Smart is beautiful: Low-carbon cities, as if people mattered

In 2015, humanity reached a significant tipping point with over 50% of people now living in cities, yet this half of the population account for as much as three-quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions (depending on what you include in the measurement).

Smart is beautiful: Low-carbon cities, as if people mattered

To have any hope of meaningful action on climate change then we will need low-carbon cities. But what comes first, the low-carbon city or the low-carbon citizen?

The primary purpose of a city government is to serve its citizens, meeting their daily needs and building for their long term prosperity. To do this you need to put them first, understanding both what they want and importantly, what they need. So it is essential that direct community engagement can be combined with collecting data from citizens when creating and managing a successful low-carbon city.

History is full of examples showing how collecting data from citizens can make cities better places. For example, back in 1854 plotting cholera deaths around a contaminated water pump in London changed the medical understanding of how diseases are transmitted, inspiring modern approaches to sanitation and public health in cities around the world.

But unlike John Snow, the physician who had to walk around and talk to the citizens of Soho and mark cholera deaths by hand onto a map, today’s cities have access to a host of smart technologies that make collecting and analysing data a lot easier. If they use these technologies well to collect and analyse data then they can be a very effective tool to improve sustainability. This can inform the design of a city’s infrastructure, ensuring that intangible and tangible services – from energy to education – are embedded effectively.

Smart parking

Some aspects of the smart low-carbon city do not need to directly engage citizens at all to reduce emissions. Sensors and connected objects can intelligently collect and use live data from communities to deliver flexible, quick and efficient services. For example, smart streetlights can dim themselves when they are not needed. But collecting data based on actual behaviour can help to allocate and deploy local government resources far more effectively.

Some cities are directly involving their citizens in delivering local services through asking them to contribute by using socially useful apps or services. Milton Keynes Council in the UK has introduced smart parking, working with BT and the Open University. This made use of sensors on parking spaces to overlay data onto Google Maps, which could show drivers where spaces were free. This reduced emissions from driving around looking for spaces and saved the council money, reducing the need to introduce additional parking spaces.

Other smart services aim to be much more interactive, directly taking opinions into account. One example is the app Textizen, which is being used in American cities including Boston and Philadelphia. This allows local government to directly ask questions to citizens through text messages. The app then allows officials to analyse the answers provided, giving them useful feedback to inform decision making.

Cities are also able to inspire innovation from the private sector through providing open data. Giving access to public information has allowed private companies to find ingenious ways to make cities smarter and more sustainable, at the same time as making money. For example, transport apps such as Citymapper can influence the use of public transportation, cycling and walking by empowering the app users through real time route guidance.

Jam jars and kites

Not all innovative initiatives need to come directly from city governments. In developing countries technology has been used as a powerful tool in enabling local communities to help themselves whilst forcing local government to take notice.

In Brazil, a collaboration between UNICEF and an NGO known as Centro de Promocao da Saude (CEDAPS), has used GPS-enabled smartphones to digitally map favelas. Phones are put in jam jars and attached to kites that are then floated above the city by local children. These kites – a popular toy in the favelas – help mark potential areas of danger, such as rubbish dumps that can become breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitos.

However, despite the power of smart technologies it is very important to remember that they do have limitations. Cold analysis needs to be tempered by human understanding. If you rely on smartphones and sensors then there is a real risk that some people and their needs could be forgotten. This is particularly true for more marginalised pasts of the community, the impoverished, the elderly and the unemployed who can slip through the net.

For example, one city in the UK looked at the data and realised that they were able to save money by streamlining bus services and changing timetables. But it was only when they engaged directly with communities that they found out that this meant that certain individuals would be unable to travel to jobs that involved early morning shifts. Bus services were therefore extended and the unemployment rate of in the area has now improved.

So what does come first, the low-carbon city or the low-carbon citizen? Smart technology and big data are a very powerful tools to help drive efficiencies and reduce emissions from a city. But change is much more effective when it starts from the citizens. The important thing is to find the way to link environmental improvements to improve services.

The good news is a low-carbon city should be a better place to live with more efficient transport, more comfortable homes and cleaner air. And that is the sort of change that citizens want to see.

Joseph Williams is associate director for programmes at the Carbon Trust.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie