An Experimental Lab for the Public Markets of the Future

March 13, 2023

This is a blog written by Gabriela Valencia, Director of Social Engagement for Giro Urbano, who contributed to a series of learning activities generated by UNDP Panama Accelerator Lab together with the Public Markets Bureau of the Municipality of Panama and the Panamanian non-profit Re-inventa, within the context of developing the Integrated Municipal Public Markets Network.  To learn more about our methodology and process, please feel free to read our full publication here

In her radical Doughnut Economy model, economist Kate Raworth constantly warns us that in this world all people must have their essential needs covered without surpassing the limits of our planet. And no, she’s not talking about entering foreign airspace or outer space.

Try to visualize it just as the name implies - a giant doughnut floating in the middle of the ocean, on which human beings must maintain their balance in order to not tip over the only thing that keeps us dry and afloat.

Beyond the doughnut are the limits of our planet, while its inner hole marks the boundaries of our social foundations for subsistence. If you fall into the water, you will destabilize the doughnut and everybody standing on it. Seems logical, doesn't it?

An experimental path towards circularity.

: Kate Raworth

However, the most radical thing about Kate’s model is to get everybody to understand, as a clear and present danger, the urgent need to stay on the doughnut and not jump to swim in search of other doughnuts nor dive into this doughnut’s center, for it may overflow with people with similar needs.

This human-social-environmental balance relationship between what Kate denominates our ecological ceiling and our social foundation is precisely what the concept of circular economy has come to teach us.

After months assessing, observing and collectively reflecting on the potentialities of circularity for the San Felipe Neri Public Market —el Neri—, we arrived at a series of conclusions framed in actionable tools and ideas.

Workshop with vendors of the San Felipe Neri Public Market.

UNDP Panama

This is what, within our process, we call an innovation portfolio. Which is nothing more than a set of deliberately connected tangible projects that learn from and build on each other.

To ensure the long-term transformation of the markets within the Integrated Municipal Public Markets Network into smart, humane and green public markets that follow a circular economy model, we came up with an agile roadmap of —short, fast, low-cost and effective— projects that promote el Neri as a Circular Economy Lab implemented through participatory transformation.

Objectives, results and milestone of our innovation portfolio.

UNDP Panama

The designed projects take into consideration the interconnection and integrated sustainability of the main axes of influence that emerged from previous phases and their lessons, promoting circular economy principles applicable to public markets such as cooperation, citizen resilience and participation, systemic vision, territorial approach, innovation and environmental management in el Neri.

Preliminary outline of potential projects for el Neri’s innovation portfolio. Prepared by Re-inventa

UNDP Panama

Projects have been grouped under four dossiers or focus areas which include waste management, community action and integration, digitalization, and food rescue.

Agile roadmap of el Neri’s innovation portfolio. It includes ten tactical experiments: five to be prioritized (those written in bold letters in the chart above) and five to be considered in the future.

UNDP Panama

Thus, the first innovation portfolio of el Neri’s circular economy lab involves ten agile experiments: five to be prioritized and five to be considered in the future.

Among the projects to be highlighted, Las Caras del Mercado San Felipe Neri (The Faces of the San Felipe Neri Public Market) aims to prove whether it is possible to recognize and make visible the history of the market and its relationship with its community and its people. If possible, then the market will have a historical-cultural appeal that will attract its surrounding communities as well as other people.

Workshop focused on “a day in the life” of a vendor in el Neri.

UNDP Panama

Another project, the Food Rescue Alliance, seeks to test whether it is possible to promote recipes or products based on el Neri’s surplus food. If so, then the market will reduce its volume of surplus food that ends up in a landfill, instead contributing towards community food security and promoting new public-private partnerships.

The waste characterization carried out by the National Movement of Panamanian Recyclers showed that 80% of el Neri’s waste is organic and still suitable for human consumption.

UNDP Panama

These interventions are developed through the interrelated participation of el Neri’s external problem-solving network while at the same time taking into account the continuous participation of its key market stakeholders: its officials, vendors/tenants, managers, clientele and other users.

All of us want public markets to generate less waste because we share a genuine desire to solve the waste management problem in all possible contexts in which we interact.

Perhaps less obviously, this process highlights how important it is that public markets lead these efforts because they will result in the development of bottom-up projects, plans and policies generated from local needs.

Therefore, we do have a genuine interest in improving waste management; in el Neri’s case, we already know that 99% of its waste is recoverable.

How can we take action based on el Neri’s history and learnings to achieve its adoption of new circularity processes and eventually expand these towards new public markets?

If this cycle of exploration makes anything clear, it is that we must start by understanding challenges and initiatives from people’s experiences and perspectives.

We recognize that this initial approach towards el Neri’s circular economy has laid out a structured methodology to continue building knowledge towards the public markets of the future.

However, it will not be enough to create more management systems that result in top-down solutions or in exclusively institutional problem-solving, or that do not consider the social dynamics and human habits of specific contexts nor heed those solutions that arise from local communities, experiences or initiatives.

Therefore, we must admit that the circular economy model is more human than technical; its strategy must be driven by local knowledge, reinforced by problem-solving networks that promote active and participatory ideation, and adopted to generate more responsible economic, environmental and social value.

Bottom-up circularity is a continuous and regenerative cycle that should be a regular part of the economic and social interactions surrounding public markets. Just like Kate’s radical doughnut economic model, it suggests a more humane approach to address current systemic challenges. Because only by working together can we balance the doughnut and keep it afloat.

El Neri’s identity, circular viability and relevance over time —as in the case of the public markets of the future— will depend to a large extent on the interconnection of its histories and stories, as well as on the social, economic, cultural and territorial dynamics centered on generating knowledge, identifying opportunities and acting with and for people.

This blog is part of a series on learning activities and reflections generated by the UNDP Accelerator Labs, together with the Public Markets Bureau of the Municipality of Panama and the Panamanian non-profit Re-inventa, within the context of developing the Integrated Municipal Public Markets Network (RIMMU for its Spanish acronym). To learn more about our methodology and process, please feel free to read our full publication here.