- Wild snowstorms paralyzed electricity infrastructure in Texas, a state in the country with the world’s largest economy.
- Just imagine what climate change fueled extreme weather will do to our cities as infrastructure and ICT systems become increasingly interconnected.
- Many see high-tech “smart cities” as a climate solution, but just how smart are they?
- This article is a commentary and the views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Smart cities are held up as beacons of hope in meeting the climate crisis. This is because they reduce greenhouse gas emissions by paring back energy use and urban waste. But is it possible the high-tech complexity of smart cities actually leaves urban dwellers more exposed to future climate disaster?Smart cities’ dependence on the information and communications technology (ICT) systems that help generate these emission reductions may actually be opening up new climate vulnerabilities, when we consider what happens if these systems fail. There is a danger that we fall into the trap of assuming that a reliance on increasingly high-tech solutions is our “get out of jail free” card for everything.
We need to think more about whether our increasing reliance on interconnected information-based technology includes adequate fails safes to protect against systematic collapse if cities are hit by outside stresses – including climate-induced shocks. A number of experts working in the field of urban climate adaptation believe this issue is not receiving adequate attention.
Considering that about 55 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, and this figure is projected to rise to seven out of 10 people by 2050, we ignore this issue at our possible peril.
The definition of what actually makes a smart city is not clear cut. There is general agreement though that they share an ability to combine real time data and digital technology to improve people’s decisions on when to use energy and when to move around, while also contributing to more efficient long-term city planning. Sensors and people’s ubiquitous use of smartphones, for instance, encourage urban residents to use public transit during off-peak hours to avoid large crowds and to access energy and water services at different times of the day to lessen demand surges.
Smart emission reduction
Smart cities reduce carbon footprints by utilizing interconnected ICT systems to create greater efficiencies. These can come in the form of more energy efficient buildings and street lighting, better waste management, smart energy meters that allow consumers to tap cheaper off-peak power, and electrified public transport links that best conform with people flows. Largely absent from positive depictions of smart cities’ ability to reduce emissions though are considerations of how robust the ICT systems are that make them smart.
In his book published last year, “Apocalypse How”, former UK politician Oliver Letwin issues an arresting warning about whether we are adequately assessing the way our growing reliance on technological connectivity opens our societies to vulnerabilities. Letwin provides a detailed portrayal of how the physical and human infrastructure of UK society would break down quickly if there was a systematic failure of the internet and associated services, including banking and satellite-based communication and navigation. He predicts this would lead quickly to a large number of deaths (in his synopsis due to the failure of indoor heating) and, ultimately, a breakdown of law and order.
The title of Letwin’s book is a misnomer (possibly with a suggested nod by the publisher to the current popularity of dystopian literature and TV) as the ICT breakdown he posits –associated with internet-busting solar flares – is rectified in a few days. While Letwin does not address climate change, his book does provide a useful thought experiment in highlighting the way our fragile modern society is increasingly dependent on the ICT systems that connect us and our machines. Isn’t it possible that the increasingly extreme effects of climate change – such as floods, hurricanes and extended droughts – could, ironically, threaten the integrity of the smart city ICT networks designed to help mitigate global heating?
Enmeshed in the ICT era
Humanity’s increasing reliance on technology is by no means new. It began with the use of simple tools and fire, leading to gradually more sophisticated irrigation and animal husbandry. During the past few decades, the use technology has carved out a central part of our lives – accelerating rapidly with the invention of steam power (which, along with the myriad benefits of fossil fuel-powered modernity, began the current trajectory to the climate crisis we now face). The extent to which we now use technology-based communication and interconnectivity though is unprecedented. Today’s generation is deeply enmeshed in the ICT era, equally as it is within the Anthropocene era.
Richard Dawson, an urban climate expert based at the UK’s Newcastle University, warns of a “cascading failure” if single ICT components fail. Dawson says we need to upgrade our thinking about urban infrastructure connections beyond a traditional focus on electricity, road, rail and sewage systems. “The increasing reliance on data and ICT in urban planning is a double-edged sword,” he said. “It allows for incredible flexibility – to create new communication lines we don’t have to dig up a road. We could live without being able to talk across continents if telecommunications fail, but we would struggle if this breakdown led to a mass system failure.”
