The internet is already allowing us to live greener lifestyles but more needs to be done to realise the smart city vision
It has taken the better part of three decades, but I think we might finally be starting to get the hang of the internet.
This sounds like a strange thing to say following a summer when the hacked details of the extra-maritally inclined were made freely available and the most credible candidate for the post of most powerful person on the planet saw their campaign stumble over the use of a personal email account. But then again, look at this way, the breadth of online services is now so wide they include the arrangement of spouse-betraying liaisons, while the fact a 67 year old politician uses email, something that would be regarded as genuinely remarkable a decade ago, is seen as completely commonplace. The internet is completely embedded in our lives and the challenge now is to make it work for us and deliver the resource efficiencies and improvements to quality of life that were promised all those years ago when it seemed anyone with a dot-com dream could pull off an multi-million dollar IPO.
Everywhere you look in our most advanced urban centres there are encouraging signs this challenge can be overcome, drastically reducing our environmental impact in the process.
You will have no doubt read countless think pieces about the potential for the so-called internet of things to optimise everything from power grids to pizza deliveries. This is not one of those pieces. It is not about potential, it is about what you can do right now, thanks to the integration and convergence of digital world functionality and real world clean tech innovations. Assuming, of course, you are lucky enough to live in the right place, have a smart phone, and are willing to make a relatively small financial outlay.
Your phone can tell you when to leave for work so you can catch your fuel cell powered bus or nuclear-powered train just as you arrive at your stop or station. If you drive to work, your electric car or ultra fuel-efficient conventional car can tell you in real time where there is congestion to avoid and where you can get a parking spot. Or then again, you can just work from home.
On your way home you can turn your heating off if you are going to be late and turn it on again, along with your lights, just as you approach. If you have solar panels, you can programme your washing machine to turn on when your ‘free' power is at its peak or you can install a battery that will allow you to watch TV throughout the evening using solar power generated during the afternoon. If you don't have solar panels, Google will soon be able to tell you if your roof is suitable for them. Either way, the power you get from the grid can come from 100 per cent renewable and green gas sources.
If you decide not to take on the hassle and expense of owning a car, you can hire one, perhaps even an electric one, at virtually a minute's notice and pick it up from your own street. You can do this at the weekend and enjoy a day trip out, because the Saturday morning schlep round the supermarket has been replaced by an internet-ordered delivery that recommends the things you like and delivers them in an electric van. You can even avoid the need to think about what you want to eat, as someone will deliver a selection of ingredients and recipe cards for a series of nutritionally balanced and healthy meals, in so doing pretty much eradicating the food waste you would otherwise produce. Alternatively, you could just opt to order that takeaway pizza and get it delivered on an electric scooter.
Any food waste you do still produce can be collected for processing in an AD plant, delivering back some of that AD gas you use to heat your triple-glazed home or cook your internet ordered meal. When you are done with other things - furniture, clothes, books, CDs, DVDs - you can sell or give them away through various online platforms without any hassle. Although, you don't need to buy books, CDs or DVDs anymore - they have all been dematerialised for anyone with a smart TV and an e-reader.
Meanwhile, what money you have can be kept in green ISAs or savings accounts, and if you do not have the space to install a solar panel but like the idea of enjoying the financial returns clean energy projects offer you can club together with others through a crowd-funding platform to invest anything from £5 upwards.
I know, I know, it is all too easy to dismiss this vision as the very epitome of urban middle class, hipster smugness. And besides, who actually lives like this?
Well, growing numbers of people in the trend-defining hubs of Europe and the US. They may not embrace every aspect of this almost inadvertently low environmental impact life style, and, of course, they are no closer to addressing the big structural green challenges embedded in global supply chains and unsustainable business and consumption models than anyone else. But they are fully on board with large parts of this smart city, digitally-enabled approach to urban living - an approach that brings resource efficiency with it as standard. Moreover, they are embracing these new services for the convenience and financial savings they bring, as well as the social cachet and eco-benefits.
