Circular cities, models for the future

Circular cities, models for the future

From São Paulo to Milan, from Bogotá to Genoa, this is how circular practices are transforming life in cities around the world and thrusting them into the future.


Rethinking our cities is no longer a question of if but how. The first reason for this is urbanization, which has been growing rapidly for quite some time. Today’s cities are home to over half the world’s entire population and generate over 80% of GDP. Those figures look set to increase still further: a completely new scenario in human history. In addition to this, however, most greenhouse gases are created in urban areas: and this is where any solution to the current climate crisis must start. Unfortunately, a third new problem has just been added to these two “historic” ones: the health crisis.


The transition has to be circular

While our new foundation has to be all-round sustainability, the direction we need to head in is towards the circular economy: this doesn’t simply mean recycling and reusing but a whole new model that starts from the very earliest stages of the design process, the choice of materials and energy to be used, and which embraces all urban environments holistically: production and industrial activities, food, waste, buildings, infrastructure, energy management and transportation with a view to decoupling our activities from consuming resources. And in this regard, the circular economy really can be a key factor: as reported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, cities produce 50% of the world’s waste and 60-80% of its greenhouse gases.

From a social perspective, the circular economy can be a driver of employment creation: the “Circular Europe” report, compiled by Enel with The European House – Ambrosetti, talks in terms of 2.5 million new jobs created in Europe in 2018 alone. More generally, circularity can also be seen not just as a tool for growing companies’ and cities’ competitive advantage but also that of entire regions and the European Union as a whole, by diversifying and broadening markets and cutting costs, thanks to efficient use of resources.


Circular cities

So we need to reinvent our cities with the circular economy in mind. This applies even more so in a scenario where the social fabric is running the risk of unraveling still further as a result of the pandemic and new networks need to be created.


“Cities are places in which the contradictions in our modern life are clearest. Contradictions that can be solved only by using innovative solutions that can also be applied on a global scale. The pandemic has severely impacted urban centers in which physical distancing has threatened to break up our communities. But social distancing has been offset by digital closeness which has boosted the social fabric during this complex phase of all of our lives.”
Michele Crisostomo, Chair of Enel


Our Group’s position papers were amongst the most in-depth studies of circular cities. The first edition, which was published in 2018, paid particular attention to technologies while the second, in 2019, turned its attention to business models. This year’s report, “Circular Cities – Cities of Tomorrow,” further explains and expands on the subject: the whole point is to have a shared vision and to foster collaboration between all of the stakeholders involved, particularly through synergies between public and private sectors.

In terms of city administrations, this means transitioning from a traditional vertical model to what the American political scientists Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman call “distributed governance,” whereby various stakeholders, particularly businesses, also contribute alongside the authorities. The model has already been adopted on various levels and using various approaches in many different countries, and is producing some of the most interesting examples of circular cities.


From São Paulo to Milan: smart districts and digital twins

São Paulo isn’t only one of the world’s largest cities, it’s also an innovation laboratory. In its Vila Olímpia financial district, our Group, which manages its electricity distribution network, launched the Urban Futurability project. This is a virtual replica of the electric grid known as the Network Digital Twin. It’s a tool that is useful not only for optimizing operational efficiency and maintenance, but also for developing innovations that can be applied in a circular way. This has knock-on effects on, for instance, predictive maintenance work, which mitigates the risks caused by extreme weather events, fire, floods, as well as helping to measure and reduce carbon emissions and noise pollution.

On this basis, the work required to turn a network of 4.8 kilometers of overhead power lines into an underground one is using a sustainable construction site model. This means that materials such as earth and water are reused in the drilling work and the possibility of replacing concrete with polymers recycled from plastic waste is also being investigated. We are also planning to install new smart meters made by repurposing waste such as cables and plastic and even waste from the circular supply chain involved in pruning urban green areas. In Vila Olímpia, we have launched a sustainable mobility project that includes the installation of electric car and bike charging stations, an electric bus line, a network of smart traffic lights and a smart city lighting system.

On the other side of the ocean, another cutting-edge district is being built in Milan, which has been twinned with São Paulo since 1961 and with which it has strengthened its partnership in recent years. In autumn 2021, Milan will host the the preliminary conference to the Glasgow COP-26, in an area of the city’s Expo 2015 district which is now being upgraded by Enel as part of the Mind (Milano Innovation District) project in collaboration with the local authorities and Lendlease, Australia’s leading infrastructure company. A whole range of innovative solutions are being used from smart infrastructure for e-mobility to the Smart Pole management system which is powered by solar energy and adaptable for many different uses: city lighting, telecommunications, traffic and parking analysis, smart street sensors, video surveillance and analysis, bike and electrical device charging, energy storage, information and advertising displays, SOS video call systems and the integration of first aid equipment.

In Milan we are also working on upgrading buildings, including an apartment building on the outer ring road, which has been renovated in partnership with the local authorities and a specialist company, Rockwool: together we created an outer cladding using mineral wool to reduce heat loss and installed a more efficient heat pump. By applying a “digital twin” comparable to the Vila Olímpia network, we realized that these solutions would cut heating costs by around 80%.


From Bogotá to Genoa: digital networks and sustainable mobility

In Bogotá, in Colombia, the local institutions launched a vast program designed to turn the capital into a circular city. This was particularly the case in Triángulo de Fenicia, a densely populated central area, where an urban renewal plan was instigated that involves the construction of residential buildings, commercial areas, offices and hotels. The project is a private-public partnership with our Group involved in modernizing the electricity infrastructure to make it circular. The work will be managed with an emphasis on recycling and reusing materials, reducing environmental and social impact to a minimum, and offering development opportunities to the communities living in the area.

The plan for Bogotá also includes electric mobility projects. Our most important contribution in that respect involves creating infrastructure for the subway. Furthermore, to integrate the public and private sectors in transportation with an emphasis on sustainability, we developed a charging infrastructure system for cars and buses that has helped one of the most advanced and widespread sustainable mobility systems in all of South America to be developed.

In 1989, Bogotá signed a collaboration agreement with Genoa, a city in which our Group has focused on sustainable mobility. On the one hand, we successfully completed the installation of 200 charging points for electric vehicles and, on the other, we used Enel X’s innovative City Analytics to analyze the city’s urban flows to optimize the way the subway worked using a detailed city map integrated with the analysis of mobility flows, the most popular routes, peak hours based on season, the origin and destination of passengers.

Not too far away on the University of Genoa’s campus in Savona, we also set up a laboratory (Living Lab) to develop and test technologies for smart grids, photovoltaic and concentrating solar systems, cogeneration systems, distributed generation and electricity storage systems. It’s another example of synergies but this time with the academic world and it confirms the importance of collaboration in building the cities of the future


“We are working in many cities around the world and we feel a responsibility to be drivers in those cities of a circular, sustainable development model. Our communities have proved they can survive, thanks to smart networks. And networks, thanks to the innovation that is a byword of their design, function and usability, have proved they can redesign the whole idea of what a city is – less physical space and more anthropological and social space. A resilient, future-forward city cannot exist without constantly strengthening its networks, connecting all the stakeholders in terms of collaboration and circularity. And this is what we as Enel are helping to make happen in all the communities we work in, by putting our ability to innovate at the service of social well-being and sustainable progress.”
Michele Crisostomo, Chair of Enel

Download the third edition of the “Circular Cities – Cities of Tomorrow” position paper here