How do you create a sustainable region?
I recently returned from the annual International Seminar for Sustainable Regions 2018 in Agüimes, Gran Canaria. The conference focused on innovative and collaborative approaches to addressing today’s sustainability challenges, covering topics relating to energy, water, waste, agriculture and policy. The 200+ delegates heard from guest speakers from around the world to provide a diverse range of perspectives on how to create sustainable regions.
It was a pleasure to be invited to speak about the circular economy, which very much reflects the growing interest in the topic. My presentation provided a deep-dive into the concept that is being embraced by global businesses (including the likes of Google, Adidas and Ikea), academia and national governments alike. Whilst IKEA is aiming to be fully ‘circular’ by 2030, the UK government have outlined their commitment to developing a restorative and regenerative circular economy within the Industrial Strategy White Paper published last year.
At the conference, I was pleased to see that the circular economy, alongside other cross-cutting themes of collaboration, design and empowerment, were very much the take-home messages for creating a sustainable region.
Eliminate Waste & Optimise Resource Use: Going ‘circular’
In the welcome address, the president of the Southeast region of Gran Canaria, Óscar Hernándes, argued that we have to make the most of all the resources we have – a principle that underpins the concept of the circular economy. So, what is the circular economy? Essentially, it’s an economy where nothing is wasted. It requires a shift from today’s ‘take-make-dispose’ linear economy – one where we take materials from the ground, make things out of them, often use them for a very short amount of time and then dispose of them. Not only does this wasteful model result in economic losses, it also causes extensive environmental damage.
Instead, a circular economy aims to close the loop on waste, ensuring materials and resources remain circulating in the economy for as long as possible. A shift towards the circular economy is expected to have significant economic benefits, with DEFRA calculating that businesses in the UK could benefit by £23bn a year through low cost (or no cost) improvements in resource use efficiency.
My new role will focus on catalysing a shift towards a low carbon and circular economy to realise such benefits across York, North Yorkshire and East Riding. The work will build upon the regional strength in the bioeconomy and the ambition to become a global leader. As one of the first LEPs to actively pursue the circular economy agenda at scale, it’s a forward-thinking, progressive approach that has the potential to realise significant economic, social and environmental benefits for the region. Potential positive impacts include job creation, inward investment and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Identifying and realising such opportunities will require collaboration across sectors and local authorities, which was a notion very much at the heart of the annual sustainable regions conference.
Collaborate: Breaking-down silos
The conference has its origins in three municipalities coming together to sustainably address resource challenges. The municipalities, Aguimes, Santa Lucia and Ingenio, first came together to overcome structural issues surrounding water and farming. One of their first projects involved addressing the high cost and scarcity of water access through developing a sustainable desalination plant. We visited the water cycle plant that now processes millions of litres of drinking water a day through reverse osmosis. As the process is relatively energy intensive, they have a developed a system that not only harnesses renewable, but also ensures surplus energy from the process is recovered and fed back into the process. Since the 1990s, the municipalities have continued to work together to create a more sustainable region, drawing on learnings from international best practice to develop a more ambitious roadmap.
With a regional strength in wind energy due to the climate, the three municipalities are just about to sign a new contract with a wind turbine company that is expected to enable energy self-sufficiency, allowing them to become 100% renewable – powering homes, the desalination of water, fleets of electric vehicles etc. Spain has the whole value chain for wind energy, which means that not only is the technology supporting the shift towards a low carbon economy, it is also supporting the national economy through job creation.
Despite the region’s sunny climes, uptake of solar energy has been hampered across Spain due to regulation (known as the ‘sun tax’) disincentivising uptake. The contrast of success between solar and wind energy in Spain very much highlights the importance of ensuring a strategic approach to designing a system where policy and regulation aligns with the end goal.
Design: Creating the right conditions for sustainability
My presentation included the need to redesign systems to enable the sustainable management of resources. This idea of designing for sustainability was a common thread running through many of the presentations, and something that Italian designer Giulio Vinaccia explained through a number of interesting examples.
Giulio shared his experiences of design using local resources in Haiti. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, access to clean drinking water was a major issue. The team looked at what they had, designing a solution using locally available resources – they used ceramic pots in households and created special filters to clean the water. Using local labour to create the filters meant that money stayed in the local economy, extending the social benefits of the solution.
Giulio also spoke about his experiences trying to regenerate abandoned fishing towns in Canada, where many of the residents had left, due to hake fishing in the region no longer being possible, and taken their houses with them (as that was the culture in the area)! The project aims to encourage tourism in order to bring towns back to life. The design team looked at what assets and talent they could draw upon in the area to do this. Much of the remaining population in the towns lived in retirement homes, so they decided to form a team of story tellers from the town’s older generation. This generation had, in many ways, lost their place in society, but they had incredibly rich (and somewhat dramatised!) accounts of their lives as fishermen. The project plans to create a space – a floating raft on the water – for the older generations of Honguedo to tell their own stories to tourists. A very creative solution.
These examples show how bringing together people and sectors with different skills, which perhaps don’t normally work together, to co-design solutions can provide incredibly creative solutions. As a LEP with good contacts across sectors, this is perhaps something we should try to do more of here.
Empower: Inspiring creativity and innovation
The conference began with videos created by young students on plastic bottles, highlighting the issue of ocean plastics. With research showing that we’re expected to have more plastic than fish in our oceans by 2050, it’s certainly a critical issue for an island. Setting students a creative task around such an issue is an interesting approach to not only raise awareness of environmental issues from a young age, but also in co-creating innovative solutions.
Delegates also heard from two students who are part of the Green Belt movement in Kenya which has the ambition to plant a billion trees. The students reflected on how the movement has given people an opportunity to stand up for their rights, particularly women and younger generations. Their passion for the planet and tackling poverty highlighted not only how we can inspire the youth of today, but also be inspired by them. Elizabeth Wathuti and Unelker Maoga argued that young people’s talents and skills should be used to drive change – which is something I would very much like to embrace in our work ahead to create a more sustainable region!
By Katie Thomas, Low Carbon and Circular Economy Lead