The Open Source Circular City – A Scenario In Seven Layers

How will the Open Source Circular City be (feel, look) like and how do we get there?



A hacker needs to have an idea where he/she wants to go.

Therefore I started to outline a scenario of the Open Source Circular City to inspire hacking for it.

There is not only one way to a circular city and more than just one potential version of it. The political process that will shape it has just begun. I can think of a circular city where everybody is controlled by surveillance run by corporations. There are forces pushing for this. The scenario below is supposed to set a positive utopia against that and to inspire a positive action plan.



The scenario paints a big picture, it defines a mainframe. But all things in it are possible to start right now, small, with little resources. But seem also scalable! There are always ideas how to get things started. And those ideas also look like people could find the motivation to put them into action because it can create power, opportunities or rewards for them.


Structure: Seven Layers

The scenario consists of seven layers. Each layer is about one aspect of the city. Once you have seen all the layers you can start to look for interactions between them and find pictures and impressions of the Open Source Circular City in rich detail.

Of course seven layers don’t create an exhaustive picture of a city! The selection is very subjective and reflects what I have knowledge about or fantasy for. The first two layers are a bit hard to understand maybe. You can jump between layers or skip them.


1. Reversibility Facilities
2. IPO Transparency
3. Nature (& Food)
4. Mobility
5. People
6. Products
7. Buildings


Work In Progress !

The work below was started during a residency provided by ZK/U in Berlin. Thanks to ZK/U for this great opportunity. The scenario is now work in progress. There will be hacks and actions added over time. We are looking for more support from institutions and partners, get in touch. And follow me on Twitter or Facebook to get a notification when the scenario is updated.

The inspiring place at ZK/U where the scenario development was started.



Layer 1



Wherever you read this right now: Look up and look at the products around you.

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Imagine that they are all designed circular. They are made to be repaired. They consist of parts that can be – and will be – reused and refurbished. And they are composed with fully recyclable materials. Great. Those atoms around you are ready to stay in the city, forever.

Now we need places in the city where the circularity of them can be fulfilled. Where repairing, reusing and recycling is put in action.



Let’s call those places Reversibility-Facilities. They are probably something between a second hand market, a repair shop, a factory, a research facility and a hackspace.

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The products around you and those places build a network that takes care of the city and its inhabitants including you. This means your connection and responsibility to the products might be different. You don’t throw products away. You operate feedstock of your city.

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How would this start? With a few products. To identify them they could carry a sign, for example an (R). You know where (R) marked products go and that they have a different quality. The network is visible and communicates to you. And includes you with transparency and openness (see Layer 2: Transparency). It is a message of opportunities.

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Just a few details. Skip if you are short on time.

  • Database, also with unregistered things: There are products in the world today that are already circular. If the Reversibility Facility finds out how to circulate them properly they can put them into a public database. So you can look up for your products if they fit and how to circulate them.
  • Openness / Open Source: Openness (Open Source) plays of course a huge part in this. The product information must be open to allow the reprocessing and reusing across cities and states and facilities. Probably you get your (R) sign only when your product is open? But, yes, maybe … if you thrown in a huge pile of lawyers, confidentiality agreements, contracts, meetings, emails it could be possible to arrange an (R) sign also for closed source products. But it would be much more expensive to get your (R) probably. And it might turn out to be impractical or impossible.
  • The Way Back: How can the things get to the Reversibility Facilities? Large things you could probably sell there. Also a deposit system is something that might work somehow. Smaller stuff you could collect in ‘reversibility bins’. The city allows Reversibility Facilities to ‘harvest’ those bins.


And Now?

How do we get it on the road?

How do we get this on the road? The layer asks for complex infrastructures and networks. But maybe you can start this small like this:

  • A Network: A group of companies with circular products could join forces and set up a first small Reversibility Facility for their products. That facility runs marketing campaigns, offers consulting and helps other companies to put their products into the network. Maybe this is easier to start with products with shorter life-cycles. Combine it with a crowdfunding campaign to get it on the road and most importantly attention for it.
  • A Larger Company: The first Reversibility Facility could start with research: Put already existing circular products into a database. Start with bio waste and grow it from there. This could be piloted by a waste management company in a large city. They just add extra experiments. And sell the knowledge how to set up a space like that afterwards. The City Factory by BSR (Berlin Waste Management Company)!

