Amsterdam: Heading for a circular economy

Demolition waste – Photo Jim Henderson Licensed under Creative Commons

Possibly, in 2050 the word wastecan be removed from our dictionaries. At that time, the Dutch economy will be circular according to the government. Meaning in essence, that all raw materials are reused infinitely. In order to reach this goal, an agreement with respect to the use of raw materials has been concluded between 325 parties. Its first milestone is halving the use of primary raw materials before 2030[1].

Many are skeptical of the outcomes of this agreements. Admittedly, 38.7% of the Dutch population feels that we are on the right track, although progress is slow. Jan Jonker[2], professor of business administration at Radboud University, is more pessimistic:  We do not think circular yet. Institutions, from legal to fiscal, are fully geared to the linear economy.

Amsterdam is making progress. In 2015, the municipality explored opportunities for a circular economy, which have been published in Amsterdam Circular: Vision and roadmap for city and region[3]. Dozens of projects have been started, albeit mostly on a small scale and starting from a learning-by-doing perspective.

The report Amsterdam circular; evaluation and action perspectives[4](2017) is an account of the evaluation of these projects. It concludes that a circular economy is realistic.  The city has also won the World Smart City Award for Circular Economy for its approach – facilitating small-scaled initiatives directed at metropolitan goals. Nevertheless, a substantial upscaling must take place in the shortest possible time.

Below, I focus on the construction sector, which includes all activities related to demolition, renovation, transformation and building. Its impact is large; buildings account for more than 50% of the total use of materials on earth, including valuable ones such as steel, copper, aluminum and zinc. In the Netherlands, 25% of CO2 emissions and 40% of the energy use comes from the built environment.

By circular construction we mean design, construction, and demolition of houses and buildings focused on high-quality use and reuse of materials and sustainability ambitions in the field of energy, water, biodiversity, and ecosystems as well. For example, the Bullitt Centerin Seattle, sometimes called the greenest commercial building in the world, is fully circular[5]

Photo: James Provost licensed under Creative Commons

The construction sector is not a forerunner in innovation, but of great importance with respect to circularity goals. The Amsterdam metropolitan region is planning to build 250,000 new homes deploying circular principles before 2050.

The evaluation of the projects that have been set up in response to the Amsterdam Circular Planhas yielded a number of insights that are important for upscaling: The most important is making circularity one of the key criteria in granting building permits. The others are the role of urban planning and the contribution of urban mining, which will be dealt with first.

The role of urban planning

Urban planning plays a crucial role in the promotion of circularity. It is mandatory that all new plans depart from circular construction; only then a 100% reuse of components after 2050 is possible. The renovation of existing houses and buildings is even more challenging than the construction of new ones. Therefore, circular targets must also apply here. Dialogue with the residents, and securing their long-term perspective is essential. The transformation of the office of Alliander in Duiven into an energy neutral and circular building is exemplary (photo below).

Photo: VolkerWessels Vastgoed 

The contribution of urban mining

Existing buildings include countless valuable materials. The non-circular way of building in the past impedes securing these materials in a useful form during the demolition process. Deploying dedicated procedures enables the salvation of a large percentage of expensive materials. In this case we speak of urban mining. Unfortunately, at this time re-used materials are often more expensive than new ones. Therefore, a circular economy will benefit with a shift from taxes on labor to taxes on raw materials.

Issuing building permits

The municipality of Amsterdam made a leap forwards with respect to issuing building permits to enable circularity[6]. Based on the above-mentioned definition of circular building, five themes are addressed in the assessment of new building projects: Use of materials, water, energy, ecosystems as well as resilience and adaptivity. Each of these themes can scrutinized from four angles:

  • The reduction of the use of materials, water and energy
  • The degree of reuse and the way in which reuse is guaranteed.
  • The sustainable production and purchase of all necessary materials.
  • Sensible management, for example a full registration of all components used.

Application of these angles to the five themes yields 32 criteria. A selection of these criteria is made in each project, depending from whether the issuing of building permits or renovation is concerned, and also from where the building takes place. For instance, a greenfield site versus a central location in a monumental environment. 

