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Circular economy design visioning: exploring industrial and urban symbiosis in South African cities.

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Cities of tomorrow will be at the coalface of the complex challenges posed by climate change, e.g. resource scarcity. Climate change adaptation strategies will include circular economy (CE) practices (e.g. industrial and urban symbiosis) to increase the rate of recycling technical nutrients, in turn improving the resource efficiency of cities. The study investigates industrial and urban symbiosis in South Africa. In doing so, exploring technology enabled (i.e. cyber-physical-social ecosystems) CE solutions to designing out waste in South African cities. One of the key contributions of the research is the comprehensive synthesis and testing of an iterative problem structuring, theory building and design visioning (problem-theory-design) continuum to inform CE experimentation. A mixed methods design visioning approach is developed through an experiential and iterative design practice nested in a network of interdisciplinary theoretical constructs: 1) philosophical construct – Ecological Literacy (systems thinking), 2) techno-economic construct – Third Industrial Revolution (internet-of-things enabled general purpose technology platform), and Circular Economy (industrial and urban symbiosis), and 3) design construct – properties of Ecodesign derived from the dynamic renewable design of natural ecosystems. The research argues that to construct a meaningful CE transition experiment, a logical starting point is to distil key findings from a theoretically embedded case study to inform the design of a virtual experiment and simulation sketch. Through an embedded multiple case study approach the research investigates complex resource recovery dynamics in two key waste economy sub-sectors; industrial waste management and urban informal recycling sectors in the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN). The case studies provide an integrated method (i.e. synthesising quantitative and qualitative knowledge) for holistic and high-resolution problem structuring. From a systems thinking perspective, key leverage points (i.e. data, information sharing and infrastructure) are identified for potential policy and technology intervention. Learnings from the case studies inform policy recommendations and CE innovation. The findings from the industrial symbiosis (IS) case study illustrate that firms and supply chain networks recognise the environmental importance of improving industrial waste management practices, however they are locked-in to end-of-pipe solutions. Firms highlighted regulation, price sensitivity, customer pressure and top management as key drivers of pro-environmental behaviour change (e.g. waste beneficiation). The findings highlight the unrealised IS potential in the South vi Durban Basin. In addition, revealing significant barriers to IS, i.e. lack of information sharing between firms and a weak regulatory environment. To increase the detection, matching and emergence of IS relationships will command the dynamic co-production of codified resource flow data; herein a big data analytics approach can be employed to construct open source platforms for interfirm information (e.g. residual resource flows) sharing and knowledge production – an industrial commons internet. The urban symbiosis case study explores the informal recycling sector in KZN analysing the instrumental role of waste pickers as primary looping agents in recovering recyclable materials from post-consumer waste and increasing the supply of recyclable materials (e.g. cardboard, paper, plastic and metal) in the secondary resources economy. Waste pickers are an important link in recycling value chains; sorting, gathering and manually transporting recyclable materials to buy-back-centres and informal collection pick up points. The case study investigates how their efficiency can be improved to stimulate greater positive environmental impacts, create decent employment opportunities, and reduce waste management costs for municipalities. The findings from the case study on waste pickers are extrapolated in a CE design visioning exercise. From a systems level perspective, the research culminates in the sketch of a virtual circular city experiment; a cyber-physical social ecosystem (CPSE) designed to increase recycling rates in cities by addressing the infrastructural needs of waste pickers. The hardware, software and social ecosystem is built out of an internet-of-things (IoT) platform. Firstly, the IoT enabled infrastructural system improves material recovery efficiencies (of post-consumer recyclable materials) by increasing connectivity between waste pickers and waste collectors. Increased connectivity allows for looping and aggregating material stock and flow data. Secondly, the integrated hardware and software infrastructure provides an automated, digitised and decentralised buy-back-transfer service – delivered through connected and solar-powered collection nodes strategically distributed throughout the city in a mesh network configuration. Thirdly, the digital platform aggregates big data and employs advanced analytics to generate actionable residual resource intelligence, consequently enabling evidence-based decision making by key stakeholders, e.g. government agencies, industry associations, recyclers and material reprocessors. To further the research agenda, the next step is structuring a real-world transition experiment based on the virtual circular city design experiment, defined as, the internet-of-waste pickers (IoWP).


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.