Circular cities, the importance of distributed governance


If there is one thing that more than anything else connects the urgent need for a rapid economic recovery with the idea of the circular economy, it is the necessity to rethink the concept of the city. 

It was therefore inevitable that the new edition of Enel’s position paper “Circular Cities - Cities of tomorrow” would refer to the post-Covid-19 recovery, identifying the economic, environmental and social challenges facing cities, where more than half of the world’s population is now concentrated. The positive effects of a transition to circular business models will be visible in various spheres, from the environment (thanks to the example of reduced emissions), to the economy (increased competitiveness), to the social realm (new job opportunities). 

“Even in this dramatic situation, cities gave us some indication of how they need to evolve in order for the communities that live in them not only to better prepare to face a health emergency but, more in general, to initiate evolutionary change,” writes Enel Chairman Michele Crisostomo in the introduction to the paper. “If a city is destroyed by fire or an earthquake, it will probably be rebuilt with fire-resistant materials or according to anti-seismic criteria. So cities have to emerge from the pandemic on a different footing. During the emergency, cities became networks, connections, services, assistance, solidarity.”

While the first edition of the position paper in 2018 focused mainly on technologies and the second, last year, on circular business models, this year the focus has shifted to something much more complex and wide-ranging: how to achieve the circular transformation of cities through a collaboration between stakeholders and, in particular, public-private collaboration.

In recent years, the process of urbanisation has experienced a powerful surge. Cities generate more than 80% of global economic production and, according to the World Economic Forum, they consume around two thirds of the world’s energy and produce a proportionate amount of emissions. The purpose of the circular economy is to re-imagine the economic model, combining economic development, environmental sustainability and social inclusion in an area of open innovation, in which cities play a key role.

Enel’s new position paper highlights the concept of “distributed governance,” introduced by Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman. This involves a transparent and participatory management that should involve citizens both individually and in organised forms, which together with collaborations between the public and private sectors can improve the effectiveness of the economic model. Driving the process of constructing circularity, the paper explores several solutions, highlighting the importance of clear governance, including “for example a control room that reports to senior management but which also has a light, cross-sector structure that ensures representation of all the key areas, thus facilitating the realisation of the strategies defined centrally.”

The position paper emphasises that, while the environmental challenges of recent years are now well established, a shared understanding of the approaches and the solutions to implement is often absent. Therefore the concept of the circular economy risks being perceived in too vague a manner. For this reason, supporting and promoting a wider spread of the topics linked to circularity, both in terms of problems and possible proposals, helps create consensus about the commitment required and a context of collective collaboration. In highlighting the great buzz about “circular” from institutions and cities, the paper notes, for instance, the “15-minute city” plan designed for Paris by Carlos Moreno, and concludes with a series of best practices resulting from projects in cities in the United States and South America, to which our Group has contributed directly.

Download the third edition of the “Circular cities - Cities of tomorrow” position paper here.