Expert’s Pick: Smart Cities, Dumb Cities… What’s the future of cities?

55% of the world’s population lives in cities. We know that cities will play a key part in the change to renewable energy. But what does the city of the future look like? For this week’s expert’s pick, Lea Ranalder, Project Lead of our recently released Renewables in Cities 2019 Global Status Report, chose Amy Fleming’s article for The Guardian, “The case for … making low-tech ‘dumb’ cities instead of ‘smart’ ones”.
This article quotes Shoshanna Saxe of the University of Toronto, who reminds us of some of pitfalls of the now-trending ideal of “smart cities.” Referencing Sidewalk Labs’ plans for a smart neighborhood in Toronto, Saxe warns of the complexities in smart city technology: aging equipment, maintenance costs and political jumbles about data ownership can make the reality of smart cities less sexy than the concept. “For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas”, says Saxe.
Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google, is planning a smart city neighborhood in Toronto.

The article proposes embracing nature-based solutions which don’t require sensors or other “smart” technology to be installed. Many cities have already implemented nature-based solutions to address difficulties that cities face, such as floods, pollution, carbon emissions, mobility challenges, and lack of green space.

To cite a few examples, Copenhagen’s parks become lakes in times of heavy rain; it’s been proven that increasing tree cover helps with cooling; and Wuhan’s ‘sponge city’ concept allows the ground to collect excess groundwater to avoid flooding.

Wuhan’s Xinyuexie Park is designed to withstand floods.
It may not be clear exactly what cities will look like in 50, 100 years. “A smart city is a catchy concept, but we’d better embrace existing solutions first. Renewables are a great partner for these nature-based solutions.”
Ranalder comments, “many low-tech and nature-based solutions can work well for reducing energy demand, but we need to be realistic that energy sources will still be needed to provide for basic energy services such as lighting, heating, cooling and getting from place to place.”
As our Cities Report shows, renewables can meet these needs and support cities in achieving a range of objectives: mitigating climate change, reducing air pollution, improving citizen health and well-being, economic development, job creation and improving energy access and security.