Circular design is a concept that is becoming globally relevant, this is because our current system has brought our planet to the brink of an environmental, social, political and economic collapse. In several regions of the world, the sustainable production system is being emphasized, so that resources that are not necessary can be reused or reintegrated into the natural ecosystems they were took from. The main purpose of the circular economy is to redesign everything: products, businesses, models, cities and linear systems that have lasted until the last centuries. A great supporter to this idea is technology, for example, it could allow the creation of an intelligent city, where everything can be measured through data, looking for a state of self-efficiency.

The following thoughts respond to a critic based on what is stated in the “Responsive Cities Disrupting through circular design symposium”.

The next period in urban designing should be circular

The future of the cities faces the challenge of having half of the population living inside the urban areas, and it is expected that this number will increase to the 70% of the population by 2050. As a result, these urban areas are receiving a lot of pressure to fulfill the need of its inhabitants.

The linear system of production, consumption and waste is taking our society to the verge of collapse. New trends, such as the circular economy, are looking for a total change in the use of these systems. The circular economy basically is trying to revitalize products with no longer life. It means to give a new use to objects or things whose cycle has already finished. Thus, it will be less waste and the products can add new value to our ecosystem, just imagine what would happen if everything is been designed with the idea of restoration and regeneration. (Circular Design, 2018)

The design and planning are key factors to generate the circular system.  The traditional focuses in designing are characterized for only considering the user’s need in order to satisfied them. In cities, projects are done also to satisfy immediate needs from inhabitants. They do not take into account the development in time; it means that there’s no long-time planning with a look into the future. If a circular economy is to be adopted, it is necessary to look even further. It is important to consider not only the user’s need, but the system where the design is going to be done. Having said this, the impact of the designs has to be understood globally and it is also necessary to make feedback loops to help identifying non wished consequences of our decisions. This is a wishful thinking, because in reality plans are still limited by the linear model. Nevertheless, it is a recommendation to start rethinking projects under the ideas of the circular economy.

Image 1: Circular Design


Source: Circular Design, Ellen Macarthur foundation, 2018

The process of circular economy design has four stages and it is based on perspectives such as the thought of designing and the human center design:

  • To understand: to know the user and the system.
  • To define: To establish the challenge of the design and intention as a designer
  • To do: to think up, design and create as many prototypes and interactions as possible.
  • To launch: start your design in the nature and make up a narrative. Create loyalty with the customers and tell a convincing story going deep about the investment of third parties.

The increasing number of urbanizations is putting pressure on cities to respond to the need of having more housings, energy, food and water, and an efficient transportation system. In the early 20th century, urban areas have developed their economy, in particular metropolis, which can be recognized by their iconic architecture. The idea of sustainable development has been getting stronger thanks to the technology era and scientists has been also collecting data about the user´s needs, thus, the cities become smarter and smarter.

Image 2: Linear vs circular

Source: Fab City Prototypes, 2018

A methodology without a concept is like having an objective without planning. From the Responsive Cities, many theories and models have made a call to be more concerned about the environment. Starting from rethinking the way we make things, consume resources, and the way we design or invent cities, has made designers to take the nature itself as an example to be more sustainable. The speakers in the forum presented theories about “the Circular design”, and during the round-table discussion, speakers tried to link the different knowledge from various backgrounds. When ideas are discussed with more people the experiences and protocols get stronger basis.

When we talk about the different applications or approaches there are many ways to go. One of them is the scale, from the earth to the molecule. This was clearly seen through the symposium structure (Cities-Buildings-Matter)

Nevertheless, the wide range of utilization and complexity of the different systems can allow us to address this project into different ways. To do so and get a better understanding of them, we have created groups based on a different classification. From the government to the user. From the system to the application. Within the limits of these and within the potential collaboration of the projects and agents of the system is where stands the possibility to develop the proper urban approach that allows us to be circular, an approach that moves the citizen from the center of attention to the center of action. (Gerard Roemers & Nadine Galle, Towards the Circular City: Designing and Planning Urban Ecosystems, DIF, 2017, Metabolic HQ).

On top of which, we wonder:

  • Where does stand every agent into the methodology/process? Which of those applications are clearly defined into the regular methodology (design/build/adapt/perform/share/learn) and which ones are more blurred into the system?
  • Which ones can be related between each other and foster possibilities to new professional developments?

Government. Why is government important or how can the Government help to achieve the development agendas in a city? It’s important to understand this Government needs to be an Open Government, implying a new way of governance, transparent and access to public information. Involving citizens in the cycle of public policy development and implementation, and promoting joint work between citizens, administrations and the private sector. (Building open, transparent, responsive and inclusive cities). Governance it’s crucial, as it can increase citizen’s participation in city decisions, improve access to data, generate business opportunities or even serve as a platform for city to city collaborations. We could see this with the first speaker Anna Majo Crespo, representing the Barcelona City Council.

