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Fab City: a roadmap for Christchurch to a circular economy

Press Release:
Fab City: a roadmap for Christchurch to move to a circular economy
14 MAY 2018

“Circular economy” is a phrase that is gaining traction in New Zealand. But what does it mean and how can we actually get there?

Carl Pavletich of Christchurch’s Fab Lab says the Fab City challenge is a roadmap for transforming our economy to meet the challenges of the future.

Fab City is a global initiative launched by Fab Lab IAAC Barcelona and MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, the same organisation that developed the Fab Lab network of maker labs fourteen years ago.

The Fab City initiative challenges cities to produce everything they consume by 2054.
Eighteen cities have signed up already, including Amsterdam, Paris and Detroit.

This feels like a radical shift, but Pavletich says technology makes it possible.

“Thirty years ago, if you told people they would be carrying super computers around in the pockets, that would have been pretty hard to believe. The Fab Lab concept comes from MIT, where they are 3D printing a human heart. Compared to other makerspaces, which are quite siloed, the global Fab Lab network of more than 1250 labs has an ethos based around exchanging knowledge and sharing intellectual property. So we can tap into thousands of other minds around the world who are all working on solving the same set of problems.”

The problems are not insignificant. Take lithium batteries.

“If we start bringing in a lot of electric cars, for example, then after 10 years, we have to deal with the problem of disposing all those batteries. A Fab City would ask, maybe there is a better option out there that would serve our local communities better?”

The Sustainable Business Network and Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed) published a report this month that claims circular economy initiatives in food, transport and the built environment could add $8.8 billion dollars to the city’s economy and reduce carbon emissions by 2700 kilotonnes.

The idea of the circular economy has been around since the 1960s but is gaining traction in policy across the European Union and China, where the idea is used in the country’s five-year planning cycle.

Pavletich says achieving a circular economy is a shift in thinking as much as anything else. He uses shared bikes as a example.

“Cities have been picking up bike sharing but haven’t thought through the whole cycle. You have untethered shared bikes that can be purchased from China for $120 each. The cost to replace is far less than to repair, they’re essentially throw-away. This is creating a huge waste problem for cities, so the circular economy idea means thinking about the whole life cycle of a product, all the externalised costs, where it comes from and where will it end up?”

The Fab City idea is based on local, on-demand production, where consumers become the producers. This means people can download and share digital files to produce products, making them more connected to the production cycle and more aware of the impacts.

“New Zealand is well placed for leading the world as a circular economy because of its relative scale and isolation. We can adapt much more quickly, plus the benefits of designing for distributed manufacturing is to our advantage. Christchurch, in particular, because we’re still in the process of re-development, and because we’ve learned in the last seven years that by being resourceful and working together, we can make a difference to our city.”

Pavletich says today it’s easier than ever for a citizen to prototype an idea. Technology is more accessible - the challenge is to use it to create more sustainable innovation.

He hopes to work with local industry to develop Christchurch as a Fab City. Ikea has set up a innovative prototyping space in a run-down Barcelona neighbourhood. Nike has embraced the circular economy with its Grind Lab - where innovators are challenged to develop products from the sneaker giant's waste stream. And Amsterdam has developed a Fab City Campus, where citizens are empowered to create and test solutions to urban problems.

Pavletich has created a roadmap to 2054 for Christchurch. It starts with activating our network of technology workshops in schools, universities and libraries, then moves to commercialising the initiatives until the city becomes a hub for what’s known as Industry 4.0, where technology allows for small local factories to be set up and run at very low cost, to provide products on-demand with high levels of customisation.

“This is what the circular economy combined with the Fab Lab Network looks like in practice. It’s essentially a design challenge, but it’s in the hands of active citizens, rather than the hands of large corporations. It’s the only way to be truly resilient and sustainable.

“It’s a huge challenge and it will require big shifts in the way we think and consume, but if we don’t do something serious, then the only option is to pin all our hopes on Elon Musk and his efforts to colonise Mars,” Pavletich says.

Pavletich will speak about Fab City Christchurch on Monday 21 May at the Fab Lab Christchurch on Madras Street as part of Tech Week ‘18.


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