Bags, Peterborough DNA (Hessian coffee sacks, 2015)

The Peterborough DNA programme puts citizens at the heart of innovation, with data, connectivity, intelligence and technology as enablers for smarter behaviours. Peterborough Reuse repurposes coffee sacks into accessories. Unskilled workers from impoverished areas of the city are trained to use sewing machines, whilst also building confidence and communications skills, thus equipping them for a better future. Share Peterborough is an online initiative supporting Peterborough’s vision to become the UK’s first circular city. Businesses sign up to swap, donate or share unwanted or underused items, building relationships whilst promoting circularity.

Regenerate / Loop / Share / Virtualise

Bags, Share Peterborough Peterborough Reuse, Peterborough DNA (Hessian coffee sacks Peterborough, England, 2015)

Interview with Cécile Faraud, Circular Economy Lead, Peterborough City Council.

The Hessian Bag project we are showing in the exhibition has its origins in Peterborough DNA and your Smart City strategy. Could you tell us a little bit about this wider context? 

Cécile Faraud: Peterborough DNA, delivered by Peterborough City Council and Opportunity Peterborough, is creating a step-change in how the city works, delivering integration and synergies between partners to make urban systems more effective.

As one of four UK Future City Demonstrators, chosen by the Government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, in 2012, Peterborough DNA seeks to demonstrate how the city can be transformed through economic and environmental sustainability, by developing and testing innovative ideas. Crucially, it seeks to respond to the city’s specific challenges in a collaborative and integrated way, with interlinked objectives of growth, innovation and sustainability.

Visions of the Smart City can often be driven by technology. Could you tell us a little about how you have put citizens at the heart of the project?

Cécile Faraud: Peterborough DNA believes that smart solutions should only answer the challenges its citizens face daily to achieve a real change that is owned, trusted and sustainable. Asking people - such as businesses, young people, various organisations playing a vital role in the City - how they envision a better future in their city and what challenges they face to get there, is the cornerstone of our approach.

Peterborough DNA acts as a catalyst, connecting organisations to each other and to our youth, breaking down silo’s and business fragmentation habits. It facilitates collaboration and cross-functionality between them, so they can rediscover their local context and its valuable opportunities. It’s also about building legacy and a sense of pride and ownership in Peterborough, finding the balance between technology-enabled innovations and what people are ready to accept.

How do ideas around the circular economy sit within this and when did such ideas become part of your strategy?

Cécile Faraud: Our smart strategy’s ultimate goal is to create a city where people live happier, healthier lives. It is fully connected to our Environment Capital action plan, which relies on the One Planet Living agenda. All of our thinking is basically influenced by systems thinking. The notion of Urban Metabolism has been essential in shaping our understanding of the circular economy concepts, and it enabled us to actually develop our circular city vision. The circular economy concept has been in the background of our initial Smart Fengate pilot from the start of the programme. It’s by creating a community of businesses - reconnecting them together and to the place they’re evolving in - that our circular economy approaches have first been tested. Our Share Peterborough platform is the result. We’ve been trialling the sharing economy ideas in a real business environment, quite simply relying on social connections and making better sense of the things we possess, including skills and knowledge. Sometimes it just starts by acknowledging what we have, and therefore, what we can share. And building on that to develop a whole city approach that reconnects everything together. We’re just at the start of our journey.

Could you tell us about the Hessian Bag project and the involvement of immigrants new to the city?

Cécile Faraud: The bag project was initially set up to teach a group of women, living in deprived areas of the city, new life skills. Over a period of six weeks, Peterborough Reuse held training courses in the local community, teaching the women to use a sewing machine, pattern matching and eventually how to make bags from hessian coffee sacks. Through the course the women developed transferable technical skills. Their communication skills improved and subsequently their self-confidence.  The programme has been so successful it is now being rolled out across the city targeting other demographic groups, including local prisoners.

After the initial course in the local community centre, the idea has inspired the City colleges and now the Community centre is a hive of activity and a jewel of the community.

How would you describe the different mindsets of Circular Thinking/Design for the ‘circular city’ versus traditional linear thinking for the linear economy? In short how does this approach shape your ideas of governance and democratic engagement?

Cécile Faraud: A circular mindset is intrinsically asking for holistic views, taking things in their context and not in isolation, understanding the power dynamics in place and breaking silos approaches. It requires to look at lifecycle scale, rather than only one stage at a time. It is in fact very much taking some distance with work as usual, to see the flaws of short-term thinking and allow the bigger perspective to make better sense of how we are doing things. It’s reintegrating the natural world we live in into the equation, and us, humans, as a critical part of it.

We’ve explained that in our latest blog that describes the 7R’s we believe we can all take. Such a holistic approach means cooperation, and it’s where governance and democratic engagement come in. People can do so much individually and at home, if regulation is not there to help them transition, or if the proper education is not in place, the potential of the circular economy and its city-wide application will remain limited to a handful of organisations. 

What has been the reaction and response from local people and businesses?

Cécile Faraud: We have had a formidable positive response from all types of organisations in the City. Each time we’ve hosted an event, the turn-over surprised us, and the level of energy and enthusiasm has each time been a great sign encouraging us to move forward.

Once you make it clear that we can actually all do something, no matter how small, in the right direction, when you recognise what people are already doing on the ground and build on this, rather than reinvent the wheel, you lay the foundations for a strong collaborative initiative. And people are really eager to jump on the boat with you.

What has been the most challenging part of developing the project?

Cécile Faraud: It’s a slow process. You need to take the time to discuss with people, to engage with them, to speak each stakeholder language. You saw the seed, and regularly, you put some water on it to keep it growing. You never quite know which form the plant will have, and you need to always take that into account to. It’s a step-by-step approach, first understanding what it’s all about, then what role you can play, then starting to put things in motion. Piloting new projects, slowly building your case, demonstrating how it works. The main constraint is time, really. We can’t be too in a hurry, or we risk to make it all fail.

What next?

Cécile Faraud: We’ve been working on a joint agreement around our Circular Peterborough initiative. We’re co-creating this document, it’s a slow process, but we’re getting there. This backbone document will be put to life through various pilots, several already on their way, and by creating a map of all circular activities in the city, open to all. Most importantly, we are creating a maturity ladder that will enable us to reach our ambitious goal collaboratively, and a key part of it is to define the economic, social and environmental values the circular economy brings to organisations and to the city.

For anyone interested in this field, what books or articles would you recommend to read?

Cécile Faraud: We have written a blog series on circular economy that provides a good introduction to the topic. You can read them here, Bringing the circular economy to life. How does it really work? and If the solution is the circualr economy, what is the problem? Of course, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation provides a mine of information, especially lots of case studies. This article from Maxine Perella in The Guardian also provides a good entry point to the topic. There are lots of books or academic articles on industrial symbiosis, urban metabolism and systems thinking. It would take a long time to list them all!

 

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