Struck by the contrast between with the endless abyss of the ocean, and the stores of food and fuel stowed in her custom trimaran boat, Dame Ellen MacArthur had a startling thought before she set off on what would become a record-breaking solo sail around the world. “The moment you leave for that journey, that’s all you have with for next three months,” she says at her Key Note session at this year’s Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. “It made me realize the definition of the word ‘finite’… There is no more,” Almost 11 years to the day on which she set sail on a gruelling 71 day journey to circumnavigate the globe, she is palpably one of the most activated speakers at the event, where she headlines a dedicated content and activities track focusing on the circular economy.

“We have finite resources available to us and yet our economic model of operation is using them up… But just using less is not a solution. It buys you time, but what fascinates me is: buys you time to transition to what? What economic model can actually function for the long term? What economic model is restorative and regenerative?,” says the sporting legend, who, soon after smashing the world-record for a round-the-world solo sail, founded the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which aims to inspire citizens, governments and businesses to redesign the whole systems surrounding the production and consumption of goods and material flows.

The concept of the circular economy has been increasingly relevant as innovative and alternative modes of production become a necessity in a world that’s more and more aware of its dwindling resources in the face of wasteful consumption habits. Unsurprisingly, cities are often at the core the ‘take-make-dispose’ process.  “The circular economy offers a chance to redesign and rethink how we operate our own systems. One of the most important elements that come through in this is designing a city to be regenerative, designing it to eliminate waste and to make sure that assets within the urban environment are kept at the highest value,” explains Ashima Sukhdev, project manager at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

As cities continue to grow at an unprecedented pace, many see the need for a serious shift away from the linear economic model. “There’s a wave of creativity around the way we look at materials and how they can be the nutrients for our next generation of products,” says Lewis Perkins, president of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. A non-profit dedicated to educating and consulting manufacturers on ecologically-conscious processes, the organization works with many brands to reduce the negative impacts FMCGs often have on global resources and the environment. “Everything should be intended to either go safely back into the earth, or it should be a material that can be upcycled into a future product. [The circular economy] advocates the equal or higher value of materials as we consume them,” he continues, while MacArthur points at a report commissioned by her foundation that found that only 20% of the value of FMCGs is recovered.

While many of the tens of sessions scheduled in the Circular Economy European Summit track of the Smart City Expo World Congress focus on the potential for designing products and consumer goods with adaptive future reuse as part of their DNA (“It should be the very first line of every design brief!” jokes Ellen MacArthur) – the proponents of the circular economy argue that its principles could and should transform the very essence of our urban fabric.

The built environment is a big and somewhat overlooked offender when it comes to inefficiency and underutilization. MacArthur points to the fact that most cities are 50% covered in roads and parking lots, yet cars are only used around 5% of the their lifespans. “Is that good use of our roads?” she asks rhetorically, while highlighting Helsinki’s plan to transition to an on-demand transport system by 2025 as innovative and effective solution. “It’s not just how a city moves, but how the elements in the transport system are made,” she says, illustrating that a true circular economy must be all-encompassing. “A Renault remanufactured car engine has 80% less energy embedded in it and 80% less material – a phenomenal change.”

Meanwhile, Owen Zachariasse of real estate developers Delta Development notes that buildings often do not retain value beyond the value of the land – and the demolition costs that come with tearing them down for redevelopment. “There’s a strong business case to recover the resources in buildings,” he says referring to costly copper and steel that are often lost. But, as he and MacArthur both stress – products, places and process alike need to be created with regeneration and efficiency from their very conception. “Redesigning a product is not enough. You need to redesign the whole system,” reiterates MacArthur.