One of the projects

In recent years, the municipality of Amsterdam has included circular criteria in four tenders: Buiksloterham, Centrumeiland, the Zuidas (all residential buildings) and Sloterdijk (retail and trade). On the Zuidas, the first circular building permit was granted in December 2017. 30% of the final judgment were based on circularity criteria.

The winner is AM, in collaboration with Team V Architects. In their project Cross over, they combined more than 250 homes with offices, work space for small businesses and a place for creative start-ups. The project doesn’t have a fixed division between homes and offices. Reuse in future demolition is facilitated by a materials passport and by building with dry connections, enabling easy dismantling. 

Crossover – photo Zwartlicht 

Need to organize learning

The detailed elaboration of the 32 criteria for circularity to be applied in tenders, covers more than 40 densely printed pages. One cannot expect from potential candidates to meet the requirements routinely. It would therefore be welcomed if the municipality of Amsterdam shared its knowledge with applicants collectively during the submission process.

I also would welcome ‘pre-competitive’ cooperation by communities with manufacturers, knowledge institutions, clients and construction partners with the aim to develop circular building. This involves for instance standardization of the dimensioning of components (windows, frames, floorboards) and the ‘rehabilitation’ of ‘demolished’ components while maintaining the highest possible value. This might be combined with a database in which developers can search for available components. 

In Zwolle, another strategy is followed: the municipality, housing corporations and construction companies have formed a Concilium[7], which aims to significantly expand the already planned construction of houses, using circular principles.

Circularity requires closing circles. Collaboration within the supply-chain is one of these.


[1]https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/rapporten/2016/09/14/bijlage-1-nederland-circulair-in-20

[2]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/circulaire-economie/27945/de-stand-in-het-land-zijn-we-al-een-beetje-circulair

[3]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-0/

[4]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[5]http://www.bullittcenter.org

[6]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[7]https://www.weblogzwolle.nl/nieuws/61325/ambitieus-plan-voor-zwolse-woningmarkt.html

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Digital technology eats politics for breakfast.

This short essay is looking for an answer to the question “Does technology develop autonomously or can society be in control?

This issue takes a central position in two thought-provoking books to be discussed below [1].

The first book is Radical Technologies, written by Adam Greenfield (Verso, 2017). The second one is A New Digital Dealby Bas Boorsma (Rainmaking Publications, 2017). Both authors have been involved in the development of smart cities for many years. Bas Boorsma among others in various global and regional roles in Cisco. Adam Greenfield – also author of Against the Smart City[2]has been working among others as an information architect for Nokia. Nowadays he is teaching at London School of Economics. Both books go beyond smart cities and focus on the role of digitalization in society.

Setting the stage

Bas Boorsma has a strong belief in the – until now only partially realized – potential of digital technology. Adam Greenfield refuses to discuss any such hypothetical value. He refers at Stafford Beer’s famous phrase The purpose of a system is what it doesand that is the colonization of the daily life by technology giants and near-monopolists like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, called ‘the Stacks’ and other big technology companies.

Digitalization

The essence of digitalization is restructuring economy and society with digital communication and infrastructures. According to Bas Boorsma, the network paradigm will replace centralist thinking by the development of many connected nodes, in society and in the digital world as well. The organisation of society and the principles behind the Internet will reinforce each other. 

Many expected digitalization to facilitate the emergence of a ‘true’ free market, i.e. an economy based on peer-to-peer principles, collaboration, with small enterprises relying of the network effect and digital tools to conduct business in ways previously reserved for large corporations (New Digital Deal, p.52). This is what initially happened indeed: The development of platforms empowered start-ups, small companies and professionals. Many network utopians believed the era of ‘creative commons’ had arrived and with it, a non-centralized and highly digital form of ‘free market egalitarianism’(New Digital Deal, p.52).

Some already predicted the decline of capitalism.

Bas Boorsma

However, the network paradigm and the platform economy have been appropriated to a large extend by ‘the Stacks’ and other big companies. As a consequence, the workings of capitalism, revitalizing monopolism and oligarchy have been amplified. Digitalization-powered capitalism now possesses a speed, agility and rawness that is unprecedented(New Digital Deal, p.54). In this respect Bas Boorsma’s en Adam Greenfield’s visions do not divert much. 

