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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.

    What can alternative technologies contribute to sustainable development?

    By Jorge Ortiz Moreno, on 6 August 2015

    A few weeks ago the NGO Shelter Global announced the winners of its first annual “Dencity Competition”, focused on fostering new ideas on how to better handle the growing density of unplanned settlements while spreading awareness about this global issue.

    The first-placed project, Urukundu: Slum Factory consists of the creation of a small community-managed construction materials factory for the physical improvement of an informal neighbourhood that is now being partially demolished and replaced by high-priced private housing. All in the name of “enhancing” the city image of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

    Among the main features of the project is its use of local materials, local technologies and local construction systems like rainwater harvesting, clay filters for water purification and biogas micro-production systems (biodigesters) in order to stimulate the future sustainable growth of the neighbourhood.

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    Out of 300 entries from 50 different countries that sought to “rethink life in slums”, the winner represents a great example of how design can sustainably empower communities. However, what I want to point out here is the relevance of alternative technology to improving living conditions in informal settlements.

    Evidence from many regions of the Global South is showing that more and more successful initiatives are including the implementation of decentralized, locally-managed and sometimes labour-intensive technologies for infrastructure improvement and socioeconomic development.

    As well as the “Appropriate Technology” movement, popularized in 1973 by Ernst Friedrich Schumacher through his influential book “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”, Urukundu: Slum Factory is characterized by a strong “people-centred” approach.

    Urukundu: Slum Factory board

    Urukundu: Slum Factory board

    Many different conceptualizations have arisen around the alternative technology movement during the last 50 years. Recently, for example, the concept of “grassroots innovations” has been proposed for technologies that come from processes of innovation that are inclusive of local communities, in terms of the knowledge, processes and outcomes involved.

    There are strong research groups in the UK at Sussex University and University of East Anglia that are exploring the role of “grassroots innovations” on sustainability and social justice issues.

    Melissa Leach and her colleagues from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex suggest that ambitious Sustainable Development Goals are now required along with a major transformation in modes of innovation to meet them. In an article published in the Ecology and Society journal in 2012 they suggest the Appropriate Technology Demonstration and Training Centre (CEDECAP, is its acronym in Spanish) as an example of such “transformative innovation”.

    Rainwater harvesting system and their users, Mexico

    Rainwater harvesting system and their users, Mexico

    This organization works with local communities in rural Peru to identify their priority uses for electricity and then to develop energy schemes that those communities control, run, and benefit from. Furthermore, CEDECAP develops, trains, and pilots alternative forms of renewable energy distribution, focusing on low-cost technologies with low environmental impact, and fostering local research and capacity.

    In Mexico, accompanied by a group of researchers, students and consultants from the Institute of Research on Ecosystems and Sustainability of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) I have been studying and working on another alternative technology approach called “ecotechnology.”

    This refers to technologies that promote a positive relationship between their users and the environment, and are linked to a specific socio-ecological context. In our recent book “Ecotechnology in Mexico”, we describe several initiatives that have been providing small-scale ecological alternatives to meet basic human needs such as sanitation, water, energy, housing and nourishment in rural and urban areas.

    Woman cooking with an improved cookstove of Patsari Project, Mexico

    Woman cooking with an improved cookstove of Patsari Project, Mexico

    From experienced NGOs to recently launched social entrepreneurship initiatives, there are a wide range of actors that are innovating in order to to reach the poor and meet the needs that neither the private sector nor the governments have been able to.

    Some examples of this are the Patsari Project, a participatory and multi-institutional initiative that promotes a sustainable model of firewood consumption by distributing improved cook-stoves in rural areas, and the Isla Urbana Project, which aims to provide sustainable access to water by implementing low cost rainwater harvesting systems in the peri-urban interface of Mexico City and other isolated localities of the country.

    As it is illustrated by the examples given, alternative technologies are playing an important role on development and they should be kept in mind as a vehicle for community empowerment and sustainability in the Global South. A better integration of the research done is needed and, of course, more attention on the issue is fundamental.


    Jorge Ortiz Moreno is an independent consultant with experience in grassroots innovations, clean technologies and peri-urban dynamics. Nowadays he coordinates a program about “Clean technologies and sustainable development” at the Eco-technology Unit of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM). He graduated from the DPU’s Urban Development Planning MSc programme in 2014.
    Although most of his work has been done in Mexico, Jorge has participated in research projects about housing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Olympic Legacy in London, UK, and urban infrastructure in Medellin, Colombia. He is interested in how social entrepreneurship can foster well-being and environmental justice for the peri-urban poor and the role of grassroots innovations as tools for sustainable development in Latin America.