[IMAGES & HACKS to add]



Layer 2


IPO Transparency!

Bear with me. I tried to come up with something easier to explain. But the IPO model is still the most convincing idea.



Transparency is key for circularity. To repair, reuse and recycle products and structures you need to be able to find out how they are made. What is a good universal format to make things transparent in order to support their circularity? The IPO model might be the key. (Imagine the following as a very simple software as easy as the Google search bar.)


IPO model

In the IPO model you use a table to describe how something is made. The table has three columns: Input, Process & Output. An example:

A complex process or product can be described with several tables linked to each other. Where does the hot water in our example above is coming from?

As you can see in the example the trick is to list also all (!) Outputs. Because in an IPO system you can look up for each Input and each Output in what other tables it is used.

This allows you to discover unexpected uses. Alternatives to wasting it become visible. Did you know that you can use coffee grounds to grow mushrooms or produce cups for example:

With a system like that you can identify circular solutions and processes quickly.

The more people use and feed this system the more solutions will pop up. And the faster we can identify problems: Which ingredients and processes always lead into dead ends like a final depot for toxic waste?

And there is another cool feature of the tables: You can click yourself through the tables and go into infinite depth how something is created. Water is an output of burning Hydrogen for example. And the elements are produced in supernovas. Go and pick up the basics whenever you need them.

There are many ideas what you can add to a software that provides this basic functionality. But for our scenario and the transparency question its enough already. Let’s just assume there is an IPO representation about everything. It would be transparent how it is made and what you can do with it, for everyone including the Reversibility Facilities! IPO is the ultimate MacGyver-Tool. It enables us all to engage creatively with a circular built environment!

It is important to add that the IPO representations talk about a product in general! Not about individual copies of it in individual households! This is not surveillance system. You are free to do with your stuff what you want to. Ruin their circularity if you like!

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And Now

How do we get it on the road?

We are on it 🙂 There is a basic and very raw prototype ready and a team that wants to continue to work on it. We just need a little bit of funding to develop it properly. You can help us to fund it or build it or just take the idea and start to work on it yourself.


Layer 3


Nature (& Food) In The City

Nature plays in a circular and ecological city many different roles. Two angles to look at it:



If we grow more of our food directly in the city we can reduce transport and energy consumption. Companies can explore urban gardening more professionally and scalable. Someone told me that there is a company in Berlin growing editable mushrooms in cellars already and similar projects too.

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Diverse Biosphere & Education

Nature is good to teach people about circularity and makes also a great social catalyst (see layer 5). Less cars in the city means less toxins and more space to foster a richer biosphere. The city as a colorful botanical garden! The transparency systems we will run to support circularity in our products (see layer 2) can also be used to make the processes in our biosphere visible and offer us new ways to connect to it.

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And Now

How do we get it on the road?

The urban gardening movement is well developed and has produced a lot of knowledge and solutions in the past decade. Now it is time to professionalize this and make it scalable. One idea how to do it is shared here on our page: The Urban Food Gardener Startup.

‘City Strawberries’ make a good marketing campaign for everyone who advocates for a sustainable city.


Layer 4


Transport, Mobility & Space

The car free city is already a popular idea. Cars are one of the most unsustainable things regardless if they run on fossil fuels or electricity. Cars consume resources, cause emissions, occupy space and they transform the transit zones between our houses into dangerous death areas!

But there is hope. Some research is predicting that the combination of car sharing and self driving cars will allow us to get rid of 90% of all cars and still have the same amount of car mobility. And there is lots of room to make public transport and alternatives like (e)bikes better and more attractive. Cities like Shanghai show how to do it: Make driving and parking a car in the city crazily expensive and create also other incentives for a car free life. Imagine how much free space this would create. 95% of its time a car just parks and occupies street.

So the vision for mobility in this layer is foremost a vision about a city with less cars and a lot of free space to be used for example by nature (layer 3) or people (layer 5).


And Now

How do we get it on the road?

To some extend this is a question about changing public opinion about cars. Here are some ideas how to do that. They work best in combination!

  • Politically: Raise taxes for using a car in the city is something politics can do. Raise fees for parking cars is another: You should not just pay for parking in shopping areas but everywhere including in front of your house. Put down the speed limit. 20km/h or maybe even 15km/h! Running campaigns is also something politics could do. Owning and using a car in the city could face the same destiny as smoking.
  • Improve Public Transport & Bike Riding: Make public transport more beautiful, more comfortable, more spacy (how about a wagon with extra space for families) or more fun (gamify it etc.)  / /  Walking and bike riding could be supported better also! Here is a funny project proposal from Berlin called RadBahn that points to better tracks for bikes. But we can find more ideas.


