Is Smart City really the solution of tomorrow?

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Photo by Octavian Rosca on Unsplash

Worldwide, cities are responsible for two thirds of energy consumption and 70 to 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. We also know that in the coming decades, 95% of population growth will take place in urban areas, due to a rural exodus caused by the excessive poverty of farmers who can no longer compete on their own land. However, according to Hammer et al (2011)[1], the lower the urban density, the higher the energy consumption for electricity and transport, which is proven by the fact that per capita CO2 emissions fall with increasing urban density.

Does this mean that urbanization and urban densification are solutions to energy and climate challenges? Is it the same issue for the countries of the North and the South? How will we feed the cities if the countryside is empty? How can agriculture and its production methods be associated with these challenges?

How will tomorrow’s cities be able to apply the principles of sustainable development “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”?[2] For the past decade, we have seen the emergence of the Smart City concept, which according to Gartner (2011)[3]: “A Smart City is based on intelligent exchanges of information that circulate between many different subsystems. This flow of information is analysed and transcribed into commercial services or for citizens. The city will act on the flow of this information to make its ecosystem more resource efficient and sustainable. Information exchange is based on a “smart” governance management framework to make cities sustainable.” Thus, a Smart City spares resources by adopting solutions that intelligently combine various elements such as: housing, transport, drinking water and wastewater management, smart grids, renewable energies, energy efficiency, governance, quality of life, health and safety.

If this Smart City approach will allow the countries of the North, not without difficulty, to manage the energy transition to the 2000 Watt society and perhaps achieve the CO2 emission reduction targets, because they have strong purchasing power and infrastructure, should the countries of the South follow the same path? Difficult to decide…

The African slums seem far from offering the minimum infrastructure and this combined with the poverty of the inhabitants, the concept of intelligent city is certainly not the first priority. Yet in the coming decades, a country like Nigeria will experience one of the highest population growth rates and inevitably a massive rural exodus. Today’s problems of water and air pollution, CO2 emissions and soil depletion will increase. The Smart City model as proposed seems difficult to implement. How to finance infrastructure with empty state coffers? Who can pay for these public services when unemployment is high?

On the other hand, brand new Smart Cities from China are emerging from the ground. Political will and the need for propaganda, but also a real problem of pollution and demography, China, by building these cities from scratch, is freeing itself from the heavy expenditure of managing and migrating old infrastructures to the so-called intelligent ones. It avoids — at least within these cities — the social divide caused by accessibility to the proposed new technologies from which northern cities may suffer. For the latter, guaranteeing access to the same services and the same costs to all — young and old, rich and poor, ultra-citizens and city-dwellers on the periphery — can be a brake on development because of a lack of economic balance.

The cities fill up and the countryside is empty… Vicious circle from which it is difficult to leave. In order to meet the needs of consumers (mainly urban dwellers), the industry has standardized, optimized and automated agricultural production with the help of scientific research by selecting the most productive varieties, developing chemicals to combat pests, or mechanizing farmers with new machines more efficient than human beings. While crop yields have improved, this has been at the expense of biodiversity and has resulted in soil depletion. Farmers have become heavily indebted to buy seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and agricultural machinery. Many were forced to abandon their land and move to the city. Does this intensive agriculture have a future? Who will produce food for city dwellers?

The countries of the North are beginning to implement agroecological principles, even if intensive agriculture remains the main model, notably thanks to organic labels or the development of urban common gardens. Thus, with shorter supply chains, with varied and reasoned crops, agroecology must be part of Smart City if it wants to continue. As for the countries of the South, shouldn’t we encourage them to perpetuate their agricultural practices to slow the rural exodus? No longer export to them our subsidised overproduction at low prices? In a way, to accompany them to avoid the negative externalities of growth and urbanization that the countries of the North are experiencing.

Environmental taxes are in place in rich countries on the polluter pays principle. Collected by the State, these taxes are paid back into energy efficiency actions or programmes or to finance certain tasks of public interest making it possible to move towards Smart City. This mechanism, even if it is not sufficient to develop Smart City, is nevertheless a precious means that must continue to be perceived. In order to maintain its agriculture, the countries of the North have set up export subsidies which, if they allow farmers to survive, are to the detriment of farmers in the countries to which the foodstuffs are exported, participating in their impoverishment and pushing them to abandon their farms and go to the cities. Should these subsidies not be reallocated within countries to support all actions respecting agroecology and thus “supplement” farmers’ income if necessary?

Can we conclude from this that the Smart City model is imposed in rich countries or with a strong political will? That a Smart City cannot be realized if it is not supplied by a “smart” agriculture? This would be too hasty and non-exhaustive a conclusion, but it is certain that the models of the North will not be those of the South. If Smart City is probably at the initiative of agroecology in the North, it is agriculture that will allow Smart City in the South to develop.

[1] [1] S. Hammer, L. Kamal-Chaoui, A. Robert, and M. Plouin, Cities and Green Growth: A Conceptual Framework, OECD Regional Development Working Papers 08, OECD Publishing, 2011.

[2] Bruntland Report, World Commission on Environment and Development, UNO, 1987

[3] Journal of Urban Technology, 2015, Vol. 22, №1, p 6

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Project Marketing Specialist driven by projects that have an impact on our society. I favour complex or emerging subjects related to energy or mobility.

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