At a wider, macro level there is fascinating and under-reported evidence these same trends can and are extending outside of their caricature-rich demographic ghetto. There is a debate over whether or not we have reached peak car, but there is little debate about the historic and significant reduction in energy use that has been experienced in recent years and has outstripped any decline you would expect from the economic slowdown. UK energy consumption has been falling for nine years and there is little sign of the trend ending - you don't get over a 15 per cent reduction in primary energy consumption and sharp falls in household energy use because a few eco-hipsters change their lightbulbs.
The ubiquity of smart phone apps, the planned universal roll out of energy smart meters, and the municipal deployment of smarter transport management and energy grid systems similarly suggests this technology will not be confined to a narrow middle class audience. Although if parts of the smart city experience initially focuses on reaching a certain privileged demographic that will be no different to every single technology deployment of all time. Countless technological and cultural trends have entered the mainstream through the interests and concerns of the urban middle class, smarter and greener cities will be no different.
However, there are inevitably huge barriers to the realisation of this smart green city vision.
Firstly, there are the aforementioned global infrastructure challenges. Not everyone can purchase 100 per cent renewable power and green gas (much as the likes of Ecotricity and Good Energy would love them to try) as there is not yet enough to go round. Equally, improved resource efficiency amongst consumers cannot on its own tackle the carbon intensive manufacturing and unsustainable agricultural processes that drive the global economy. There is no silver digital bullet.
Secondly, there is the continuing paucity of enabling digital infrastructure. My bank holiday weekends this summer took in Devon, Sussex and north Essex, all beautiful in their way, all singularly lacking decent mobile phone signals. I would have found this irritating, but then again my lounge in south east London and the bus stop I use every morning is similarly digitally disconnected. The government's vision of a thriving modern national economy that is less reliant on its city hubs for success will remain thwarted as long as mobile coverage and broadband reach remains so patchy.
Thirdly, there is the huge system disruption that will result from true smart cities. Paul Mason's Post Capitalism paints a picture of how a truly networked economy where information has immense value could mark the end of capitalism as we know it. You don't have to agree with every aspect of his analysis to accept that the emergence of smart city systems will prove hugely disruptive for corporate incumbents. Just look at the way Germany's renewable energy surge and increasingly smart grid has resulted in negative power prices and escalating losses for the energy industry stalwarts still clinging to centralised infrastructure models.
Fourth, there is the paucity of political and policy understanding. Every technology revolution tends to run ahead of policy-makers' comprehension of what is going on, but the smart city is Usain Bolt to legislators' school sports day Dad's race. The debate on the policy incentives and safeguards that are needed to ensure the rapid, effective and safe deployment of smart city systems has barely started.
This absence of policy debate brings us to arguably the most significant challenge the smart city faces, namely, Big Brother privacy fears, or their modern counterpart, the Ashley Madison conundrum. One of the best books I have read in recent years remains Dave Eggers' The Circle in which the onward march of social media and the digitalisation of every part of our life becomes dystopian very quickly. Privacy concerns about smart technologies range from the absurd - my favourite Mail on Sunday headline of all time remains the warning about the march of the 'sinister fridges', which, shock horror, may turn themselves off for 30 seconds - to the worryingly credible - if state monitoring of all digital communication is disquieting for many imagine the state, or even your utility, having the ability to monitor every journey you ever take, including getting up off the sofa to turn the kettle on.
All these challenges will have to be openly and honestly addressed by those who reckon the benefits of the smart city far outweigh the risks. Because while there are plenty of barriers to overcome, one thing is increasingly obvious: the internet and its convergence with clean technologies and green business models is enabling the real world delivery of the rewarding, healthy, and sustainable lifestyles environmentalists have long promised. At an upfront cost that is affordable to growing numbers and will invariably deliver significantly lower outgoings in the medium to long term, we can all slash our environmental footprint and free up time and energy for the things in life that matter.
We are starting to get the hang of the internet, and in so doing we are discovering that much-maligned urban hipsters might just hold the key to a more sustainable and rewarding economy. Let's hope it does not take another 30 years to turn the promise of the smart city into reality.
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