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Montreal's urban metabolism open-source platform, based on crowdsourced data to monitor the city's progress towards a circular economy.


Summary / Résumé

To measure the transition towards a circular economy it is first necessary to measure all resource use and waste production flows of a city (or its urban metabolism). A better knowledge of these flows can help propose more relevant policies and inform whether current initiatives actually have an impact on this transition.

Yet obtaining reliable data is one of the most important and time-consuming activities. This not only limits research activities, but it also creates a significant threshold for stakeholders in using urban metabolism on a more practical level. The inconsistency and scattered nature of data furthermore complicate the uptake of urban metabolism tools and practices. However, urban metabolism provides an incredibly useful lens to understand urban sustainability challenges as it looks at a city as a system, trying to understand the linkages between different flows of the city.

MultipliCity aims to develop a global online hub that centralizes, visualizes, and presents datasets related to urban resource use and waste flows. A network of local volunteers (students, researchers, city officials, citizens, etc) assists with the identification of relevant datasets, and the MultipliCity platform takes care of indexing, processing, and standardizing the datasets. This allows for a large collection of data to become available vastly improving access and allowing for more work to be done on analysis and experimentation, rather than on data collection.

Montreal will become one of the cities featured within this project. This can be done by engaging with local businesses, city officials, academics, and the general public to uncover, index, and analyze relevant datasets. The aim is to develop a Montreal-specific open portal where in-depth urban metabolism data can be found. This can become an invaluable tool in measuring, understanding, and planning interventions that aim to improve sustainability in the city and track its progress to a circular metabolism and economy.

What actions do you propose? / Quelles actions proposez-vous?

MultipliCity is being developed by Metabolism of Cities, an online, open source platform around the topic of urban metabolism. However, Montreal is not currently in the list of cities to include in the project. In order to include Montreal, we propose a three-phased approach:

  1. Scan of the main stakeholders, principal resources, and overall city infrastructure in relationship to urban metabolism

  2. Creation of a Montreal-specific portal within the MultipliCity project based on the initial scan

  3. Collection of processing of datasets using a wide variety of engagement activities in the city

Each of these phases is described in more detail below.


1. Scan of the main stakeholders, principal resources, and overall city infrastructure in relationship to urban metabolism

In order to understand where best to invest efforts in uncovering datasets and who to work with, some time should be put into understanding the existing status quo. This includes the following:

Identification of the key stakeholders

Urban metabolism is a multidisciplinary field. It involves data from and relationships with city government, regional government, national government, as well as a wide variety of industries, academia, citizens associations and research organizations. By reaching out to people undertaking relevant research and initiatives, the key stakeholders can be identified and approached for their interest in participating in this project. Participation can be as simple as sharing some data, or as involved as hosting events.

Some of the relevant stakeholders already identified include: Ville de Montréal, Province du Québec, Statistique Canada, Ressources Naturelles Canada, HydroQuébec, Université de Montréal (Institut EDDEC, CIRAIG), La Ruche, PME Montréal, Recyc-Québec. 

Identification of principal resources

Each city is unique. Using some of the stakeholders that were identified earlier, a preliminary overview should be made of the principal resources that flow into and out of Montreal. What kind of fossil fuels or other energy carriers are used in the city? Where do building materials come from? What are the primary industries and what are the inputs and outputs? What are key consumption traits in the city? What are the existing environmental concerns? What are the waste treatment facilities available locally or in the direct hinterland? How is waste currently valorized? Answering these questions will help make the initial work more relevant and focused.

Understanding city infrastructure

Urban metabolism has a direct link to physical material flows. Once the main resource requirements have been outlined, the question becomes: how do these resources flow through the city? Is there a local refinery? How is electricity provided to the city's population and industry? How is solid waste collected and transported to its final destination? What does the water and wastewater infrastructure look like? Where is industry located, and how do roads and railroads influence freight flows? Again, by answering these questions we can better focus our attention and start off chasing the right type of information.


