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Smarter Cities

Smart Cities Won't Save The Planet: We Need Low-Tech Cities

The concept of smart cities is a kind of received wisdom among planners and technologists, but our digital world of today is not sustainable.

Low tech or smart city?
Low tech or smart city?
Jean-Philippe Lens*

NAMUR — Last December, the morning after Saint-Nicholas Day, my daughter was impatiently waiting for the mailman, who was due to deliver the latest issue of her youth magazine. It immediately caught my attention as its front page featured a complete dossier on what our cities of the future will be like. Vertical, green but above all, connected. The word is out, our cities will be "smart cities."

This phenomenon is already booming here in Belgium. Every year since 2013, the Agoria organization bestows Smart City Awards to cities which invest in digital technology. Antwerp, Kortrijk, Ghent, but also Liège, Namur and Houffalize have all already received awards.

The idea behind this is to think about digital technology as vital to all the challenges posed by global warming, road congestion, air quality improvement or even biodiversity loss.

The result? A multitude of sensors, screens and wifi hotspots colonize cities, connecting everything that can be connected. All kinds of objects from swimming pool boilers to war memorial spotlights, road traffic flows or the level of glass shards in recycling bins, and even trees. The collected data is then transmitted, stored and processed, allowing optimal management of everything that makes up a city.

70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050

Full car park? The GPS will automatically redirect your autonomous car to the nearest free parking spot. A full recycling bin? The garbage truck will be notified immediately and will arrive to empty it. Tree in need of water? The sprinkler will instantly activate, delivering the correct dose of nutrients.

The concept of smart cities is now discussed in all urban planning seminars and conferences. The founding argument by advocates is that 70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050. Yet such a vision is likely to have a colossal impact on the environment.

According to data storage company Quantum, a 100% autonomous car would emit 5 to 10 terabytes of raw data every day (1 terabyte = 1 million megabytes). But in one of its studies, the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) estimates that sending an email of 1 MB generates 20 grams of CO2. With these proportions, it would mean that an autonomous car would produce 100 to 200 tonnes of CO2… every day. These figures may be just a rough approximation, but they show the enormous challenge presented by the environmental impact of big data in the future. In 2019, it was already estimated that the Internet, if it were a country, would be the world's third-largest emitter of CO2…

What if, instead, the urban population started to decline by 2050? — Photo: Jack Cohen

While the connected city can certainly provide answers to future challenges, the low-tech city — a concept that's still largely absent in urban planning debates — can offer a range of solutions and technical innovations that are just as effective and much less energy-intensive.

For instance, rather than building an underground network of pipelines and stormwater basins equipped with sensors to monitor the level of runoff water at all times and manage its flow, the low-tech city only needs an overhead network of infiltration basins and temporary immersions basins. Not only is this solution cheaper and less energy-intensive, but it also helps to develop biodiversity and reinfiltrate rainwater into the water tables.

While the connected city maintains road infrastructure and invests massively in cameras, sensors and digital panels to channel all traffic flow as efficiently as possible, the development of its low-tech counterpart relies on public spaces for public transport, bicycles and pedestrians.

Waste management can also be handled differently. While the smart city equips each bin with a connected chip which alerts the waste collector as soon as the filling level is reached, the low-tech city eliminates the door-to-door collection system by the generalization of bulk, deposit and compost.

The Internet, if it were a country, would be the world's third-largest emitter of CO2

However, the low-tech city concept doesn't work well with a high population density. Beyond human infrastructure, it also requires a large surface area dedicated to natural facilities which play a role in regulating our resources and waste. Over a certain number of inhabitants, the lack of space forces you to switch to the connected city model.

According to urbanist Carlo Ratti, this is inevitable — still because of the assumption that 70% of the world's population will live in cities by 2050. But the inevitability of this trend can be questioned.

Indeed, for the first time in a century, the number of farmers is increasing, both in Flanders and in Wallonia, Belgium's two regions. And this is not a circumstantial effect: this rise reflects the start of an economic and demographic redeployment of our rural areas, in response to a dominant agro-food policy and its low prices which, crisis after crisis, has shown all its limits. Urban planning may be born from the attractiveness of cities, but above all, it feeds on the lack of interest in the countryside that intensive agriculture helped to create.

What if, instead, the urban population started to decline by 2050? This hypothesis would open a whole range of possibilities to the low tech city — enough to question our desire to transform all our cities into smart cities.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Dead And Disappeared: A Village Emerges From 72 Days Of Russian Occupation

Russian forces have been pushed out of the area around Kharkiv. Villages that were occupied for two months are free once more — but utterly destroyed. And thousands of people have disappeared without a trace.

Kharkiv and the surrounding villages faced weeks of constant Russian shelling.

Alfred Hackensberger

TSYKRUNY — Andriy Kluchikov uses a walking stick, but is otherwise fairly sprightly for a 94-year-old. Under his black wool hat, Kluchikov seems fearless as he surveys his hometown in northeastern Ukraine. “The missiles don't scare me,” he says with a smile. “I have slept in my own bed every night and never went down into the basement.”

As for the two-meter-wide bomb crater that has appeared in his garden, between the vegetable patch and the greenhouse with its shattered plastic roof, Kluchikov almost seems proud. “No one can intimidate me,” he says. “Not even the Russians.”

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In the early days of the war, in February, Russian artillery almost completely destroyed this village of Tsyrkuny, near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city. Only a few houses, including his own, were left undamaged. Shortly afterwards, Russian troops marched into the village and occupied it for 72 days. It was not until early this week that the Ukrainian army was able to liberate Tsyrkuny and many other areas to the north of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

It is the Ukrainians’ most successful counter-offensive so far. They are thought to have pushed the invading troops back almost to the Russian border. “The offensive is gaining momentum,” according to the independent American thinktank Institute for the Study of War. “It has forced Russian troops on the defensive and has successfully alleviated artillery pressure on Kharkiv City.”

In the modern city of Kharkiv, home to around 1.5 million residents, the relief has been palpable over the last few days. Restaurants and cafes have reopened. People are walking and riding bikes in the parks, and couples are strolling hand in hand, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. You can still hear the artillery, but it is now many miles away.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

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