The San Felipe Neri Public Market as a Circular Economy Lab

March 13, 2023

The San Felipe Neri Public Market —el Neri— generates approximately 2.5 tons of waste every day, of which more than 80% is organic and 99% can be repurposed.

Waste characterization with the National Movement of Panamanian Recyclers at el Neri.

UNDP Panama

El Neri’s vendors have told us about what life in the market means for them. It’s tradition and sustenance, it’s history and also culture. 

The San Felipe Neri Public Market.

Municipality of Panama

El Neri is not the same market it used to be; its surroundings have undergone profound changes —and it now faces the challenge to remain relevant over time.

The process of collaborating with Panama City’s Public Markets Bureau to rethink el Neri as a circular economy lab is not something we have taken lightly. Phases 1 and 2 allowed us to understand the context and realities of the people who interact with the market, in order to build bonds of trust and develop an action network.

Our community mapping tours allowed us to understand the factors that facilitate or limit the local community’s access to el Neri.

UNDP Panama

This was fundamental, since there can be no real circular economy without placing people at its center; plus, when facing complex challenges, people’s collective actions allow us to build solutions that are greater than the sum of their parts.

Workshop to create a network of solutions by sharing data, information and ideas on circularity and inclusion in public markets

: UNDP Panama

In this spirit, we began Phase 3, which consisted of collaborative activities to create local solutions that allowed us to conceive, analyze and project ideas that would help us put into practice circular economy concepts in el Neri.

This third phase projects the implementation of a circular economy innovation lab that serves as a foundation to develop sustainable ideas for el Neri and the Integrated Municipal Public Markets Network.

Two main activities were conceived for this process: a collaborative working session to understand el Neri’s internal and external ecosystems; and a workshop with el Neri’s potential allies and those meant to implement these potential solutions

This phase’s main objective was the co-creation of minimum viable products to define an initial innovation portfolio of different pilot programs that might be carried out in el Neri. This objective sought to answer the following questions:

UNDP Panama

To define el Neri’s ecosystem of solutions and key actors, we used a framework for analyzing local innovation ecosystems, which we implemented with the support of Re-inventa, a Panamanian non-profit committed to repurposing waste.

UNDP Panama

Through this framework, we first sought to define the ecosystem’s work purpose and identify its priority areas to then involve ecosystem actors and finally define proposals for a circular economy. This collaborative creation tool works on three development and transformation pillars:

UNDP Panama

These three pillars are made visible through the development of three framework levels which build solutions by taking into consideration: the ecosystem of interest; its actors and elements; and the type of work that a possible ecosystem task force would need to develop to propose solutions for this ecosystem. For the Zero Waste Public Market Initiative, for example, several preliminary workshops were held where the following actions were defined according to the three framework levels mentioned before:

UNDP Panama

To answer the first question on how to define el Neri’s current challenge and its opportunities to implement a circular economy, it was important to work from the awareness of its actors and their understanding of circular economy principles.

We introduced the circular economy concept as a model that seeks to dissociate economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and eliminate waste production from the system.

For example, in the case of food products, these are meant to circulate in such a way that the by-products of one food-related activity provide inputs for the following food-related activity. This is sought by imitating natural regeneration systems inasmuch as possible, so that food waste is not produced.

Cities in particular must aim to make the most of food products through the redistribution of surplus edible food, while turning inedible food by-products into new products.

UNDP Panama

During this phase’s first activity, together with el Neri’s internal and external actors, we applied various participatory ideation tools to help sensitize participants about the circularity model, as well as to answer some of our research questions. Participants’ applied activities and identified areas of opportunities were the following:

UNDP Panama

To answer the second question regarding the roadmap of potential opportunities for the initiative, two workshop sessions were coordinated. Their main objectives were to make the local ecosystem visible and to jointly develop solutions.

These questions guided our sessions and helped identify gaps by considering influential factors of the initiative, such as ownership, stakeholder empowerment, local responsiveness, awareness of challenges and market occupant responsiveness to opportunities.

Solutions Network Day 1, with participants from various organizations

UNDP Panama

These factors were taken into consideration while elaborating proposals during our collaborative workshop sessions. In addition, these sessions were divided into two thematic areas that favored meetings between different actors.

UNDP Panama

At first, the results of these working sessions allowed us to define a short-term roadmap to advance our agenda of circularity in the San Felipe Neri Public Market.

This activity also produced a preliminary map of our innovation portfolio, reflected as a set of deliberately connected innovations that learn from each other and share different characteristics.

Specifically, we collectively agreed that proposals for el Neri’s innovation portfolio should be:

UNDP Panama

In accordance to this phase’s diagnosis and ideation processes, we concluded that el Neri’s innovation portfolio for its Zero Waste Public Market Initiative will focus mainly on four interconnected project dossiers:

UNDP Panama

A portfolio vision ensures that its results are dynamic, their main objective being to learn from the collective action of multiple stakeholders.  This vision also invites us to be adaptable and to share new knowledge as we discover what the San Felipe Neri Public Market, as a circular economy lab, has to teach us about the public markets of the future.

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.