Knowing Your Place — that place you call home –Part 8

Keep On Running — in circles [Part 8 of a nine-part series]

Throughout this series we’ve been reviewing some of the key indicators of intelligent communities– the actions taken by local leaders to help their economies prosper and allow citizens to thrive. The willing engagement of people — whether in their commerce and employment or within the social community context — is a constant concern for government. The pursuit of environmental sustainability — keeping the show on the road — demands personal, individual, commitments.

In the very first part of this series we referenced ‘Doughnut Economics’ and the need to not stray beyond ecological boundaries. National governments can sign up to environmental obligations, but it is local leaders who must ensure that the local economy — citizens, employers, administrators and public agencies — pulls together to conform to, and better, those basic standards.

No one wants to live in a trashy town. The potential for renaissance of places blighted by industrial decline was highlighted by an early ‘Intelligent Community’ in the USA. Their steel industry had declined. Investment had walked away. Air quality moved from bad to worse. Eventually headline writers designated the place as ‘the single most polluted city in the entire nation’. Only at that low point did local minds start to wonder how things had gotten so bad, and how they might stop digging themselves into an even deeper hole. This was no time for recriminations or seeking compensation for past errors. It was, however, the spark that provided the energy for transformation.

Anyone now visiting Chattanooga in Eastern Tennessee might imagine that the tourist injunction “be sure to visit the 4th floor of the public library” might be encouragement to see some glorious exhibition of the city’s renaissance. What they will actually find are children in coding workshops, using 3D printers, and making a name for themselves as some of the brightest, healthiest and most innovative students in any community. This city is a million miles away from the decrepit dump that featured all those years ago on national TV.

Another of their great success stories can be seen in the street lighting. It is variable — and not in the sense that it sometimes works. The brightness of every light can be individually adjusted. Energy is saved but, when needed, the levels can be raised precisely where required. That is just one example of the city’s commitment to staying with the ecological boundaries: a testament to the motivation derived from municipal ownership of the local power company and a bonus benefit of their fully fibred gigabit broadband network.

Environmental sustainability has broad support — few would vote to pollute rivers and oceans — but the naysayers are out in force when the goal of never-ending growth is questioned. The knee-jerk responses to economist Kate Raworth’s recent TED talk reveal how the addiction to GDP growth is deeply embedded. Progress is, however, not being denied — yes, we want to keep on running, but not, like some unbridled cancerous growth, towards destruction.

Respecting ecological boundaries does not demand enslavement to arbitrary and ill-founded growth metrics. Communities, local economies, need policies that are regenerative (less wasteful) and distributive, more equitable — and Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ fits well with the Circular Economy designs espoused by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Environmental issues are closely linked to citizen wellbeing. Planners for any community have huge power to deliver benefits from development and inward investment. Previous generations of economic modelling may have ignored ‘externalities’ that were simply too complex to measure and evaluate. But not now. Not now local air quality can be monitored. Not now that damage from tyres and brakes is better understood. Not now that long-term impacts of cutting drainage maintenance budgets are measurable. Not now that citizens can access and interpret demographic data. Not now that housing, health, education and a wide range of social conditions are open for inspection. Not now that circular economy designs are driving growth in ethical circles.

For most local leaders any debate about the reality of global warming is over. The sustainability action is now controlled in local communities that are making sure they respect the ecological limits. Delegates and speakers at the 2018 ICF Global Summit will not overlook opportunities to reinforce that message.

Part 9, the final part of this ‘Knowing Your Place’series, will address the theme of Resilience — the last of our indicators of Intelligent Communities.

One week on from the 1st anniversary of the bombing outrage at the Manchester Arena, ‘What If?’will be published on 31st May — 4 days ahead of the Intelligent Community Forum’s summit in London.