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    Urbanisation, smart cities and the future of energy

    By Vanesa Castan- Broto, on 20 September 2016

    The Seminar on EU-India Cooperation on Sustainable Urbanization took place in Pune, on the 15-16th September 2016 in a cooperative and multi-disciplinary atmosphere. The workshop was organized by the Global Relations Forum from Pune and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Academic Foundation and it was supported by the European Union’s Delegation to India and Bhutan. During the two days, delegates discussed what is smart in the territorial and demographic transformations associated with urbanization in India.

    ‘Smart’ is a multidimensional promise for better services, better environments, more educated people. The discussions suggested that, in many ways, smart is nothing else than a variation on the preoccupations about the shortcomings of the city in the twenty-first century: Eco cities, sustainability, future proof cities… are all labels that indicate a will to improve the livability of our cities. They all have something in common: an interest on the simultaneous possibility of technological and social transformations. Yet, focusing on characterizing the city as smart, low carbon, green, or ecological may distract from actually thinking through practical solutions to address the challenges of urban life.

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    In my talk I focused on two questions which I think are, specifically, useful to understand the urban energy transition in India. The first question is: why does energy matter to city dwellers? It is a way to also ask: what is the lived experience of energy in each city? The second question is: what kind of interventions can bring about an energy transition?

    With regards to the first question, my insights draw from my project ‘Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes’, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, which aims to understand from a comparative perspective how energy is embedded in everyday existence. The first insight from this project is that social and material relations with energy in any given city are unique. They belong to its city as they depend on the local culture, on the specific history of infrastructure development, and, given the political character of energy, on the way in which energy politics are played at the local level.

    For example, some of the case studies I have been comparing have been Hong Kong, Bangalore and Maputo. Of the three cases, Hong Kong is the only one which has a homogeneous energy landscape, based upon traditional models of fossil fuel electrification. In contrast, Mozambique’s population relies mostly on charcoal and other biomass fuels, with electricity covering only 8% of the total energy consumed. The energy landscape of Bangalore is characterized by its diversity. All manners of energy sources and means of provision coexist in the city. Energy needs are as unequal as unequal is the society of Bangalore. Generally, the intermittency of energy services characterizes the energy landscape. In conclusion, each of these cities has to be looked at independently, in relation to different problems. In Bangalore, we know that increasing the availability of electricity alone, for example, is not improving the reliability of the system, let alone facilitating energy access to the urban poor. We need context-tailored solutions, in which attention is paid to the specific factors that shape the provision and use of energy in every city.

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    My second question is thus, where are the possibilities for action: not just what to do about global energy challenges, but also who should do it and how. Past research on global climate change action included the review hundreds of climate change innovations, concluding that experimentation is a key means to create positive action all over the world, Europe, India, you name it.

    This means appreciating the value of localized, context-specific, scale-appropriate alternatives which respond directly to the needs of urban dwellers. Here, I am particularly interested on what is the role of planning? In Bangalore, for example, there is an urgent need to understand the interactions between the system of urban planning and that of delivering energy services, as they both operate in a completely uncoordinated manner. Planning has a big role to play, not necessarily in a spatial sense, but rather, as a means to facilitate partnership building and build up collaborative institutions. Planning is a key instrument whereby local needs can be met by bridging different forms of knowledge, bringing together top-down and bottom-up approaches, and, ultimately, making possible strategies for co- designing livable cities.

     

    Further reading:

    A survey of urban climate change experiments in 100 cities by Vanesa Castán Broto and Harriet Bulkeley


    Vanesa Castán Broto is a senior lecturer and co-director of MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU. Her work spans a range of issues in developing cities, including disaster preparedness, climate change adaptation and energy supply.

    Breaking the Ice: how digital technologies are trickling down globally

    By Alejandro Echeverria Noriega, on 3 March 2015

    The past years have led to one of the most dramatic transformations in how we create, manage and deploy information. In fact, a large percentage of all the information generated throughout human history has taken place in the last five years.

    This can be attributed to one thing: the rise of digital technologies, its accessibility, and dwindling implementation costs.

