From Linear to Circular in Construction: An Interview with Lu Ying
Lu Ying recently co-founded Future Urban Living to explore sustainable solutions for businesses and cities in the Circular Economy through design thinking. Lu gave a great keynote speech at WDBE 2019 in Helsinki. We continue the discussion in this interview.
AH: Can you say a few words about your background, what you do, and what inspired you to start up Future Urban Living?
Future Urban Living is all about helping organizations transform from linear to the circular economy. Our focus is not only to help our clients build sustainable solutions but rather, to shift the entire way of thinking into understanding that economic, environmental and cultural values are not a trade-off with one another. The minute companies realize this, it often translates into value shifts in business. Instead of selling a product, you’re now selling a solution to a problem. And the sky’s the limit to what kinds of solutions can be offered to solve those problems.
Because we do what we do, we need to understand entire ecosystems. So it’s not uncommon to find ourselves in bridging different sectors from private to public and academia to intergovernmental organizations. We all speak a very different language and have conflicts of interest. But the most innovative and holistic ideas do require such diverse viewpoints.
And this is all a reflection of my personal
background. Having grown up across 3 different continents and worked in a range
of different industries, I’ve learned how siloed most sectors still are. I find
it interesting to see businesses still compete against each other within
singular markets although the real threat is not even there anymore.
So this is where Future Urban Living comes in. Me and my business partner are both part of the World Economic Forum Global Shapers and initially worked on future cities where we realized the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration. Ideas are only as strong as their implementation and implementation is only interesting if economically viable. So ultimately, this led us to merge business and design in the world of circular economy.
AH: What’s your view of the circular economy?
Circular economy is the biggest economic opportunity of our time. I say this, not because it’s a ‘good thing to do’ on an ideological level, but because it’s the only way I see different stakeholders and industries sustain growth and innovation in the longer term. Also, we’re talking about some serious economic value here: it’s a 4.5 trillion industry, unlocking 40 million jobs shifting from linear to the circular economy.
Now, is this anything new? Not really. It’s common sense to optimize resource use and reduce or repurpose waste. But over the past century, we’ve been so focused on efficiency we’ve become confined by scarcity mindset – as opposed to a regenerative mindset.
Waste is still considered a cost rather than a valuable, reusable asset. Users are considered to be the end of the product life cycle rather than the start of the journey. These are huge possibilities for us to tap into and turn into new ways of creating value. Finally, I also see circularity as a great opportunity for us to link back to nature, where everything is connected. I wouldn’t have been caught dead saying this at a younger age (having always gravitated towards cities) but there is so much quiet wisdom in nature it is truly humbling.
AH: Construction is a huge industry with a substantial environmental footprint. How do you see the industry’s current status in terms of the circular economy?
Still a long way to go. The whole built environment is just starting to lift its head up when it comes to circular thinking. Half of our planet’s raw materials are used in construction and this is a sector that accounts for 40% of our carbon footprint today. Not just the materials used in construction but the actual usage of our built environment as well.
There’s a lot of structural inefficiency in the space. From building material waste to inefficient space utilization, loss of energy and finally, demolition of buildings ending up in landfills as most of the materials contain so much toxic they’re unusable.
It’s definitely not the easiest industry to turn circular but it will have some serious impact when it does. We need radical change in redefining the role of the built environment: not just for sustainability, but to design regenerative and carbon-negative models that can evolve organically the same way our urban environments do.
AH: What are the incentives for clients and AEC firms to start moving towards the circular economy?
To be honest, I’m not sure if for profit-businesses will survive in the long run if they’re not paying attention to what’s happening in this space. Global consumer habits have been shifting quite dramatically towards sustainable values in choosing products and services in recent years. So just like digital transformation has wiped out roughly 50% of Fortune 500 companies since the beginning of the year 2000, the shift towards circularity is going to disrupt existing business models in the years to come.
And if this is not existential enough for companies to rethink their operating model, things like open innovation, reducing costs and designing waste out of their systems for better competitive advantage should definitely speak loud and clear. Circularity as an ideology won’t scale, circularity as an economic model certainly will. The latter speaks a language all sectors and cultures understand.
AH: Designers and contractors are in project-based business. Every project is a new start. How could a project team or alliance start applying circular principles on a single project?
Good question. We know it’s a challenge but the way we like to approach this problem is to see it as a tremendous opportunity: because circularity is still new and scattered in the built environment, your design or project can end up benchmarking the entire industry, or even better, create a completely new industry. What you’ve discovered in material usage in this project, for instance, doesn’t take it away from your next. Quite the opposite actually, if you’ve established a network of sustainable suppliers, why not work with them in longer-term, or develop even smarter ways for zero-carbon constructions together?
Circular principles are applicable for a broad range of different uses: product life cycles, material extensions, repurposing waste into new life and restoring resources. I see these principles industry and project agnostic.