  • Reduce, Avoid, Hack: If we make smarter use of the systems and infrastructures already in place we can substitute even more cars. How about using train tracks for other vehicles, how about delivering packages with the subway, how about a kit to transform every bike into an e-bike? How about + + +  ?
  • New Uses Of Space: Cars have been occupying the space between our buildings for a very long time. Most people never saw this space! And so they never created ideas what to do with it. Therefore using it for parking cars seems natural and unchallenged. To put ideas for this space into peoples head is important for change. Show people what is possible! Parking Day is an international movement often presenting ideas: Turn the city into a gym, a playground (Layer 5), a botanical garden or field (Layer 3) or?
  • Campaigns: Campaigns can play a role in getting the public connected to the idea of a car free city. Campaigns can be created bottom up by grassroots, artists or activists or top down by large companies or even the state. Companies that run public transport systems or provide car sharing could have the interest, reach and money for impactful campaigns. Campaigns can focus on the negative side of cars in the city or on the positive side of a car free city. / / * Campaigns run by big companies and focussing on positive aspects will probably have the strongest impact – also on politics! (The car lobby is strong and those who are in power are not often seen in public transport. It’ll take big companies to step up here.)

  • Openness! Or: HowTos: While maybe campaigns need to be run top down for strong impact it is still the citizens who need to occupy the space with alternative ideas after all! We need available tutorials how to install and run new uses of the space. Those will also involve administrative work and dealing with government and regulations. And it will involve teaching or encouraging people to hack things! Activities from here will feed back to all of the above.


Layer 5



A good part of living in a sustainable circular economy is to consume less and with this produce less. Throw in automation and we have a lot of people out of work with free time to explore different things.

Maybe from an understanding of the biological and technological ecosystems also a greater sensitivity for our body will enter the mainstream: Yoga, sports, walks, healthy nutrition become even more popular. We can spend time to repair things or create/make some of them ourselves. How to engage deeper with the world around us? Yes, for example with long walks exploring the city or even the country by foot. I am sure people will find good ways to spend time.


Obligatory Passages! – Maintaining Democracy In A Digital Age

When people can decide for themselves what they do, where they go and who they meet what will happen? The internet taught us that people have the tendency to lock themselves into filter bubbles. If you can pick you chose what you already know about and what fits your world view. And research shows: People feel best amongst people that are like them.

Work life on the other hand makes us meet across bubbles. The university professor has an interaction with the package delivery employer at the doorstep. But when a robot is doing that job where will those two people meet? Won’t they be locked in to their peer groups? For a democracy this could become a problem. How can people reasonably live together in a society and understand each others decisions if they don’t know about each others existence?

But work is not the only ‘obligatory passage’ in our world. School is an important one. Public space too. To understand what an obligatory passage is think about your school. You had to go there almost every week and meet a very diverse group of people. In your free time you met your friends that were like you. But in school there were all the others too. You learned about them! For many people school is the most diverse social setting they were ever part of. Math nerd, art fan, handy person, fashion freak, the smart and the less smart all on the same school trip in the woods.

So how can the city organize public life in a way that citizens will meet across bubbles? A good way to do this is to create ‘obligatory passages’. The new public space offered by car free streets (see layer 4) is a good place for them. Make people do things in public! And let them do it in an open fashion! Yes. Openness is key here as well! Put a sign up next to your yoga class when the class will be open and new people can approach to ask questions and so on.

The Reversibility Facilities (see layer 1) could make a good obligatory passage for example. Maintaining our shared circular infrastructure together.

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And Now

How do we get it on the road?

Following what was said above: Design obligatory passages, try to make them inclusive and let people run activities there in an open fashion. And make those obligatory passages about not consuming!