A New Digital Deal

According to Bas Boorsma digitalization cannot be countered, but steering is needed and feasible. He applies the analogy of a skillfully steered canoe sailing an incredible fast-flowing river, harvesting its energy. A New Digital deal must steer the further development and impact of digitalization to deliver on its promise in full, and we have to do this in a moral context… (New Digital Deal, p.42). In order to deploy digitalization and to manage platforms for the greater good of the individual and society as a whole, new regulatory approaches will be required… (New Digital Deal, p.46). This has to enable us to manage technological growth, regulate platforms, celebrate recalibrated free market principles, prepare for the emergence of new and better jobs, harvest digitalization generated wealth… and to tax wealth and platform rather than labor(New Digital Deal, p.65).

Thus the New Digital Deal requires strong regulatory power to bridge the tension between at one side the initial expectations and hopes for a post-capitalist society, dominated by many connected small actors and at the other side the appropriation of the digitalization and the platform-economy by ‘the Stacks’ and other companies. The question is what does this regulatory power include. 

Bas Boorsma deals in depth with the societal impact of digitalization in domains like healthcare, education, transport, and energy. In each case he explores the content of the New Digital Deal. In the meantime I searched in vain for the answer to the question about the regulation of free markets and growing monopolism of ‘the Stacks’. The answer to this question is particularly important because it is exactly the unrestricted growth of monopolism that feeds Adam Greenfield’s deep pessimism with respect to the societal benefits of digitalisation. Adam Greenfield does not answer this question either, presumably because there is no answer. Still, I think there is one.

The vanity of a digital paradise

Adam Greenfield

Before returning to the New Digital Deal, I go deeper into the reason of Adam Greenfield’s pessimism. In consecutive chapters of his book he unveils how big companies – sometimes in cooperation with the state – have taken possession of digital technologies: Where previously everything that transpired in the fold of the great city evaporated in the moment it happened, all of these rhythms and processes are captured by the network and retained for inspection (Radical Technologies, p.5). This because of the combined effect of smartphones, sensors, security cameras, ‘wearables’ – like Hitatchi’s Business Microscope – and the fast increasing capabilities of the algorithmic production of knowledge. 

Was blockchain technology intended as the foundation for newly to develop decentralized peer-to peer distributed organizations, is it actually captured by large companies. They embrace it as a fundamentally improved entrusted framework for identity and data sharing (contracts and databases). 

However truly transformative circumstances will arise not from any one technology standing alone, but from multiple technical capabilities woven together in combination (Radical technologies, p.273). Again ‘the Stacks’ will benefit most. Their innovation capacity is larger than any other company and their cash is unlimited. They are turning the entire planetary-scale entrepreneurial community into a vast distributive R&D lab… At any given moment there are thousands of startups busily exploring the edges of technological possibility, and shouldering all the risk of involved in doing so. (Radical Technologies, p.281) By focusing on the development of ‘minimum viable products’ they anticipate to be taken over by one of ‘the Stacks’ or other technology companies and cash the millions these companies offer. The start-up community is more vital than ever before but is nothing like the decentralized occupants of the nodes of the network on the eve of a new liberalized order. In stead they support the dominance of ‘the Stacks’. 

The failing of politics

The influence of politics – other then incidental support – in western countries with respect to the growing power of ‘the Stacks’ is negligible. Maybe with the exception of the European Union that is entangled in rearguard actions by fining some eye-catching forms of monopolism. In contrast, the Chinese gouvernment is molding technology to its own aims, albeit not in an exemplary way. Supported by China’s own ‘Stacks’ – among them Alibaba and Baihe – the government is integrating smartphones, wearables and social networking services to establish the degree of ‘social credit’ of all of its citizens.

I expect a negative answer from Adam Greenfield to the question whether technological development is an autonomous force like the fast-floating river in Bas Boorsma’s analogy. In the USA large-scale scientific programs supervised by state-institutions like the legendary DARPA enabled major technological development. This carefully planned process resulted not only in the nuclear bomb but also in the discovery of all components of the later iPhone, which initial development – by the way – has been subsidized by the state too, as has been disclosed in detail by Mariana Mazzocato[3].Nowadays the development of technology and its impact on employment is predominantly instigated by strategic choices made by ‘the Stacks’ and other technological companies.

