When does a city become smart?
Chirine Etezadzadeh introduced her book “Smart City — Future City?” with the question “What do people expect when they move to a city?”. She explains that the motives are different but they have one element in common: access. She explains, that the main advantage of a city is to gain access: to jobs and a livelihood; access to the necessities of life like water, food, housing, health care services; access to infrastructure, information, knowledge, education and so on. The demand of this environment will raise in the future: Etezadzadeh quoted that “Today, over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, a proportion that the United Nations (U.N.) expects to increase to 66% in 2050”.
Everyone is talking about the rise of Smart Cities — but what does smart really mean? There are different definitions and opinions about what smart is and how a Smart City could look like. I think it is much more than a total digitalization of everything. I think technology will be an important enabler to follow the compass — but to what point do we want to go? There are a lot of problems we are facing today, which have to be solved in the future. First we have to create a mindset with a clear focus of the direction we want to head for.
One of those directions is offered by John Thackara in his book “How to thrive in the next economy?”. In the following I will give some key aspects from this but also other sources, which were important for me to create my mindset.
End of Growth
Our whole economy is build on growth. In Thackaras book, professors Murphy and Hall explained that “When a system must grow in order to survive, but the work it enables is destructive, the consequences are catastrophic”. Thackara explains the problem of growth with an example of a famous home furnishing giant in Sweden: „It is committed to double in size by 2020“. All efforts this company will do in terms of sustainability, it will not have an impact because of compound growth: „However hard they work, however many leaks they plug in production cycles, the net negative impact of their firm’s activities on the world’s living systems will be greater in the years ahead than it is today.“
One of the main factors for success of the industrial revolution was the centralization of production, which made it easy to produce standardized products. Now we came to a point where this centralization causes wide-ranging problems. In an urban context for example, we outsource everything what we consume. Instead of buying milk for example from local farms nearby, we buy it from centralized places, somewhere in the country which causes the demand for complex supply chains. And why are we doing this? Because the access to it (in the supermarket round the corner) is effortless. It is easy — but not really smart. Thackara sees a demand for local production, the connection between people and makers and collaborative distribution.
When it comes to self production, the book „The Switch: How Solar, Storage and New Tech Means Cheap Power for All“ by Chris Goodall rises the question „What if we all became power self producers?“. This would be one step into the direction of Off-Grid living.
The Concept „ReGen Villages“ of the Copenhagen based architecture Studio EFFEKT, shows a future concept of a self-sufficient village which structure is build around people. The concept goes away from living side-by-side to a joint community that can power and feed self-reliant families.
Tackara noticed that „If, in an age of networks, even the smallest actions can contribute to transformation of the system as a whole, then our passionate but funny efforts so far may not have been in vain.“ In the last years with the globalization and the rise of the internet in our everyday life, I have the feeling, that we forgot to think locally. We think about change on huge scales but at the same time the most impactful changes which affect our lives most, happen on a small, local scale. Therefor it will be mandatory to think global but act local. Also the phrase „act first and talk later“ which was mentioned in Thackaras book, can lead to unexpected success. I can imagine that most of the smartness of a city will come from the bottom up and can lead to system wide changes, which sooner or later will be necessary.
To reach the goal of smartness, we have to think about how the access of things in the city will take place — and also what happens after we used those things. The model of a circular economy will go away from the linear model of make, use, dispose, to a model which is oriented on natural systems — cycles flows, webs and interconnectedness. Its aim is to change waste to resource to reach a regenerative economy. In a circular economy there is no waste. Another aim is also to keep stuff alive and therefore reduce waste. It will not only be a paradigm shift of peoples behavior but also new services and infrastructures are needed to enable the full potential of a circular economy.
Refferd to Chirine Etezadzadeh, the question for a smart city could be “How can we create a more sustainable and comfortable access to all the resources we need in an urban environment?” The ecosystem of a city is really complex and every modification has implications in various ranges and areas. Those system changes took a lot of effort, but we have to tackle them if we want to reach the goal of a smarter city. The transformation will be an ongoing process with very very small steps and achievements. It also will be a paradigm shift — but every action, no matter how small, will direct us into a specific direction and will effect the whole. Therefor it is necessary to create a mindset with a clear focus in which direction we want to head and which kind of goals we want to achieve in the future.
Let’s get our hands dirty. We have enough time to talk about it later :-)