Peterborough may not be the first city that pops to mind when one thinks of smart.
The press tends to play up the big names like London, Paris and New York. But the smartest cities around the world are sometimes below the radar, transforming their economies with little fanfare.
Peterborough’s profile is rising, however. Last November, the city of 188,000 won the 2015 World Smart City Award. On hearing the announcement at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, Cecile Faraud, Peterborough’s Circular Economy lead, literally jumped in the air. When her feet touched the ground again, we had a chance to talk to her.
Faraud emphasizes that Peterborough, that sits an hour north of London, is not trying to be smart for smart sake. “Even though ‘smart’ tends to be technology focused,” she says, “we are putting citizens at the heart of our approach, by asking them what their challenges are and what needs to be resolved.”
She sees government’s role as that of catalyst, bringing together different sectors and groups who might not otherwise meet and facilitating collaborations that benefits all parties.
A city-managed website called Brainwave Innovation provides just such a gathering spot. It describes itself as “An online platform to develop, share and discuss your ideas about the key challenges in Peterborough.” People post “challenges”, such as wasting heat by keeping shop doors open in winter, and members offer “solutions”, in this case an “air curtain.”
Peterborough’s goal of being the UK’s first circular city, Faraud says, includes these social aspects. “Sustainability is also social,” she says. “Once you put people in the same room, all the ideas pop up.”
One successful circular economy idea that sprang up was finding a way to repurpose hessian coffee bags that the local Masteroast Coffee company was discarding. Imported coffee beans arrived in these bags, but the company had no use for them afterwards and sent them to the landfill creating both an environmental and economic cost.
Masteroast asked the city for ideas and two entrepreneurs stepped in. Faraud says they built their company around the bags and trained local women to sew tablecloths and bags for life from the hessian. The fabric was also used to reduce river erosion and mud accumulation on roads, among other things.
As Faraud sums it up: “We diverted one stream of waste to one stream of resource.”
“Peterborough DNA” is the name the city came up with to encapsulate this holistic approach to smarter development. It focuses on innovation, skills for the future, open data, and smart businesses and attempts to address all four areas simultaneously to avoid “silos.”
The city’s role is to break these silos of products, companies, people, and policies, Faraud says, and take a more holistic approach, “even though the circular economy is holistic by nature.”
“We want to provide the enabling environment for every stakeholder to do their bit,” she adds, rather than get caught up in the silos of redesigning products, circular business models, shifting consumer behaviour to buy services not product, and crafting policies that enable all this.
Put in motion in 2012 when Peterborough won the Innovate UK award and its £3 million prize, the approach seems to be working.
Faraud says a lot of circular economy initiatives are already happening in cities, but government has a role to play in making it visible, enabling people to share what they’re doing and exchange their knowledge and best practices.
Peterborough’s designation as a “Future City Demonstrator” — one of four cities in the UK that test and develop ways to make urban systems more effective and integrated — seems like a completely natural fit.