2. Creation of a Montreal-specific portal within the MultipliCity project based on the initial scan

After we have done our initial preparatory work, we will create a baseline portal for Montreal. This work will be done during an initial workshop with relevant stakeholders. It will be hosted by the city of Montréal or Université de Montréal and will invite researchers and city officials having worked on circular economy and urban metabolism. Like other cities, the following sections will be created:

  1. City profile (population, climate data, density, etc)

  2. Resources (water use, building materials, fuel consumption, food, etc)

  3. Waste and emissions (solid waste by type and by valorisation, air pollution emissions, water pollutants, etc)

  4. Infrastructure (building stock, road network, etc)

  5. Mobility (vehicle counts, congestion, public transit data, etc)

  6. Utilities (water, electricity, sewerage)

  7. Industry (profile and material flows related to principal industries)

  8. Policies (index of existing, relevant policies)

  9. Research (index of scientific publications, grey literature, official reports, etc.)

After the first overview of datasets, publications, reports, policy documents, the following will be done:

  • For each data topic (e.g. water consumption, electricity use, road construction) one or several common formats will be identified.

  • A limited number of easily accessible datasets will be collected and the raw data will be indexed (including the original spreadsheets and metadata including data quality indicators).

  • Scripts will be written to process the raw data to the common format. These scripts will be made available as part of the meta data.

  • The processed data will be uploaded to a master database, together with data on the same topic from the other cities.

  • Within Montreal's profile, a set of tools will be made available to explore this data.

The following tools have been developed for other cities and will be made available to Montreal's portal:

  • Filtering tools: users an quickly and easily filter data by time period, type of data, geographical area, and other parameters.

  • Interactive visualizations: data will be presented as bar/line charts, or other charts where appropriate, that users can interact with. These graphs will be part of the theme’s page within the city profile, so that users can immediately get an idea of the underlying data without having to download any information.

  • Mapping tools: georeferenced data (especially data on micro-territorial unit scale) will be displayed on a map and can be clicked on and browsed with a few clicks.

  • Download tools: multiple options exist for downloading data. Raw data, calculations, metadata, and the processed data can all be easily downloaded in different formats. Users can also filter or otherwise restrict or expand datasets before downloading them.


3. Collection of processing of datasets using a wide variety of engagement activities in the city

Identifying and uploading raw data does not require specialized skills or academic knowledge. Rather, it requires knowledge of the local language and the ability to figure out the existing procedures at the city or country of choice when it comes to data access. For this reason Metabolism of Cities will, together with local stakeholders, actively create a network of volunteers to assist with the collection of datasets. By doing so, the time-consuming work of identifying datasets will be divided amongst many local participants.

A large list with possible datasets will be created (based on all the possible datasets previously indexed or identified at other cities). This list will be presented to the volunteers as one large “to do” list. The volunteers will be asked to find whatever dataset they think is available, while also inviting them to suggest other datasets missing in the list. Within MultipliCity, the achievements of each volunteer (the datasets they uploaded) will be publicly listed. For each city and for each volunteer a number of points will be calculated to display how much work was already done (based on the uploaded datasets), and how much still needs to be done. This will assist in creating a friendly competition between cities and volunteers.

The collection of data will be done by a targeted audience of volunteers including university students, practicioners, consultants, entrepreneurs, local associations, researchers, etc. For that purpose, two separate hackathons will be organised by one of the identified stakeholders.

On-the-ground engagement

Engagement with a variety of relevant groups will be key. This can include holding workshops with city officials, organizing hackathons for the general public, setting up data collection and sharing projects with local universities, and engaging with local industry and businesses.

Thematic virtual events will be organized by the MultipliCity project in order to keep the volunteer network involved and to focus on particular topics. For instance, every month a different resource can be highlighted and volunteers are specifically asked to locate datasets around that particular theme. The Within the MultipliCity platform various data visualizations and other tools will be developed around this theme, so that any dataset that is added will immediately enhance the city’s online portal.


Confidentiality, Data use and access

At the core of this project is the philosophy that data on resource flows and stocks should be openly available to everyone. Just like the rest of our website, all data within the MultipliCity project will be licensed as open source (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0) data. However, there is an exception for some of the data when it pertains to confidential, company-specific information. Most data that is collected on a city-wide level does not identify specific consumers or providers. For instance, suburb-wide wastewater generation or monthly electricity consumption. All of this data will be readily made available through MultipliCity. We also aim to collect data from individual companies or utilities if that is the only way to obtain data on resource flows. For instance, data on food flows is often hard to obtain. However, there are often only a handful of companies in the food processing and supermarket sector that cover 80-90% of the market. By surveying these companies, valuable information can be obtained. In order to encourage participation by these companies, we offer them the option to submit detailed information to our system, but to only make aggregated data available to the public. We only make city-wide totals available if various companies have contributed data, which will mean that data from individual companies is not disclosed, but the resource flow data is still made available.


