “We’re very much systems thinkers.”
Today, products follow a typical path: Companies dig up materials and fossil fuels to make a product, ship it (often thousands of miles) to a consumer, who ultimately throws it out. In a circular economy, by contrast, products would stay in use as long as possible, and their components would be reused and recycled instead of heading to a landfill.
Internally, Google has been applying circular principles in its own operations. Servers, for example, are maintained to keep them in use as long as possible; when a server needs new parts, those are now sourced from old servers. If a server is taken out of service, it’s remanufactured with updated technology to be used again, rather than replaced. When the equipment becomes too outdated, the hard drives are wiped so it can be sold on the secondary market. Whatever can’t be reused is recycled.
In a white paper, Google and Ellen MacArthur Foundation lay out how the concept can be applied more broadly than just in products. Cities can plan buildings that minimize material use, in part through shared, flexible spaces. Shared transportation can also be prioritized, and as car use declines, space dedicated to roads can be converted to other uses. Instead of sending food waste to landfill, cities can use compost to grow more local food. Everything can run on renewable energy.
All of this can be aided by digital tech, and Google is pushing to help develop those tools and identify how its existing technology could be used to advance a circular agenda. Project Sunroof, for example, which lets homeowners and cities identify roofs that could use solar panels, can enable the spread of local, renewable energy, but can also help cities make better use of resources.
“One of the key elements of the circular economy is how can we better utilize assets,” says Ashima Sukhdev, government and cities program lead for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “It’s not just about products and materials, but also about rooftops and space. There’s a lot of inherently underutilized space in our cities.”
Another tool, called Portico, tracks the health of materials used in buildings. Google has used it internally in about 200 of its own buildings. “If you envision this world in which you’re endlessly cycling materials back into the system, it’s really critical that you know what’s in them, and that you know there’s nothing harmful,” says Brandt. Digital tools can also be used to create online marketplaces for reused building materials.
The paper also outlines other ways that technology is being used to “de-materialize” cities; apps like Lyft and Uber, for example, make it less likely that people will choose to own their own cars. LeanPath, a technology that companies like Google and Ikea are using to reduce food waste, measures food to help restaurants better plan menus.
“There’s a role that tech companies can play in this transformation, and cities are excited about it as well,” says Sukhdev. She explains that while cities are often already working on a variety of sustainability initiatives, the “circular city” framework can help them think about the whole system in a more integrated way.
“It’s not just how can I make my mobility system more efficient, but it’s how does the mobility system interact with the built environment, and interact with the food system in the city,” she says. “How can we improve all of them at the same time?”
As a next step, Google plans to make some of the opportunities for technology use in cities more tangible: two “circularity labs” In New York and the Bay Area, created in collaboration with the engineering and design firm Arup, will construct prototype buildings that illustrate how designers can choose better materials, design for disassembly, and make better use of energy.