A loss of ICT interconnectivity has implications far beyond the failure of systems employed to create urban efficiencies and, therefore, reduce emissions. The rapid speed at which ICT systems operate could actually work against us if they fail, as the negative effects would be sharp and sudden. Dawson points out the loss of electronic banking could quickly lead to social problems. This would be particularly worrisome if this occurs as the result of a climate disaster when a ready access to personal finance is so important.
Strange conspiracy theories
The US Government found that many of the social problems following Hurricane Katrina’s destructive descent on New Orleans in 2005 arose from “information gaps”. While accounts of rioting and other lawlessness at the time were later described as exaggerated, numerous reports do indicate communication breakdowns did severely impact social cohesion. Professor Ayyoob Sharifi, from Japan’s Hiroshima University, warns the ICT systems that control smart cities are not just prone to disruption from uncontrolled disaster, but also from intentional human-created harm.
The curation of social media misinformation by individuals or organizations, including overseas governments, could overcome local officials’ attempts to prevent the outbreak of havoc when disaster strikes, said Sharifi, who studies urban climate measures. This could include the dissemination of purposefully incorrect information about where to take shelter during flooding. Purported attempts by the Russian Government to use social media to sway election results in the US and Europe shows that anonymous attempts to sway public perceptions can be effective.
The ability of strange conspiracy theories, especially if abetted by unscrupulous populist politicians such as former US President Donald Trump, to cut through the daily online traffic and garner widespread support shows that social media is not always the best medium to convey factual information. Social media, usually accessed by smart phones, is an important part of the two-way communication interface of smart cities, as it is with many forms of climate early warning systems.
How do we ensure then that the commendable work of climate proofing cities does not lead us down cul de sacs of urban planning where an overreliance on ICT connections actually increases the potential for climate disruption? One way is to take a holistic approach that incorporates different approaches to urban dynamics.
Future Earth’s Urban Knowledge-Action Network – a global group of researchers and other policy, business and civil society innovators – is striving to make cities more sustainable and equitable by highlighting the human element in democratizing data and including underrepresented voices in city planning.
Local Governments for Sustainability, known as ICLEI, is another global network – comprising local and regional governments in over 100 countries – that advocates cities that weather rapid urbanization and climate change by combining sustainable and equitable solutions.
Nazmul Huq, ICLEI’s head of resilient development, says people need to be placed at the centre of all urban management – especially in developing countries, many of which are now entering intense urbanization. Rapid interconnectivity in the new urban hot spots of growth in India, China and Nigeria is creating advantage and potential disadvantage at a rapid pace.
“The emergence of ICT, especially mobile phones, represents a revolution for poorer people in developing countries as it provides them with greater control over their lives,” Huq said. “But at the same time, an overreliance on interconnected ICT urban networks also raises the possibility of devastating systematic collapse – including through rapid climate-induced disasters such as heat waves. This could disconnect people, while knocking out internet connections and electricity generation.”
Huq said the most important factor in making cities livable – whether they are smart or not – is to include all urban citizens, including disadvantaged groups, in the decisions that shape their urban spaces. “We must ensure the voices of the poor and marginalized are heard to avoid injustice and unequal distribution of the benefits of city life,” he added.
The way megacities are emerging now in developing countries may well determine whether we are able to overcome the climate challenge – especially considering that 70 percent of greenhouse gases come from today’s cities. Under current trends, it seems likely the lives of those rich and poor will become increasingly urbanized and interconnected by smart city ICT systems.
The sheer enormity of the climate challenge means we need to consider all options, including seeking out technological solutions. We should, however, balance our desire to be smart and interconnected with urban planning that at least considers the fragility of our city systems and what happens when they don’t work. We must not allow our thirst for technology to overcome our human need to consider nature.
Banner image caption: City of London skyline by Colin via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).
Simon Pollock is an Australian-British writer and climate change communicator based in South Korea. Previously he worked in the Australian Government on climate change issues, and was a member of the startup team that launched Al Jazeera English Television from its Asia HQ in Kuala Lumpur. Simon’s interest in development and environmental issues stemmed from observation of how the two don’t always mix during six years in Beijing as a Kyodo News reporter.