The journey towards circular development: Insights from an expert in the field

The concept of circular development has been gaining a lot of traction in the last few years for its potential to tackle global challenges like the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and waste. Many cities are starting to explore and implement measures to move away from the linear “make-use-dispose” economy model, but some obstacles remain. We interviewed ICLEI’s Head of Circular Development Magash Naidoo to take stock of circular development in 2022.


Why is circular development important in our sustainability journey?

Magash Naidoo: Circular development is not just important, it is essential in our sustainability journey.

At its most basic level, circular development seeks to decouple resource consumption and economic progress while ensuring enhanced social equity. It is a systemic approach that seeks to redesign our systems and goods in a way that minimizes the need for the extraction of natural resources while regenerating ecosystems. Efficiency must be prioritized to drastically reduce the consumption of materials while maintaining the same output, and materials at the end of the life cycle are then reused or recovered for future processes. Beyond material flows, there are a plethora of elements that also need to be addressed in a truly circular economy, such as the regulatory environment, financing and integrating the circular mindset into education curricula.

The specific importance of circular development will vary depending on the context in which a city finds itself. Should a city be in the early or middle stages of development, then it offers an opportunity to bridge the developmental divide. Leapfrogging in this regard is not only cost-effective but also reduces the probability of these cities experiencing negative unintended consequences when compared to traditional development journeys. For developed cities, circular development offers slightly different opportunities, though they are not mutually exclusive. These include the possibility to push the boundaries of innovation. Importantly, developed cities often direct more of their focus towards maintenance, as opposed to forward-looking development. Circularity then offers tremendous benefits in this regard, such as improving utilization of building and construction waste in refurbishment activities, packaging and logistics.

Importantly though, whether the city is developing or developed, circular development is critical for progressing our mindsets and behaviors so we become more conscious of the impacts of our actions and consumption patterns. Circular development provides the opportunity to increase participation in local economic activities and thereby strengthen social equity.


How much time do we have?

Naidoo: It is widely recognized, by practitioners and the scientific community, that we are in a climate crisis. This includes resource consumption and ecosystem degradation challenges.

2030 is pinned as the year until which we have the opportunity to turn the tides. In our individual and collective endeavor, it is not quite 8 years from now. However, if we only work 8 hours a day, this means that from now to 2030, we only have just under 2 working years. This sobering mathematical reality should spur us into a higher gear of activity and more robust collaboration.


How can organizations like ICLEI support cities planning for and implementing circular development initiatives?

Naidoo: In my long-standing experience within local government in various management positions, I have observed first hand, and at many times utilized, the networking opportunities that such programs and initiatives offer to deliver on city climate objectives and simultaneously achieve co-benefits for other pressing city objectives, such as job creation and economic development.

It is important to acknowledge that each type of stakeholder has a different task, in order for effective delivery of city-level initiatives each of these roles needs to be effectively performed. This does not only involve ICLEI and cities but also ICLEI’s key partners and strategic funders who perform a critical enabling function and ICLEI is then able to have an impact across the more than 120 countries that we operate in.

Over the past few months, the Global Circular Development Team, approximately 35 people on 6 continents, have delivered some effective initiatives. Two of these global initiatives are particularly important, as they begin to establish vitally important leverage points – direction and collaboration. The Circular City Actions Framework, co-developed with Circle Economy, Metabolic and Ellen Macarthur Foundation, is a tool that translates scientific principles into an easily implementable approach for cities to start or expand their circular initiatives. Cities can choose from different strategies that best align with their current initiatives, mandates and available resources, structured around the 5 R’s: Rethink, Regenerate, Reuse, Recycle and Recover. These strategies were developed with and for cities and offer a starting point to collaborate and share best practices, while being facilitated by a team that understands the scientific basis and the interconnected nature of how cities function. As an important building block, a Knowledge Hub has been created that includes over 400 case studies by cities along with the 5R strategies. To further support this kind of collaboration, ICLEI Circulars was launched. This platform, which gathers cities taking a leading role in the circular transition, will lay important foundations for accelerating action within the already tight timeframes to 2030 by providing a space for collaboration and peer-to-peer exchange.


What are the next steps ICLEI is undertaking? 

Naidoo: The next phase of the circular development journey of the ICLEI network and its partners involves synthesizing a detailed but flexible Theory of Change (ToC). The ToC outlines the important steps that are needed for cities, assisted by ICLEI and partners, to transition towards circularity. In practice, this means decoupling economic prosperity from resource consumption, protecting biodiversity and strengthening social equity. The ToC adopts as a basis Systems Thinking – particularly ‘Complex Adaptive Systems’ has been utilized as a reference to frame the current moving pieces that relate to circular development. One of the major outputs from the ToC will be the identification of additional leverage points, which are points that when pushed on, are able to deliver exponential benefit.

A key takeaway from this exercise of developing the ToC is that no organization or team can achieve stated objectives totally on their own. Rather it takes a collective effort, where the traditional competitive mindsets are replaced with collaborative mindsets. To this end, each type of organization and partner has a unique role to play when transitioning our current systems from linear to circular. To illustrate this, ICLEI has a vast membership network of cities and technical skills. Our strategic partners bring additional expertise to specific initiatives, supporting cities to co-create initiatives – as cities and their residents are at the grassroots level and the pace of implementation.

Critically though, key partners and funders are a vital part of achieving scale and we are always looking for new collaborators. If you would like to explore opportunities to get involved, contact us at circular.development(at)

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