Smart city technologies. Awareness of the metabolism of the cities. Digital innovation. How do we use the collection of data to make from our Smart city a responsive one? How can the IT technology help to understand better the city? Being responsive is about being data-rich but more than that is to be able to understand that data and respond to city-wide challenges more intelligently and inclusively. As in the project “Urban Metabolism” – Rotterdam by Eric Frijters, where the project does not stand just to collect data and understand the situation but to goes further proposing strategies.

Circular Economy. Creation of new business models. How can we shift from a linear to a circular economy and transform the actual business models making them sustainable? According to Accenture, the new business models which will drive economy are mainly: Circular Materials, using renewable energy and fully recyclable or biodegradable materials to replace disposable materials, like Daniel Ibañez and his Wood Urbanism project.

  • Recovery of resources, transforming discarded products into sub-products, like Silvia Pericu.
  • With the reuse of food waste to create new products or the project of Olga Beatrice Carcassi, which was promoting the use of organic waste as building insulation material.
  • Life cycle of products- life cycle based on eco-design.
  • Exchange platforms, extend the use of a given product by sharing access, use or ownership.
  • Product as service, offering access to a product while maintaining ownership.

This can be seen as well in a more specific manner in a Real Estate field as Devni Acharyia was proposing with new real estate models or in a construction business side with the concept of the Material Passport, allowing disassembling design like Kasper Guildager Jensen explained in his presentation.

Image 3: Global material flows

Source: Prototyping. Interfacing. Platforms. Connection with the public. Urban living lab

Institutes. Strategic thinking. Through the symposium we were able to see some institutions or practices that are specifically focused on the topic of responsive cities and most of the times act as “linkers” between other professionals. The presentation of Un Habitat by Javier Torner is an example of that. Platforms like The Urban Planning and Design Lab translates Un-habitat’s principles for sustainable urban development into practice and provides the platform for integration around planning activities. Like this, some other professionals are needed to understand the big picture. Another example of it would be the Researcher Director of the Metabolic Institute Elizabeth Corbin, where they aim to have a systems approach grounded in data science, understanding local and global systems to assess where to intervene to have the biggest impact. (Large-Scale Urban Prototyping for Responsive Cities: A Conceptual Framework, 2019 )

How can citizens directly exert their desires and preferences on their environments to create better living conditions with the support of digital and fabrications technologies? Are the current digital manufacturing and fabrication technologies scalable for larger urban contexts? Although current advancements in computational design and digital fabrication technologies have been successfully applied into different architectural scales, as several examples like the work of Alexandre Dubor at Iaac or Stefano Adreani from Harvard GSD in a more urban design context, they have rarely been implemented in a larger urban context that can lead to broader benefits and responses for citizens. An urban living lab becomes crucial, allowing experimenting and innovating with the people with the possibility to keep up to date with the latest urban scenario.


It has been set that Circular Design and Smart Cities are different concepts. However, it becomes interesting when you apply those concepts together. This is when it is possible to start talking about responsive cities. But what is this? Well, new tools and processes such as computational design, digital manufacture, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology among others gives us the opportunity of redesigning cities in a way that it is possible to respond to the user’s needs getting adapted to the constant changes. The concept of a responsive city can be applied to the city in the shape of Urban Form (Planning, Development).

As a group, in order to accomplish the concept of responsive city, we propose 3 main points of action or drivers of change:

  1. The creation of new professionals. “Link” people that can be mediators and transfer knowledge between government, architects/urbanists and users. This has begun to happen with different associations/institutions like CodesignLab, Unhabitat and Ellen MacArthur Foundation but needs to keep growing and developing.
  2. Making it accessible to the people. Simplifying the complexity and trying to create interfaces that makes people to be able to understand better what is happening. Because for us smart cities are more than technology. The feedback loops to the citizens is the target. A human oriented perspective of smart cities, where people are much more governing and taking part actively into those close loops, on a scenario where they are aware of the technical and socio-economic processes that occur around them and where their decisions have a direct impact on the resources flows such as energy, materials, and waste.
  3. Less projects more prototypes. Our cities change constantly and we need to be able to understand the current situation. Thanks to technology this is doable but we need the creation of prototypes that help us keep up with the environmental, technology and social updates.

We need to be aware of the complexity of the system. Which scales are optimal for closing cycles and where would we need to make a greater effort to have a bigger impact? The whole system needs to be replanned and set up towards a new urban circularity, core of future cities and generations.


  1. Circular design. (n.d.). Retrieved from. 


  2. Peter Bus, (2019). Large-Scale Urban Prototyping for Responsive Cities: A Conceptual Framework” 


  3. Urban 20 White Paper. An UCLG and OGP contribution to the U20 process. Building open, transparent, responsive and inclusive cities. White Paper on Transparency and Open Government.


  4. UnHabitat, Urban planning and Design Labs. Tools for integrated and participatory urban planning. (2016). 


  5. Fab City Prototypes — Designing and making for the real world. (n.d.). 


The next period in urban designing should be circular is a critical reflection paper developed at IaaC, Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia at Master in City & Technology in (2019/2020) by:

Students: Byron Cadena, Alejandro Quinto, Pawitra Bureerak
Faculties: Mathilde Marengo