Smart Cities as Sustainable Cities?

City skyline at night, out of focus

– Lucy Latham, Policy and Cities Programme Lead at Julie’s Bicycle wrote this post from a panel presentation given as part of London Climate Action Week 2019

Many new categories of ‘cities’ have entered the policy discourse: ‘sustainable cities’; ‘green cities’; ‘digital cities’; ‘smart cities’; ‘information cities’; ‘knowledge cities’; ‘resilient cities’; ‘eco cities’ – along with various combinations of the above – the language of cities is fashionable. But this language can be confusing, easily conflated, with unclear policy implications.

‘Smart cities’ are hailed as the effective model for urban development, using ICT to better manage risk, improve resource efficiency and future-proof our urban infrastructure. However the challenge is that when this narrative becomes too narrow, too technocratic, it promotes the idea that you can fix everything with technology and we leave out other types of solutions. And I don’t need to labour the point – we are in an existential climate crisis; and it is not a battle we are currently winning.

Culture as a driver for systemic change

So, where else can we look to? I would like to take this opportunity to add a further dimension into the mix – not as another city-marker or branding exercise – but as an agent, a conduit, and a site, for systemic change towards sustainability. That dimension is: ‘culture’. Culture as a means to support a city vision which is intelligent, citizen-centred, socially-just and aligned to a 1.5 degree world. It is an essential ingredient in urban liveability, quality of life and citizen engagement – and therefore – in the successful adoption of new and transformative technologies… and as I aim to demonstrate here, it is also a critical driver for environmental change.

Our arts, cultural and creative communities are trialling and innovating environmental solutions across their activities – from building management to creative programmes; audience development to investment. The cultural life of cities connects citizens to one another, and to their values, offering a platform to influence and lead public engagement on climate and the environment. Culture is not merely a reflection of the world around us, but a provocation – a challenge to our norms and ideals; it provides the inspiration and space to rethink and rehearse new ways of co-existing – with each other and with the world.

Measuring cultural impacts

‘Culture’ is unlikely to be included explicitly within a smart city framework, however cultural actors are harnessing technology and smart systems to drive environmental improvement everywhere. The rapid development of digital technology has prompted the collection, analysis and modelling of vast scores of data, advancing our understanding of the natural environment and our impact on it. Julie’s Bicycle’s free carbon footprint tool has amassed the largest dataset of environmental impacts in the creative industries across the world – this data is demonstrating savings of £16.5 million since 2012 from cultural institutions’ reductions in energy.

Regarding the uptake of clean energy technologies, one quarter of public-funded arts organisations are now either on a green tariff or purchase their energy from a 100% renewable energy supplier – with many investing in on-site renewables and energy-efficient infrastructure. Our social media platforms transmit stories of celebration and challenge, with invitations to sign, vote, act and share. 2018’s ‘Season for Change’ campaign inspired hundreds of arts organisations across the country to programme events, conversations and performances to encourage action on climate change.

So, how are cities responding to the opportunities of convening culture and sustainability? As our research shows, cultural policy and strategy that supports more sustainable, intelligently-planned and resilient cities is increasing – and so is environmental strategy which recognises the power of culture to drive change. In 2018, the Mayor of London launched two new strategies, the Environment Strategy and the Culture Strategy. In the spirit of innovation and collaboration, a key commitment within London’s new cultural strategy is to address – rather than simply reflect – the capital’s social, economic and environmental challenges. Whilst London’s Environment Strategy commits to ‘Protect, conserve, and enhance the landscape and cultural value of London’s green infrastructure.

Cities leading the way on climate action

Organisations and individuals are coming together on sector or regional levels, to collaborate, share resources, knowledge and solutions; benefitting from a shared vision, collective bargaining and a louder voice. In Manchester, the networked cultural sector – represented by the incredible Manchester Arts and Sustainability Team – forms a pilot sector to support the implementation of the city’s zero carbon target.

The ‘urban laboratory’ is increasingly striking a chord with policy and decision-makers as a platform to facilitate experimentation, creativity and critical inquiry. From architects rethinking urban space, designers turbocharging the circular economy, and arts organisations experimenting with collaborative business models. Think material innovation, new technology, new pedagogies, new value systems – time banks, skill swaps etc.

More and more cities are exploring and embedding environmental themes in programming, learning and outreach activities, including artist commissions and residency programmes – in Liverpool, the European Capital of Culture programme not only spearheaded the city’s regeneration but also built and embedded environmental leadership. Now, Liverpool’s cultural organisations submit environmental data to the Council as well as receiving finance for capital development measures.

This interdisciplinary thinking is also reflected in European cultural funding. The vision for the EU HORIZON 2020 ROCK programme – for which Julie’s Bicycle is a partner – is Cultural Heritage leading urban futures. Many custodians of cultural heritage are already reframing environmental action as an opportunity to: demonstrate civic responsibility, increase public engagement, access new funding and investment; and improve citizen health and wellbeing. The ROCK project focuses on historic city centres as extraordinary laboratories, convening new technological tools with strategies for social and environmental development and urban regeneration.

Barriers and opportunities for change

However, we do live in an era of questionable information, and opinions masquerading as facts. As with all self-proclaiming “sustainability” approaches, we have to appraise ideas, asking ourselves: is this tackling the root-causes of climate and ecological breakdown? We have less than 12 years until we hit the 1.5C tipping point (IPCC) – less than 12 years to lock-in the changes we need to make. Meanwhile, a million species—one in eight—face near term extinction. We need unprecedented changes – quoting the IPCC- “in all aspects of society”.

Many of you may already be familiar with the critiques of smart cities – issues regarding cyber-security, the ethics of data capture, an excess of market control, exclusion of those without ICT access… whether ‘Smart city’ initiatives are simply aimed at finding cost efficiencies within an existing broken system – or driving systemic change towards sustainability? Technology brings huge opportunities in clean and efficient management of energy, but without capping and significantly reducing global emissions, we risk prioritising efficiencies over actual reductions – merely shifting the burden. That burden is experienced now – to people in poverty, to the global south, to people of colour, to excluded and marginalised communities across the world.

Technology as a tool and not the outcome

My proposition is that of course we utilise technology, but that we understand it as a tool not the outcome, and that it is acknowledged within a broader movement of transformation that is social, cultural, political and economic; that it is used to challenge, not simply reflect how power, privilege and finance currently orient themselves. To me, a smart city and a sustainable city, is a city that aligns itself to the Paris Agreement and to the Sustainable Development Goals. It is a city which harnesses technology, investment and policy to secure social and ecological justice.

Culture can help align what we call ‘smart’ and ‘sustainable’ – and inform how these strategies are implemented. In all its diversity, it brings communities together, motivates active citizenship, empowers, educates and inspires; and provides space to reflect and rethink. Most critically, it connects us to our common humanity.