An estimated 55 percent of the planet’s population now resides in cities, a figure that is projected to rise to 68 percent by 2050. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected and overpopulated, there is mounting pressure to rethink our use of resources and redesign how we interact with each other and our world. An important question to ask: what will help our cities become more sustainable, resilient and safe?
The high-tech approach to healthy and sustainable cities involves the smart tech movement, and the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT enables various objects and entities to communicate with each other through the Internet. Telecom companies are selling the new 5G tech network as the communications backbone of the “Smart City.” Smart cities promise to use cameras and sensors to monitor everyone and everything, from bins to bridges, and use the resulting data to help the city run smoothly.
But a number of experts question whether “smart” cities premised on 5G technology are the best option for our collective future. While telecom corporations tout improved communication speeds and the ability to connect a host of devices from a single location, this system will require a massive public investment in 5G infrastructure that consumers will ultimately pay for. Telecom companies also hide that fact that 5G includes a major untested public health concern, as reported in New 5G Network Spurs Health Concerns, story #12 from Censored 2020: Through the Looking Glass.
On the other hand, a case could be made for low/eco-tech approaches to future urban issues. Independent news reports provide two promising examples. Mesh networks are a radical sharing paradigm that would put ownership of communication networks in consumers’ hands; and nature-based technologies offer ecological solutions for many of the challenges faced by cities.
Mesh networks use open source software to let people and business build and share access to their own free networks. Since most people today use only a fraction of the bandwidth they are paying for the excess could be shared with the community, reducing the costs of Internet access or cell phone plans for everyone and potentially making free services available to those most in need. Mesh networks already exist and have been proven to work. Examples include NYC Mesh, Freifunk and Guifi.net, a wireless community network of over 32,000 nodes in Catalonia. Mesh networks are significantly cheaper than the massive investments needed to make 5G ubiquitous, and they also promise to be more resilient and community-friendly.
Grounded in ancient knowledge, nature-based technologies (NBT) offer low-tech ecological solutions to drainage, wastewater processing, flood survival, local agriculture and pollution that have worked for indigenous peoples for thousands of years without recourse to electronic sensors, computer servers, or IT support. NBT could rewild our urban landscapes and restore the unhealthy disconnect between humans and nature. Example of NBT include. A few examples:
- A series of parks in Copenhagen that can serve as water reservoirs during storms. This eco-tech solution to flooding cost a third less than building levees and new sewers, with added social and ecological benefits, including parks with happy people and habitat for wildlife.
- The “floating school” in Makoko—a city-on-stilts in Lagos that is home to 80,000 residents—features . Its “floating school” – sustainable and solar-fuelled – has captured the world’s imagination. Rotterdam introduced a floating forest and farm, and is developing plans for a sustainable floating city.
- Designs for green cities, such as in Madison, Wisconsin, where a forty percent increase in tree cover has led to a five percent reduction in temperatures. Green roofs with thick vegetation can cool buildings by up to sixty percent.
- Functioning wetlands can defend cities against floods, restore nature, and clean wastewater more efficiently than sewage-treatment—all while absorbing carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and methane, and creating a fishing industry and fertile farmland. The world’s largest such system, in east Kolkata, India, saves the city approximately $22m a year in costs for waste treatment. The water is then used for irrigation, saving further in water and fertilizer costs, while also enabling much of the city’s food to be grown locally.
Let us not be fooled by the current hype of 5G networks, despite its promises of improving communication speed and life options. Some cities are choosing smart technologies other than 5G, including the use of fiber optic networks. The definition of “smart cities” is evolving to support cities being truly smart – with an integration of healthy technology, community-based institutions and nature-based design. Corporate media has not covered this integrated approach to urban design, and tends to focus on the 5G smart city approach.
Amy Fleming. “The Case For Making Low-Tech ‘Dumb’ Cities Instead Of ‘Smart’ Ones,” The Guardian, January 15, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2020/jan/15/the-case-for-making-low-tech-dumb-cities-instead-of-smart-ones.
Anders Lisdorf, “How a Shareable Network Could Be More Beneficial Than 5G for Future Smart Cities,” Shareable, March 3, 2020, https://www.shareable.net/how-a-shareable-network-could-be-more-beneficial-than-5g-for-future-smart-cities/.
Anders Lisdorf, “The 5 Layers of the Smart City,” Apress, January 6, 2020, https://www.apress.com/us/blog/all-blog-posts/the-5-layers-of-the-smart-city/17495966
James Ellsmoor, “Smart Cities: The Future of Urban Development,” Forbes, May 19, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/05/19/smart-cities-the-future-of-urban-development/#1250805d2f90.
Matt Bird, “Building the Smart Cities of the Future: Think Long-Term and Local,” Smart Cities World, March 11, 2019, https://www.smartcitiesworld.net/smart-cities-news/smart-cities-news/building-the-smart-cities-of-the-future-think-long-term-and-local-3948.
Paul Wagner, “5G Health Risks: The War Between Technology and Human Beings,” Gaia, May 14, 2019, https://www.gaia.com/article/5g-health-risks-the-war-between-technology-and-human-beings.
Student Researcher: Jiovani Valdivia (San Francisco State University) and Amber Yang (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)