Which types of stakeholders are involved, in which way? / Quels types de parties prenantes sont impliqués, de quelle façon?

MultipliCity is all about involving a variety of people. We feel that urban metabolism data, and the use of it, should not be limited to a specific group of people.

  1. City officials 
    The city undoubtedly holds a variety of interesting datasets, and furthermore has a lot to gain from engaging with other datasets that come out of this project. At Metabolism of Cities we have quite a lot of experience engaging with local governments to interest them into the topic of urban metabolism, and ensure that the efforts are relevant to their work.

  2. Academics
    Within the discipline of Industrial Ecology there is an academic field that is directly concerned with urban metabolism. There are furthermore other research fields that (in)directly relate to urban metabolism.

  3. Students
    MultipliCity provides a wealth of information for students, and can be both a source of information as a project that they can contribute to. Organizing presentations and workshops at universities is very useful.

  4. Local residents
    Once a significant number of datasets has been loaded, especially data on a micro-level, local residents can be invited to have a look at their suburb's or neighborhood's performance and contrast it to others as well as include their circular economy initiatives.

  5. Businesses
    Businesses are responsible for a fair share of the city's resource requirements, and encouraging them to share data around their (aggregated) consumption will be beneficial for their own image, as well as for the MultipliCity project.

  6. Utility companies
    These companies can provide baseline data around water, wastewater, and electricity consumption, waste collection and treatment, etc.

  7. Industry associations
    From experience we know industry associations can be great for providing data, as well as providing a platform to engage with key players in different industries.

  8. International organisations

Such as UN Environment, ICLEI, WCCD, etc. in order to disseminate efforts of Montréal and learn from other existing networks and initiatives.

How could the actions be scaled up at the neighborhood or city level? / Comment serait-il possible d'augmenter la portée des actions à l'échelle des quartiers ou de la ville?

The very nature of the MultipliCity project is to be scalable at any level. We collect data and initiatives on any level as long as it relates to Montreal's resource use and waste generation in order to guide its transition towards a more circular economy. By implementing different visualizations and data processing techniques, we can create maps, graphs, and run analyses on different levels. This allows users to contrast different suburbs with each other, see heat maps of where resource use is highest in the city, or visualize the impact of the city's congestion problems at a glance. At the same time, Montreal's data can be contrasted with other cities that form part of the MultipliCity project.

This open-source platform would also serve as a raising awareness platform for a general public and well as new companies that wish to engage in the topic of circular economy but are yet familiar or are not convinced why they should their current practices. 

In the long run, the city as well as citizens will be able to share their plans and initiative around circular economy in one central place. Circular economy showcases and indicators could be constructed by the elements developed by the project. A newsletter and mailing list about projects, initiatives, funding opportunities could be constructed to maintain the relationship between "on the ground" actions and this open data platform.


Finally, as mentioned throughout this proposal, one of the main objective of the Multiplicity project is scalability (not only within the city of Montréal but also without). As many cities (Brussels, Paris, Glasgow, London, Phoenix, Vancouver, etc.) are currently developing their circular economy plans and urban metabolism studies, as well as creating their own circular economy indicators, it is essential to develop a free and open platform that can centralise efforts from cities and develop sharable learnings and initiatives. As of now we are discussing with the region of Brussels and the city of Paris to include their studies on the platform. 

What impact will these actions have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change? / Quels impacts auront ces actions sur la réduction des émissions de gaz à effet de serre et l'adaptation aux changements climatiques?

Becoming more circular starts with understanding the city as a whole and measuring its flows

Urban sustainability must be seen from a system-wide perspective in order to measure the total impact of policy interventions. In order to become more sustainable and circular, cities must ensure that there is as much data and understanding as possible across the city and its entire socio-economic system. Single interventions focused on a particular resource may appear successful, but the reality may be different. Desalination plants increase water supply, but increase electricity consumption and emissions. Encouraging the use of solar power may decrease fossil fuel consumption, but may encourage people to buy more appliances or lead to material depletion. Applying an urban metabolism lens allows for cities to study the urban system as a whole. This is especially important for cities that wish to develop or implement a circular economy plan. A metabolic overview of a city enables to identify the flows and economic sectors that are the most promising to make its economy and metabolism circular. The identification of the flows/sectors can then help to propose the most sensible actions. In addition, without systemic indicators and measurement, it becomes impossible to know whether funded projects by the city have the assumed impact on the circular economy transition.

One central repository for urban metabolism data

By their very nature, urban metabolism data - or data on urban resource stocks and flows - are scattered across different organizations, websites, publications, and other data custodians. MultipliCity offers cities are single repository for this kind of information. Stakeholders including city officials, citizens, researchers, and others can locate a wealth of urban metabolism data in one single place, greatly enhancing the accessibility and use of these data.

What are the other environmental, economic or social benefits? / Quels sont les autres bénéfices environnementaux, économiques et sociaux?

Empowering researchers

Researchers often spend most of their time collecting data in order to understand urban sustainability. By crowdsourcing the data gathering process, and by providing tools to filter, visualize, and download data, researchers can focus more time on analysis and interpretation of the data.

Open invitation for student projects

The large number of datasets also permits student projects to delve into topics of urban sustainability and understanding of the city's resource requirements much more easily. Unlocking these datasets often requires months of back and forths with relevant data custodians, which makes it cumbersome and often impossible for students to take on a project that relates to the in-depth datasets that are available in MultipliCity. Now, students will have the data available in a matter of minutes.

Tools for citizen engagement

MultipliCity allows cities a new set of tools to use to engage its citizens around topics of sustainability and resource consumption. These include the process of crowdsourcing urban metabolism data, as well as organizing local hackathons, workshops, or resource consumption debates.

Engagement with industry and commerce

More and more companies have an interest in understanding their local and global resource impact. MultipliCity encourages local companies to engage in this discussion and to share information about their efforts and impacts with local residents, researchers and city officials.

Crowdsourcing saves money and involves a wider audience

MultipliCity effectively allows for crowdsourcing of urban metabolism data. Compared to commissioning researchers or consultants to do this work, this makes for a cheaper, more complete, and more involved data gathering process. There is also more continuity in the data gathering process, which does not depend on a single researcher, consultant or firm to be working on this anymore.

Develop a stronger science-policy-pratice interface

What are the most innovative aspects and main strengths of this approach? / Quels sont les aspects novateurs et les principales forces de cette approche?

  1. We combine rigorous science with a very approachable, public-friendly portal

  2. We crowdsource data

  3. We look at a very complex system and we try to unpack it, instead of focusing on one resource only

Some more specific elements are presented here below:

Comparison and collaboration across the globe

At the core of MultipliCity is the idea that a lot of work and efforts are shared amongst cities all over the world. Infrastructure, industries, and sustainability challenges in one city are often similar to the situation found in other cities. MultipliCity allows for easy comparisons between cities to identify similarities and to learn from each other. Furthermore, due to its open source nature, tools and data processing systems developed for one city will automatically become available to all cities in the platform.

Collaboration within an international platform

MultipliCity is part of the Metabolism of Cities platform. This is an international collaboration spanning multiple continents. By tapping into the MultipliCity platform, cities will automatically open themselves to this larger community. This significantly increases the chances that the city is included in an international research project, or that city officials or students are able to connect with international counterparts.

Free and Open Source

MultipliCity will release all data under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0), which allows reuse and adaptation of the data, data visualizations, and other tools as users see fit. 

What are the proposal’s projected costs? / Quels sont les coûts projetés de la proposition?

There are different type of costs involved with both the overall Multiplicity project as well as the local Montréal portal.

The biggest share of the cost are related to web development including the implementation of the international network community and creating all necessary education material on how to add data, how to use the platform and how to perform different comparison and develop evidence-based policies. The cost for developing the entire Multiplicity project is estimated at around 89 000 euros (around 150 000 CAD) which will be crowdsourced by different city administrations and international organisation. 

