Daily Planet

We need to hack our cities to make them circular, sustainable, and open

How can we make our cities circular? Lars Zimmerman, co-founder of circular economy initiative The City Is Open Source, argues that “hacking them” might be the most promising and perhaps only viable way to do this.

The City Is Open Source is an artistic and activist circular economy research project. It aims to build and test an open, accessible toolbox and library for hacking our cities to use and build upon. But what does “hacking our cities” actually mean? Let’s go through it step by step:


The shortest definition of hacking might be: “To break a system’s limitations”. Hacking is about ‘re-purposing’ systems and giving them new possibilities. As the freedom of information and technology activist Wau Holland put it, “A hacker is someone trying to make toast with a coffee machine.”

The term itself was coined at MIT in the 1950s. It meant a creative technique where you take a system and use it for something entirely different than the initial designers of the system intended by just making a few small changes — small modifications with a big impact.

A hack is something quick, dirty, and can be inelegant, but it is most likely something very smart and creative. Hacking means to do with a system what you want and not what the system wants you to do with it.

Sustainable circular cities

We’ve known for decades that we’re “running the planet” in a very unsustainable way. But, very little has changed. Climate change, resource depletion… everything moves even faster than 40 years ago. Why? A good explanation for this is the Lock-In Effect.

Things we know because we have only read or heard about them usually have little impact on our daily decisions and perception of the world. Stronger and more influential are the structures and systems that surround us—what we’re using everyday. The world around us determines what we can think of or imagine.

An example, it’s important to teach our children not to play in the street because cars drive there. A child who doesn’t know this lesson will not survive in the city. But, with the same lesson, one also learns that our society values cars—that the street is not for children, but for cars. And, later in life, when the child is grown up and has to solve a problem that involves mobility – a car will very likely be part of the picture. And, there’s no room to develop ideas for what else you could do with all the fantastic space between the buildings in our cities.

Imagine you have to try to teach design students in universities how to create open source and circular products like I do. You get the chance to talk to them once, or maybe once a week. But, in their daily lives, they’re surrounded by thousands of products that are the opposite—linear and closed source. They’ll probably have a much bigger impact on the minds of the students.

The culture we’re locked in shapes what we can do and even imagine. It’s a permanent lesson on how to re-create it. If it’s unsustainable, it will force unsustainable thinking and problem solving on us. Our possibilities are determined and even our imagination is blocked.

I met a French researcher who’s been researching sustainability for 20 years. And, she couldn’t come up with a way to structure her German-French research project without flying back and forth between the countries on a regular basis.

How can we get out of this ‘prison for our imagination’?

Option one is to smash down our cities and rebuild everything from scratch. That’s not a solution, for tons of reasons. It would be an ecological and energy disaster, just to name one.

Option two is hacking! Hacking indeed seems to be the only way out. Because it means to give a system an entirely new purpose, with just a few minor modifications. Re-purpose what is there. This could be an ecologically and economically sustainable way for transformation.


The development of our culture progresses. This means we find ourselves surrounded by a growing number of systems. The majority are too complex to be understood by a single human being. Yet, they express intentions and interests. But whose intentions and interests?

It’s frightening, but the reality is thousands of intelligent people work hard to build a ‘smart city’. Many of them push for a smart city that will put us all under heavy surveillance: Our movements, habits, social circles, heart rate, adrenaline level, and blood sugar will be intercepted by sensors and sent to companies to allow them to display opportunities, choices, and news for us in return. These systems are fed with psychological methods and augmented with AI to offer us the ‘perfect choice’, the ‘perfect view on the world’. Perfect for whom?

Surveillance is a great tool to enforce existing—linear—power structures. It helps those in power to stabilise their running structures.

So hacking—to break these systems’ limitations, to do with our lives what we want to do, and not what they want us to—might be the only way to maintain, express, and reestablish our freedom, which is necessary for real, sustainable change. We need to be able to bust every sensor network and bypass surveillance systems.

The City is Open Source

This is what the project The City Is Open Source is about. It investigates hacking as a method to invent and experience the open, circular, and free city. It aims to build an accessible open toolbox and a list of examples for everybody to study, use, build upon, and contribute to. Hack our cities for freedom and circularity!

The project is on the road—by train, through the net, and in rare cases, on a plane. We love to invent and discuss hacks for and/or in partnership with other organizations and to create things in open events. Invite us. Or just start hacking!

Written by Lars Zimmermann. You can read more about the City is Open Source here.

Lars will be a panellist for the circular economy session at the Climate Innovation Summit in Milan on 30 October. Register today!

Sustainability doesn’t need to mean building something new: Use what is there sustainably.