Annual Public Lecture hosted by Centre for Social Policy and Social Change - The Sustainable Smart city is Circular


Professor Scott Valentine


We live in a world that not only has finite resources but also a rapidly increasing population that continues to consume more, per capita, year-on-year. Since 1970, the global use of natural resources has more than tripled and, with the current rates of extraction, less than 50 years worth of reserves of many of the most commonly used materials remain in the ground.


In the Lingnan Centre for Social Policy and Social Change’s second Annual Public Lecture, Scott Valentine, Professor and Associate Dean of Sustainability and Urban Planning at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, set out why he believes the development of what he calls the circular economy, is one of the keys to achieving a sustainable future. He told his audience the realisation of this concept involved “looking at inputs, processes and outputs, and trying to find ways in which you can take your outputs and bring them back, in a circle, as an input somewhere else.”


Focusing his presentation primarily, but not solely, on urban sustainability, Professor Valentine pointed out that Hong Kong’s dire waste management problem was another important reason for the city to strive to ‘close the loop’ and use its resources more efficiently. He noted that the city’s Environmental Protection Department has estimated that, if nothing is done, the SAR’s landfill sites will be overflowing by 2020.


However, having worked in industry himself, he accepted that the economic and commercial rationale for the circular economy is likeliest to carry the greatest weight. Similar levels of technology and skills training are now accessible across the globe, and the Japanese kaizen approach to improving business processes has been adopted seemingly everywhere. “So the problem is that there’s no competitive advantage (to be had in these ways) anymore; every nation is capable of doing all of these things.”


Therefore the only means left to improve productivity, he suggested, is through making better use of resources, minimising waste as much as possible. “In this region there are only three places where you see circularity of any significance: that’s in Taiwan, Mainland China and Japan. Surprise, surprise, these are probably the economies that are the strongest in terms of resilience.”


Professor Valentine went on to describe a number of cases of circularity in action, several of which he had been directly involved with. One was a meat processing plant in Indonesia which had been throwing away waste cow fat, at an annual cost of US$100,000. He worked with the business and, through using the fat as a bio-fuel, it was possible to generate enough electricity to power the entire plant. The total cost savings each year added up to US$1 million.


Another case he highlighted was that of an Australian supermarket chain which, across all its stores, was incurring US$5 million a year in unnecessary labour and energy costs, melting the ice used in its seafood sections at the end of each day. Professor Valentine said the waste detailed in this and his other examples, wasn’t due to stupidity but because the problems to be tackled were “beyond the scope of regular business consciousness”. In other words, the management had been too preoccupied with seemingly more immediate commercial and regulatory concerns, to even consider these sort of opportunities.


He accepted there were other significant challenges to overcome in the process of creating a circular economy: ensuring a consistency of supply; persuading customers to switch to the products produced; and, developing the innovators and entrepreneurs who would drive it. And, ultimately, the loop also had to be closed within networks of businesses and organisations. He could, though, cite one example of this type of more complex system in action. “In Kalundborg in Denmark is the only existing model where all these ideas for closing the loop have come together,” Professor Valentine said.


There a coal fired power station had run a pipe 20km to the nearest lake to get the freshwater it needed. Subsequently, other pipes were laid to a nearby oil refinery, and to a factory producing insulin, to supply them with the power station’s surplus steam. Previously pumped into the air, this steam was essential to both these facilities processes. While a local gyproc producer has proven keen to take the gypsum created as a byproduct of scrubbing the power station’s emissions, and which had, formerly, been costly to dispose of.