Gibran Vita is a bio-engineer and industrial ecologist. His research focuses on understanding global relations between consumption, natural resources and well-being. He also studies the development of decentralised technologies that integrate water cleaning, food production and energy efficiency.
People like hypes, especially hypes about alleged solutions to important problems. Certainly, I would be receptive to a concept that offers me an elegant remedy without requiring much effort from my side. Whether it is healing, losing weight or solving climate change.
Some people believe in miracle diets, while others believe that by having high-tech cities, we will automatically improve our lives without affecting nature. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains this “blind faith” phenomenon in terms of inherent biases that often lead us to naive conclusions or irrational decisions. The bottom line is that wishful thinking is far easier than serious thinking. This article will put the “smart city” hype in perspective and compare it to its antithesis: the ecovillage.
What do people mean when they say smart cities? Sadly, most proponents of the smart city have a rather vague idea but still choose to use the term either to win votes or to identify themselves as progressive. So, what is a smart city in technical terms? There is no official definition but they are normally big on data and technology. “The Internet of Everything” is their motto. Buildings will be efficient and mobility will be cleaner. Although scarce in public forums, some definitions include governance, transparency, and sustainability.
Films and visions for the future
In the field of Industrial Ecology—where the ultimate goal is to design human systems that resemble natural systems in the strictest sense—the term “smart city” is a frequent topic of discussion in forums, conferences, and scientific papers. Most politicians, academics, and entrepreneurs talk about smart cities using supporting visuals that are reminiscent of Sci-Fi films such as Metropolis, The Matrix, The Fifth Element and the like.
Films such as The Green Beautiful on the other hand, which portrays an effective but low-tech solution to the current environmental crisis, are classified as comedy and neglected (presumably censored) during its release in 1996. The extra-terrestrial inhabitants of a certain planet are astonished to hear that we, the earthlings, still use money as a currency, still exert ownership over land or objects, spend most of our time working and still eat animals! In contrast, the inhabitants of this futuristic “smart planet” have long outgrown the concept of money, possessions and invented jobs– rather, they spend their time being together, self-improving, exercising, harvesting the land, playing, and participating in the organisation of their community. Living simply and simply living.
The Green Beautiful and its vision of the future remain ignored to date, and urban planners or politicians refuse to talk about such radical (but necessary) approaches. Why is that? Well, one of the reasons is that only the “smart city” approach supports the current economic paradigm. Smart cities are accommodating of a consumerist lifestyle: super-markets and shopping malls, franchise cafes and food chains, workaholism and individualism. In a way, smart cities driven by business could favour consumerist and self-absorbed lifestyles. Jonathan Crary warns in his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep:
“Apparatuses are part of larger strategies of power in which the aim is not mass-deception, but rather states of neutralisation and inactivation, in which one is dispossessed of time. But even within habitual repetitions there remains a thread of hope – a knowingly false hope – that one more click or touch might open onto something to redeem the overwhelming monotony in which one is immersed.”
Technology held the promise of offering us more leisure, freedom, creativity or learn more, but sometimes it works exactly the opposite.
Having time to think, travel, pursue hobbies, engage with neighbours, and improve one’s community is a crucial aspect of the quality of life and liveability of a city. Unfortunately, time is both the most neglected and crucial aspect for a true democracy. Smart cities should be all about happy, time affluent citizens that are capable and willing to shape their own reality.
Think clearly, think in systems
The smart city premise implies that the reason we are not living a better life today is due to the lack of data and technology. Are not most city dwellers connected to each other and to everything, all the time? We have vast information on our sources of pollution and detailed statistics on housing conditions, homelessness, inequality, time scarcity, traffic, anxiety, depression, etc. If we are not doing much about the root of these problems now, why would more data and technology make a difference? The current smart city promise can only attenuate a few symptoms of this cancer.
Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) is the science of being mindful about all the possible environmental and social consequences embedded in every product we purchase, in every habit we hold, or in any concept we propose. For example, when looking at a phone, a life cycle thinker will consider the global supply chain behind the creation of this product: from the cradle (raw materials) to the grave (its disposal). From the mining of minerals in Africa, to the manufacturing and packaging in Asia until the display cabinet in the America. A life cycle thinker will consider all the shipping, energy, resources and toxic emissions that had to occur before he could hold that new phone.
Finally, the life cycle thinker will ask: What is the real need that this product satisfies? Do I really need this? What will happen to my old phone?
Life Cycle Thinking is often absent in those who think that by having 100% renewable energy and efficient cities, all our problems will be solved. Renewable energy is indeed a no brainer from the climate change perspective, but it will bring other issues. Scarce materials, pollutants in mining and manufacturing processes, landscape impacts, competition for crops, etc. In short, it is a matter of scale—there is no physical way to satisfy our current lifestyles without compromising future generations.
Is there any other option?
Ecovillages seem to be the underdog when visualising future living scenarios. In contrast to smart cities, ecovillages have a clear common goal: they are intentional communities that are self-sustained, living under the premise of causing as little harm to the environment as possible.
One widespread definition of ecovillage reads as follows: “human-scale full-featured settlement in which human activities are harmlessly integrated into the natural world in a way that is supportive of healthy human development, and can be successfully continued into the indefinite future.” (Gilman, 1991)
Each ecovillage will normally host around 100-200 individuals. But ecovillages often establish networks of cooperation within countries, including gatherings where people from different ecovillages exchange learnings or simply to celebrate (e.g., Global Ecovillage Network).
While “smart cities” are waiting for the technology to be in place, ecovillages are a reality all around the world and gaining momentum. In fact, they are a more popular term in printed English texts than smart city.
The recent boom in popularity of the ecovillage relative to the smart city suggests that this might be a concept that speaks more to the public. Do the proponents of the data-driven society ignore this fact? Probably not. The elites might dislike a global ecovillage scenario, since it would imply that people are self-sufficient, self-determined and increasingly aware that politicians and corporations are not that essential after all. A valid fear.
Samar is an ecovillage (kibbutz) in Israel founded in 1976. It is composed of around 200 self-sustained people who collectively harvest organic dates and manufacture dairy products; they develop solar energy applications, machinery for agriculture, ecotourism, and crafts. They all share a common bank account where farmers, doctors, artists and all types of workers alike earn money as a group and every individual spends it according to their own need:
“Since we are a small community we pool the work of fulfilling basic needs, including laundry, meals, housing, and transportation. Sharing offers us lower overall costs and a more ecologically-responsible way of living.” (Source)
Doing the best by default
Every community—be it a smart city, ecovillage or something in between—should be designed in a way that default option is to do the “best” in all of our daily decisions, be it transportation, diet or energy needs. For example, taking the bike or walking should be the most pleasant and convenient solution for our daily commutes, while taking public transport should be less attractive, and driving a private car should be unnecessary and impractical.
Any settlement of the future (and present) should first collectively visualise how they want to live. Work a lot and consume a lot? Living simple and carefree? Driving cars in traffic or riding bikes in forests?
Before deciding whether technology will be a central part or not, there are many low-tech goals to prioritise such equality, nature protection, unconditional basic income and empowered individuals above institutions. If a concept for a future city is not pushing first for thriving individuals and blossoming nature, then it is not smart.
The future settlements should not strive to catch up with imposing templates or layouts towards being “smart” or “efficient,” the only (if any) template to follow is the rights of participatory democracy and the right of self-determination. Maybe a referendum will show that people prefer to work less and have for more free time? Perhaps such an arrangement will lead to smarter, happier and healthier citizens.
Lastly, the citizens of the present should be wise enough to acknowledge that sometimes taking one step back is the only way forward. This is an invitation for everyone to adopt Life Cycle Thinking when evaluating hypes or new ideas. As the Norwegian poet, Knut Hamsun once said: “Progress— what is it? Is it the ability to drive faster on roads? No, no. Progress is the needed rest for the body and serenity for the soul. Progress is the well-being of humanity. “