    Yet changes have been so rapid, that it is difficult to see how the advent of digital technologies are changing our daily lives and what the future will look like in the next 10-20 years. One thing is for certain, these technologies aren’t going anywhere.

    Image by the Beyond Access Initiative

    Image by the Beyond Access Initiative

    A Digital Revolution, not just in the ‘developed’ world

    While much of the talk around this so called “digital revolution” has traditionally come from the developed world, we have started to see the unexpected: that digital technologies are also surging in the developing world.

    From mobile micro-financing to platforms empowering voices and public discord through social media, digital technologies are no longer an exclusivity of the developed world.

    Enablers of social mobilisation

    These changes have come too fast and too soon in the eyes of many. As I was undertaking postgraduate studies at the DPU in 2010/11, I remember how commentators and analysts began to realise the power of digital technologies as major enablers of social mobilisation. And it was only a matter of time before these technologies played a greater part in major events such as the Arab Spring.

    Markets were flooded with the tools for communities to effectively communicate, organise, do, deploy (and son on) and to reach out to the highly connected and globalised world. In essence, millions of voices now had channels through which to make their concerns heard.

    Social movements like this might have been an easy sell. However, many people havesince questioned real use of these technologies when it comes to policy and building for a better future. Mainly because, as it goes, communities, cities and regions, need basic services to grow economically and socially, services such as water, roads, legal and political frameworks. Following this logic, infrastructure for digital technology comes as a low priority in many contexts.

    Opening new channels for citizen engagement

    As a technophile running a social media platform during the last three years to promote sustainable development, I have noticed that some digital technologies are already enabling communities in cities across the world.

    Firstly, in the areas of policy and citizen engagement, we are experiencing direct lines of communication between citizens and authorities; most common practices are usually riddled with red tape processes wherever you are.

    Citizens are voicing their concerns, they are more active than ever, better organised and participating in the public debate in real time like never before. So far I’ve seen grassroots projects from Copenhagen to Durban and from Lagos to Medellin that are bypassing traditional channels and actually achieving their goals; people reporting potholes through photo sharing platforms, crowdfunding for public space improvement, data sharing for traffic reduction, and so on.

    Can everybody be connected?

    Secondly, hardware has flooded the market, be it for the good or for the bad. It is not by coincidence that mobile phone manufactures and digital giants are trying to reach every single person on earth and have them connected within the next two decades – think of latest comments by Facebook and Google.

    This may seem an overstatement, but look at the numbers and where the industry is growing: 14 out of the top 20 countries with the highest mobile phone penetration are so-called developing nations. Additionally, getting connected to the network is not the expensive endeavour it was in the 90s.

    Telecommunications, mobile phone manufacturers and tech giants are deploying “off the grid” solutions to reach the furthest corners of the world. This is a game changer if you think of education, health checks, access to information and having a voice in the ever increasingly connected world.

    Digital tools are not silver bullets

    Thirdly, social media, Internet of Things, smart cities, the Mesh, etc, are being evangelised as the tools to end all the world’s maladies. But the truth of the matter is that they are buzzwords that get everyone excited without having full understanding of what they mean or do; at the moment they are just tools that enable and should be treated as such.

    The Internet and web platforms won’t build the cities of the future, won’t solve social issues, and certainly won’t make the most pressing matters go away. They are excellent channels that act as enablers and policy makers, practitioners, businessmen and women, community leaders should understand that.

    Here to stay

    Digital technologies’ role in our daily lives will only continue to grow as demand increases, prices drop, and as their distribution channels expand to reach most of the world’s population. I don’t believe this trend will disappear as is clearly indicated by the ways in which governments, private enterprises and others are including these into their agendas.

    Whatever angle, be it bottom-up or top down, developed or developing, Global South or Global North, city or region, digital technologies are here to stay.


    Alejandro has been working for the past 3 years with This Big City, a online social media platform for the promotion of sustainable development in cities across the globe; to date he has helped over a dozen grassroot projects achieve scale. He works for the Mayor of London’s office on economic development issues through innovation and consults European cities on creating long term cultural visions for urban regeneration purposes as an independent professional. He also enjoys playing video games.

    Alejandro graduated in Urban Development Planning from the DPU in 2011. Follow him on Twitter @thisbigcityes