The specific project proposed here (i.e. the Montréal local and personalised platform), will require far less web development capacities as these will be already be carried out. Some specific elements will be added depending on the uptake of the stakeholders and the needs of the City. Around 21 000 CAD would be needed to setup the portal and produce basic data scans. In addition, around 27 000 CAD are needed to develop all activities that will engage stakeholders (workshops, lectures, video interviews, hackathons, etc) and create a community around the platform.

As such, the prize money obtained from the Climate CoLab will therefore be used to jumpstart the Montreal portal and help us crowdsource the rest of the amount from other local stakeholders of Montréal.

What are the potential challenges or obstacles? / Quels sont les défis ou les obstacles potentiels?

There are some challenges foreseen in the development of the Montréal's personalised urban metabolism platform.

As in any collaborative project, the platform is as good as the network that supports it and uses it. Without the appropriation of the platform by Montréal's local stakeholders, this open-data (and open-source) platform will not fulfill its objective of raising awareness and become an informative and evidence-based tool that helps keep track of the progress towards a circular economy. Hackathons and workshops including all stakeholders are crucial to create a common vocabulary and vision.

In addition, another major challenge is to curate harmonised data that is comparable across cities. After having developed the first global urban metabolism database (see references), we have shortlisted a number of indicators that are most common and relevant for urban metabolism studies and tracking the progress to a more circular economy. In Multiplicity, only comparable and standardised data will be encoded in order to enable comparability across cities.

Finally, data accuracy is always an issue in urban metabolism studies. There are very few datasets that are complete, accurate and consistently published. In order to assess the data quality of each datasets, we implement an adjusted data quality pedigree matrix that is often used in the lifecycle assessment literature in order to provide sufficient metadata for the users.

About the authors / À propos des auteur(e)s

The Metabolism of Cities ( is an open source website launched in 2014 with the aim to group together tools, publications and data related to the metabolism of cities or urban metabolism (UM). We want to make sustainability of cities a key concern in the field of city planning, and we want to share information and tools around urban metabolism with anyone interested in this field. By indexing and cataloguing publications from many journals, by explaining the basics of urban metabolism, and by centralizing figures and research results into one central hub, we aim to provide an open, community-led resource that can help save time and encourage interest for those looking into understanding more about the metabolism of cities.

The website contains the following sections:

  • Urban Metabolism Publications
  • Current research
  • Online Material Flow Analysis Tool (OMAT)
  • Global Urban Metabolism Database
  • Stakeholders Initiative
  • Online course “Urban Metabolism for Policy Makers”

References / Références

Online Material Flow Analysis Tool (OMAT)

The Online Material Flow Analysis Tool (OMAT) is a free, open source tool that assists researchers in undertaking a Material Flow Analysis (MFA). We are working at promoting this tool to be used in undergraduate and master's programs as part of the curriculum. This tool was used in a Master’s class in University of Barcelona, Columbia University and Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Global Urban Metabolism Database

We have set up a database with urban metabolism data and indicators by examining a variety of research studies that have calculated particular values (material extraction, emissions, construction material use, imports, exports, etc.) for an urban/provincial region. By creating one large database of these values it is much easier for other researchers to see what values are out there and to compare their own data to other studies. This project is currently underway and we have extracted around 9000 data points encompassing 465 indicators out of 148 cities. Read more on this page.


Stakeholders Initiative

This is an effort to create an international network of people that work or have a stake in the field of urban metabolism. The specific activities that we engage in will vary by topic and it will likely evolve over time. The first topic of choice was Data Visualizations and this project ran from October-December 2016.

In parallel, we co-organized masterclasses in urban metabolism. This was a short set of courses taking place in Brussels in December 2016 and January 2017. Click here to learn more about the Masterclasses.

Our current Stakeholders Initiative is around the creation of a Global Urban Metabolism Dataset. This project continued in January 2017 and is ongoing. In January 2018 we started our Urban Metabolism Interview Series.


Online course “Urban Metabolism for Policy Makers”

This is the first MOOC provided by the GI-REC (Global Initiative for Resource Efficient Cities). The GI-REC is a cooperation platform offered by UN Environment to connect different institutions that are using systems approach (and specifically urban metabolism) towards building low-carbon, resilient and resource efficient cities. This course has been developed and run by Metabolism of Cities, with the help and expertise of UN Environment and the League of Cities of the Philippines. The current open source and free course provides a specific overview of the urban metabolism approach and its relevance for policy makers.