Creating truly smart cities with a plan

by
Ronald Rovers
31 January 2017
Barcelona: “Let us sleep!"
Barcelona: “Let us sleep!"

I love to be in cities. The bustling life, choice in restaurants, observing people from a terrace with a special beer in front of me... But as I sit I start thinking and I become worried. Worried about our cities. As they grow, grow and become bigger and bigger, the more complex and demanding they become. Where will all the resources come from? What if one of the complex and now global supply lines breaks? A strike, a boycott, a blackout or even an economic collapse? Just remember what happened in Greece a few years ago. [1]

Of course, at this moment, I am really worried about my next beer, but the threats are pretty realistic. Banks are still not safe. We are facing food production limits globally. Landgrabbing to secure food has become daily practice for some countries. [2] And energy blackouts are more likely: last year in India 600 million people faced a blackout for months. Luckily, they still had some old-fashioned knowledge and means to survive. But even Belgium has warned its residents about the possibility of blackouts, and even established a scheme so that everyone knows who will be switched off first. This has led to a huge increase in the sales of diesel generators. [3] 

Havana, Cuba: Urban farming, downtown centre growing areas
Havana, Cuba: Urban farming, downtown centre growing areas

The city becomes a large urban organism, ('Orbanism')[4] and nobody knows how it will react to the different kinds of threats. There is some experience, like in Havana, Cuba when Russian support was withdrawn in the early 90s. Within a few years the Cuban people had to reinvent their society: produce for locals instead of imports, innovate local brick production for building, and introduce urban farming in Havana, where up to 30 % of the vegetables came from urban ground. They managed but went through a rough time. [5] Another example is Detroit, USA an immense collapse of the system occurred, the city dropped from a population of over a million to 700 000 people, a 25 % drop in just 20 years. And the people who remained managed to survive by growing food between the empty buildings. [6]

Is this the destiny for other cities? “Ah, but”, my beer drinker companion replies, “we develop smart cities now!”  Yes, smart, but what’s that? Most of the time it’s about technology, about connecting things: the Internet of Things. So my refrigerator will order new food when it runs empty? But still, something or someone somewhere has to supply it...

Smart cities and the ‘interconnectedness of everything’ are supposed to help reduce energy demand and relieve climate change since energy can be distributed effectively. I don't believe in that. It’s only more of the same. I became aware of a new wind park in the North Sea, advertised as producing electricity for 60.000 households. At the same time Google built a huge data centre nearby to facilitate all smart devices. They contracted all the energy from that new wind park just to supply their data centre. All newly produced renewable energy is swallowed by the needs of our Internet of Things, our smart community. While the households continue to use gas and coal produced energy. [7]

 

Gussing, Austria, has taken responsibility and is now a zero-energy town
Gussing, Austria, has taken responsibility and is now a zero-energy town

For me a smart city is not a city with a technology plan, but a city, which has an emergency plan.  A city, which knows what to do when supply lines fail; how to help citizens survive during a blackout, what to do when drinking water gets contaminated, if food distribution fails due to bad harvest or boycotts. What if banks collapse again? (Not too big to fail, but too big to save?) This seems to me the first task of a city, in an era in which risks become bigger and bigger due to international tension and interdependency, shortages of global markets, or simply by hackers that block the system. This is not an easy task however, and therefore it’s of utmost importance to decrease the dependency from distant and unknown supply, to reduce impacts, instead of increasing risks by growing even more complex structures as in smart cities and with the Internet of things.

And there are, of course, already cities that try to reduce the risks. In Sweden there are a few, Curitiba in Brazil is famous, but maybe the most inspiring is a small town called Gussing in Austria. The mayor with a few of his friends succeeded over 15 years to develop their own energy supply system and become entirely energy independent The energy prices are now stable, they make their own price. Even more importantly, instead of 6 million euro going out to foreign energy companies, now after 15 years 11 million euro is circulating in their own economy, which has led to the creation of 50 new SMEs, and hundreds of jobs. Now, that's smart! [8]

 

More Connect: large scale retrofit with prefabricated panels for zero-energy retrofit
More Connect: large scale retrofit with prefabricated panels for zero-energy retrofit

For a large city it is more difficult, but not impossible. What helps is if the end use demand is reduced to start with. Of course, for inhabitants, and their houses this requires a large-scale operation to retrofit 255 million houses in the EU. In the EU project More Connect we work with 7 countries on a concept and guidelines for this kind of operation. We talk about the shift of burden from fossil energy to fossil energy produced materials, which should be as minimal as possible. This is a tough task. [9]

Unfortunately our smart cities discussion on the terrace attracts negative attention from the people around: ‘Can you keep your voices down‘, they ask. Perhaps we should have this discussion digitally, on a smart terrace, on the Internet of Discussions, silently whatsapping and tweeting each other on the terrace. Nobody gets annoyed that way. But that would imply extra energy for extra technology, which will force us to build extra wind-turbines. The difficulty remains. I need more terrace-sessions to figure it all out....

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/13/greek-crisis-athens-rural-migration

[2] Fred Pearce, the Landgrabbers, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/20/fred-pearce-land-grab-interview

[3] http://datafable.com/rolling-blackout-belgium/viz/

http://www.trouw.nl/tr/nl/5009/Archief/article/detail/3738780/2014/09/05/Belgen-wapenen-zich-tegen-winter-zonder-stroom.dhtml (Dutch)

[4] Rovers R, 2009, Post Carbon - or Post crash – managing the Orbanism, World Transport Policy & Practice Volume 14. Number 4. April 2009, page 7-17, http://www.eco-logica.co.uk/pdf/wtpp14.4.pdf  

[5] http://english.ecosur.org/index.php/experiences/when-the-flow-of-oil-stopped

[6] http://www.dailydetroit.com/2015/07/06/10-detroit-urban-farms-rooting-goodness-into-the-city/

[7] http://nieuws.eneco.nl/eneco-bouwt-groot-windpark-in-delfzijl (Dutch)

[8] https://cleantechnica.com/2013/10/16/renewable-energy-powered-austrian-town-gussing/

http://www.gussingrenewable.com/htcms/en/company/history.html

[9] http://www.more-connect.eu/

Ronald Rovers, is a speaker, writer, researcher and  future thinker  trying to figure out how a sustainable zero impact futuremight look like. A former professor, Roland now works in the private sector, he frequently speaks at conferences, , writers, organises of masterclasses,  and  does independent  research in international organisations. His main drive is closing cycles: how can we maintain a certain flow of energy, food and materials, without depleting the system, and with regenerating original stocks.

He has a regular blog at ronaldrovers.com, and develops  a new closing cycles calculation tool, called MAXergy. He tweets at @ron_rovers