Co-Authored with Heather Keleher.

By 2050, oceans are expected to have more plastic swimming in their depths than fish.

30% of garbage that comes from the United States stems from packaging.

In 2018, industry emitted nearly 24% of global CO2 emissions.

How Did We Get Here?

Understanding the Circular Economy
Click to see why we need the circular economy.

Nature creates no waste. On our planet, the processes that govern  resources cycle from new life to decomposition and back to new life. In the years since the first industrial revolution, as technological cycles have replaced biological cycles, the way we use, purchase, and dispose of goods has changed – with planned obsolescence coming into play and waste, often unconsciously, becoming integrated into product design, development, and distribution. Today, we look to the circular economy as a revolution against planned obsolescence.

Closing the Loop

According to the World Economic Forum, the circular economy aims to “use less natural resources, reduce pollution, tackle climate change, enhance consumer satisfaction, while also improving the bottom line.” In their Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations outlined enabling circular economies in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12, which states: “Ensure sustainable consumption.” In other words: how can we – in a global economy – consume responsibly and sustainably? This falls not only to the end buyer, but to the supplier, the manufacturer, and the seller. Thinking circular means thinking about the entire lifecycle from start to finish.

So, keeping these circular economy tenets in mind, the question arises from our business perspective: How we can use the technology of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to transform our production lines for sustainability the way Ford once revolutionized them for productivity? How can we employ these technologies to make the way we run and live in cities more efficient, sustainable, and circular? How can we generate value through rethinking waste and calculate benefits to society that extend far beyond the environment?

Driving Progress

In 2018, the Global Circularity Report announced that only 9% of the world economy was circular. In Technology alone, there are uncountable instances where change has been and still can be made. In Technology in Smart Cities – the opportunities are endless. If 55% of the world’s population lives in cities and just over 80% of global GDP stems from cities – how can we embed circular economy principles directly in the technology we use to run our cities?

In Copenhagen, Cisco partners with the city to help them become carbon neutral by 2025 through the Smart+Connected Digital Platform – utilizing sensors to monitor parking, waste, and environmental factors and developing the Danish Outdoor Lighting Lab (which “lights the future of smart cities”). The recycle component of the circular economy is particularly evident in cities like Copenhagen: they aim to drive circularity by recycling upwards of 80% of waste by 2035. Further, by increasing energy efficiency through smart lighting, driving more efficient waste management, and targeting pollution, Copenhagen takes on circular economy principles head-on.

The first city in the United States to define and implement a circular strategy – Charlotte, North Carolina – aims to drive zero waste through diverting items to industrial production that might have otherwise gone into landfills. What results has this circular strategy had so far? Job creation and an increased emphasis on innovation. Companies that are incubated in innovation hub Envision Charlotte and that take advantage of circular momentum are estimated to create 2,000 jobs in industries from food waste to electronic repair and reuse. In Charlotte, the circular economy is not only diverting waste, but also transforming lives through economic value and job creation.

Yokohama, in Japan, aims to create an “energy-circular city” – reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, driving public-private partnerships with the Yokohama Smart Business Association, and decreasing overall energy use. Thus far, the Yokohama Smart City Project has reduced CO2 emissions by 29%, installed solar panels across the city, and cut energy consumption from private households to public buildings – right down to the city’s hospitals.

These three cities show us that a smarter, more circular world is possible through public-private cooperation, emphasis on innovation, data collection for educated strategy and policy-making, and implementation of smart technology – with use cases from lighting to parking to waste to energy use to safety and security.

Learn about Cisco’s Circular Advantage.

Looking to the Future

At Cisco, we are the builders of bridges. In our circular economy initiatives, we strive to bridge the gap between technological innovation and sustainable development. Circular economy touches how we make our products through our emphasis on software as a service and Cisco Refresh re-manufacturing program. It impacts how we run our business, with 82% of Cisco’s global electricity coming from renewable sources. And it influences how we use our technology to drive change – for example, empowering cities like Copenhagen.

When companies and citizens turn their eyes to the lifecycles of products and begin to ask one simple question – “Why is this like this?” – a new circle begins. From “Why is this like this?” to “How can we change this” to “What do we need to do to make the change?”, our thoughts and action can drive a cycle of continuous improvement. As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” So, lead the revolution against planned obsolescence, question the linearity of our products, and start to think circular.

Are you ready to join the circular movement?

Read up about global circular economy projects here.

Learn more about Cisco’s circular economy and sustainability initiatives here.



Arvind Satyam

Managing Director, Global Business Development

Smart+Connected Communities