But other than that: To explore circularity people need a lot of free time they can use guilt free and out in the open to develop new resource light ways to give live a meaning. But our society isn’t ready to grant this. So currently it is about small steps to free up time and make experiments and invent work free sustainable resource light lifestyles our culture will accept. Here are things to do or that would help:

  • Politics 1 – Rent: Rents might become the biggest problem! In most cities rents are already to high to explore a resource light life with unpaid work on a basic income for example. When only full time and hard working people can afford to live in a city, the sustainable circular city and living in it won’t be developed. The permanent increase of rents need to be stopped and positive examples need to be supported. Not just for the circular city. (See Idea below for more).
  • Politics 2 – Basic Income Vs 0.1: In Germany we have a social security system: If you are out of a job for a long time you’ll get support by the state called “Hartz IV”. This pays for your health insurance, gives you a bit of money for your daily expenses and covers your rent (if it is not too high). But people on Harts IV get a lot of pressure from the state! So there is no room to openly explore resource light lifestyles and put a positive spin on it. Putting away this pressure would be a good first step. Maybe you can hack this yourself? (See idea below for more.)
  • Job Sharing: Job Sharing is already something people do. You split one job in two half time jobs for two people. In cities many people look for jobs that are only part time. Hack your company! Explain it to your boss. Invent workflow that allows job sharing.
  • Campaigns: Hack Your Life: There are already campaigns and there is fantastic material out there from activists and NGOs showing people how to have and consume less and life a better life. Repair things with IFixit for example. Or live without plastics. But there is always room for more.

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Layer 6


Products / Things

We spoke already a bit about products in layer one and two: They are circular designed and transparent. They communicate to me and include me differently through their transparency.

When they are made to be repurposed, made to be hacked, made to be repaired and so on this will result for a lot of products into a different design. We might see a lot more modularity. And an interesting way to look at modularity is ‘PreUse’.

‘Make Circularity’ an open poster about circular design. Download to print, share, sell or remix here.



I want to introduce you to the term PreUse (created by ReFunc, look also for PreCycling, from Umschichten). PreUse means you use products for something other before you use them for what they were initially intended. It also means you don’t use something without an idea for what happens next with it. Some examples of PreUse are great hacks.

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PreUse maybe also points to objects of the future or can help to invent them. In the example above the pipe holders are perfectly designed to work as pipe holders. But as curtain holders they are a bit ugly. But maybe you can redesign them just a tiny bit so they work perfectly for both jobs! Pick a surface and material that gets more beautiful when it gets older on top.

Less objects and less complexity makes it easier for the Reversibility Facilities (see layer 1) to make their job. PreUse/ReUse = Reduce Complexity!

PreUse is something everybody can do, see and understand and that can change minds. Digital devices can offer also good opportunities to get rid of a bunch of products because they can substitute them. If you have a smartphone you don’t need a calendar or an alarm clock.

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Excursus: Packaging

Packaging is something many people see and experience everyday – as a garbage problem. So here are some ideas how to deal with packaging or avoid packaging in the circular city.

  • Restaurants! Going out to eat reduces the need for packaging and allows to use less energy to feed the same number of people.
  • Deposit boxes for more things (deployed bottom up).
  • PreUse & modularity in packaging! Make packaging that can be used also for other things and therefore collected and sold – a PreUse Deposit System (More here)
  • Bulk shopping & bring your own boxes.
  • Reduce Packaging – maybe the mail-man or shop can hand you out an almost unpacked device.
  • Biodegradable packaging
  • Packaging designed for Recycling (R) (See layer 1)
  • Reorganize your life – enforce plastic free structures


And Now

How do we get it on the road?

We need to start building those solutions one by one. And politics need to support this. Campaign for it. Probably necessary support, inspiration and opportunities for this will come from layer 1 and layer 2.


Layer 7



I lack a bit of imagination or interest for buildings. But I feel there should be something about buildings in a scenario about the Open Source Circular City.


PreUse Buildings

Reusing and repurposing buildings is also key in the circular city. If people consume less we won’t need that many shops and malls for example. Some of the larger buildings could be turned into Reversibility Facilities (layer 1). Smaller spaces can be dedicated to community activities (layer 5).

We need to design buildings so that they can be reused and repurposed. Many of the older houses in Berlin for example have flats and spaces you can use to live in but also as a workshop or to learn together. Let’s learn from good PreUse buildings (see layer 5).

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Green Architecture

There are plenty of ideas for sustainable and circular architecture and city design. How to make buildings use less energy or even produce it? How to integrate more green? Add compost toilets or other systems to save phosphate. Increase density. + + +


And Now

How Do We Get There?

How about a seal or tax incentives for circular buildings? + + +


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