We are currently exploring circularity in the aviation industry, which is still a very new concept. It does require us to invest more upfront time and resources, but we can apply many circularity principles from the built environment into this as in the end of the day, it’s all about managing people and material flows in physical spaces in the most effective, efficient and sustainable ways.
AH: What are the “big picture” or systemic changes we’ll have to do, eventually?
Systems approach to problems rather than industrial silos. Instead of focusing on the solution, shifting our focus on the actual problem. Can’t stress this enough. We will see more businesses co-defining and co-solving problems together with users, residents, regulators and researchers. We will start tracking our materials cycles: source origins to consumption to upcycle to regeneration of resources along with their calculated financial value today and in the future. This may sound complicated today, but we already have the technology that will automate tracking, transparency, traceability and execution.
Construction industry will need to design for increased agility, modularity, longevity and resilience. That’s very different from our today’s urban models with fixed structures on a single-purpose land zone. We’ll be seeing more plug-in plug-out solutions for our materials usage and price usage differently, and the entire role of our governing systems (like cities) will shift more into enabling rather than top-down regulating.
AH: Can you mention any good examples in the built environment?
Yes absolutely. We’re starting to see some exciting projects bloom in this space but not as many as I’d like, not yet. One of our partners uses underused building space, or waste space (e.g. corridors, alleys, and transitional spaces) for vertical farming in urban environments, creating ‘Edible Cities’. Another interesting one is this residential community that uses blockchain technology to store, distribute and trade renewable energy between its residents. This is to save, optimize and reallocate their energy usage.
We’ve seen a number of zero-emission buildings now and with this, a special shout-out to Kraaijvanger, another partner of ours that has done tremendous work in designing buildings by Cradle-to-Cradle (C2C) principles, sourcing C2C certified suppliers and exclusively using locally sourced materials for a healthy built space.
AH: There’s a lot of debate over construction materials. Are building materials essential from the circular economy point of view or just a small piece of the puzzle?
Essential. Nature is part of the building of new constructions now. What we take from the global pool of resources, we should also give back, or even more, we should restore. There are many different ways we can source our materials, design the usage of those materials, extend their life cycles and repurpose their usage after their current phase into a new cycle. Smart and hybrid materials that interact with their surrounding environment and plug-in plug-out systems that allow us to ‘rent’ or use materials ‘on-demand’, traceable material passports and resource banks.. these are all new ways of being mindful about our material usage.
That said, none of this is interesting for the industry if these alternatives are not economically viable. As a designer, you could pull in all the most sustainable, renewable and intelligent material but if your concept is too expensive to fund, it’ll stay exactly as that, a concept.
Therefore, I keep emphasizing the importance of multidisciplinary innovation: it needs to be aligned with the interest of the developers and investors, architects and engineers, national and city governance, urban residents and citizens, constructors and tech providers.. and so on. Without finding a sweet spot in this alignment, this is all just chit-chatting about ideas that have no real feasibility.
AH: However, we’ve seen how a large number of older offices, factories, or hospitals don’t serve modern needs. Do you see these buildings and infrastructure as an asset to a liability, and why? What should we do with them?
Great question. It really depends on where these buildings are located at, the way they were built, materials used and other urban infrastructure around them. In many developed European cities, for instance, I see older infrastructure as an asset, not only because of their historical and cultural value, but because they were built to last. With high-quality engineering, restoring these old buildings into contemporary usage harnesses history unlike any new buildings can. Such combinations to me tend to be the most fascinating.
On the other hand, places like China, that has undergone such a wild transformation over the past decades, has built its entire urban environment with an average building lifespan of 25-30 years. Obviously, there are many reasons behind this but these buildings are much more difficult (and expensive) to restore for modern usage. It’s much easier to demolish them and build new than renovate them almost entirely.
AH: One building or street is still a fairly small part of a larger urban system. How can cities start taking steps towards the circular economy when it comes to the built environment?
The role of cities in this is foundational. I’d love to see cities get more involved in two things:
1) owning the big picture-view of things in the circular economy, identifying infrastructural gaps and incentivizing private/public stakeholders to dive in these holes by offering support. The easiest way to initiate this shift would probably be a combination of taxing those with higher carbon footprint and funding those with more regenerative approaches.
2) developing an ‘umbrella’ full of enablers that empower different sectors to innovate in circular models. Enablers are like tools you can play with. This could include developing metrics to measure life cycles and/or incentivizing individuals to participate in.
In other words, I’d love to see cities take the role of guiding the direction ecosystems-wise. Because it is seriously difficult for a single operator to take the first step into circularity when you need the entire ecosystem to collaborate, cities are uniquely positioned to do exactly this. They’re these intense clusters of capital, material and human talent – perfect testbeds for fresh urban models. They also drive our global GDP. Therefore, I’m most optimistic about cities in general.
AH: Finally, how can our readers contact you?
Best way to just connect with me in Linkedin (www.linkedin.com/in/luying) or drop me a line at