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Learning from the Frontrunners: Systemic Barriers to Circular City Innovation

18. Oct 2023

This report draws on insights from the two-year program Circular Cities to explore the key systemic barriers hindering circular innovation in Danish cities. It also offers unique insights into how we can change the underlying structures and norms to overcome these barriers and succeed with circular initiatives in the public sector


Implementing sustainable and circular change within city limits, especially where systemic norms have long existed, is challenging. In this new report, we address the fundamental barriers and challenges faced by municipalities from Circular Cities as they try to implement new initiatives to achieve their circular economy goals.

Scroll all the way down to download the report right away.

The report is developed by Twin Transition

What you get

Based on crucial insights from the participating cities of Aalborg, Fredensborg, Fredericia, Kolding, and Odsherred, you’ll learn about the key systemic barriers to circular innovation and our actionable recommendations to overcome these challenges and take decisive steps toward a better, more sustainable future.

At DDC, we are committed to developing a common understanding among the people, companies, and organizations working with and for the circular transition. Gaining and sharing concrete insights, such as those from program participants, is an important step in improving our understanding of the challenges within our system and, equally important, in creating a shared vision and conversation about how to succeed with the circular transition.

What we found

  1. Lack of collaboration, organization, and clarity about the political mandate hinders the progress of circular innovation. Also, smaller municipalities lack interdisciplinary innovation, while larger ones face siloed structures that impede collaboration. Also, the municipalities lacking design-driven approaches require ongoing innovation and support to prevent falling back into old habits.
  2. Fear of risk and responsibilities. Public actors and semi-public companies typically avoid taking risks, but transitioning to a circular economy calls for the opposite: the courage to take risks. Clarity on responsibility for reused materials, e.g., in construction, is essential. Many companies are only willing to join circular initiatives if municipalities are willing to take on the responsibility.
  3. Inflexible regulations: The five municipalities face regulatory barriers that hinder circular innovation, especially within construction. For example, navigating paragraphs in regulation to support circular transformation, such as ‘Bygningsreglement,’ ‘Planlov,’ and ‘Udbudslov’ has proven difficult. Also, widespread uncertainty about future EU regulations raises concerns about potential project impacts and new compliance requirements in the municipalities.

What we recommend

Breaking down systemic obstacles requires collective action from all ecosystem actors and transparent guidelines. We need an overarching view and understanding of the upcoming rules and regulations, both at the national and EU level, that will impact municipalities and other public and private actors related to the circular economy and the green transition in the coming years.

Additionally, a national and political emphasis on the circular economy, which to a greater extent legitimizes the allocation of municipal resources and time to CE projects, could pose a potential game-changer. Especially if such focus is accompanied by a cross-municipal and shared understanding of the role of municipalities in CE and sustainability initiatives.

Looking across the line, municipalities, and local businesses need a better basis for decision-making, such as a shared systemic risk assessment related to circular economy projects of various types. Likewise, they should be set free to take on responsibility, embrace risk, and spearhead the transition to a circular economy. This could, for example, be achieved with a national risk fund for CE projects to ensure that the smaller communities/businesses aren’t left alone with the entire responsibility.

Download the full report for a deeper dive into the complete list of systemic barriers and the recommendations to overcome them.

Who should read this?

The report is particularly relevant to other Danish municipalities and EU cities that want to create and promote circular initiatives or are simply curious about the concrete challenges other municipalities are experiencing in their circular transformation.

The report is also handy for policymakers as it addresses systemic barriers and provides recommendations for these challenges. Barriers that we supported and actively addressed as part of the innovation project.

For us, this report serves as a solid guide to where we need to focus our efforts as we work with the circular economy, and we hope that the findings and recommendations can inspire other cities to explore new approaches and establish a collaborative dialogue to break free of underlying systemic challenges.

"The potential is enormous if the municipalities and the cities within move from a linear to a circular economy (CE). After all, cities are the real culprits, consuming the majority of the world's resources, up to 75 percent"

Completing the Picture

Ellen MacArthur Foundation & Arup

Download the report here

About Circular Cities

The two-year innovation project, Circular Cities, involves the Danish municipalities Aalborg, Fredensborg, Fredericia, Kolding, and Odsherred. The project explores and unlocks circular system prototypes from construction to building materials and water consumption and takes a systemic, cross-sectional, and holistic approach to the circular transition.

The project is driven by DDC and CLEAN and supported by Realdania

Using our Circular Toolkit, you can start your circular transition too.

Gry Brostrøm

Mission Driver

Phone +45 3115 8670
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Any questions?

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