As a consequence, any ‘deal’ regarding steering technological development or safeguarding the interest of citizens and society at large will have to target ‘the Stacks’.

The New Digital Deal revisited

This brings us back to the New Digital Deal. Targeting ‘the Stacks’ has to be preceded by decisive lawmaking at national or supranational level with respect to the aim and the conditions of digitalization for the purpose of society at large. Referring at Bas Boorsma the aim is enabling a networked and connected society with thriving activity in all nodes and free markets in between. A far from complete – list of conditions includes:

  • A strong and enforced anti-trust policy.
  • The discouragement of acquisitions in favor of collaboration within networks.
  • Unbundling heterogeneous conglomerates of companies (‘to big to fail’).  
  • Governance guidelines discouraging short-termism, the stock markets included.
  • Considerable taxes on profits, which might be released by participation in state-coordinated research programs together with universities and other stakeholders.
  • A basic-income combined with the right at paid work for adult citizens.

An emerging digital community

I seriously doubt the ability of the bitterly divided European states to settle conditions as mentioned above in the near future. Meanwhile my expectations of lower level governments – cities in particular – are higher. At this level, high and low tech digital tools might be applied and enabled to prove their value in relation to challenges as traffic, healthy air, sustainable energy and safety. Bas Boorsma’s 20 building blocks of community digitalization will prove their value here. Each of these building blocks is actionable. The ‘community digitalization’ approach puts citizen’s needs and wants in the center and their fulfillment will come from a network of stakeholders. The local government can be held responsible for robust connectivity and digital safety and also for interoperability and the deployment of non-proprietary protocols. 

Somewhere at an undetermined but eagerly awaited moment in the future a world of collaborating cities might force states to take their responsibility and issue the laws that are necessary to establish a New Digital Deal. 

Did your appetite grown?

Start reading both books! Those who are attuned to practical solutions better start with Adam Greenfield’s because his well-documented approach to technology definitely will put practice in a new light. Also his way of phrasing is excellent. Readers with a more academic mind-set are advised to start with Boorsma’s book, because his life-long experience will be helpful in making theory actionable. And that is where many of us are waiting for.


[1] The title of this short essay is inspired by the phrase ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. This post has been published before at Smart City Hub.

[2]https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18626431-against-the-smart-city

[3]https://wp.me/p32hqY-6p

Hydrogen: Smart but as yet a promise for the future

Recently, Amsterdam[1] published its plan for the energy transition. The obvious conclusion is that the town, like other towns[2], need a lot of hot water for district heating from as yet unknown underground sources and a decuple supply of wind and solar energy. Looking for other supplies, the idea of hydrogen soon comes up.

Looking for other supplies of energy, the idea of hydrogen soon comes up.

Before answering the question about the feasibility of hydrogen as an additional source of heat and electricity, some characteristics of hydrogen have to be discussed.

Advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen.

The process of electrolysis brings water into contact with electricity, resulting in oxygen and hydrogen. A 100% clean process, provided the use of energy from carbon-free sources. ‘Blue’ hydrogen occurs when the CO2released during the production of electricity is collected and stored. 

The storage of hydrogen is easy, particularly if conversed into ammonia. A kilo of hydrogen is producing the same amount of energy as a fully-fledged Tesla Power Wall. A tank with 60,000 m3of ammonia can deliver more than 200 million kilowatt hours. That is the annual production of 30 wind turbines on land. The problem with hydrogen is that 60% of energetic value is lost when electricity is used to make hydrogen and hydrogen is converted it into electricity again. Storing electricity in a battery yields only 5% loss of value.

Hydrogen plant in Rotterdam (blue containers) and the apartment complex (left center
) that will be heated with hydrogen. Photo: DNV GL

As a consequence, an obvious application of hydrogen is as a substitute for natural gas, which limits energy loss to 30%.

The Dutch grid operator Stedin will use green hydrogen gas to heat an apartment complex in Rotterdam. The hydrogen will be produced locally and transported via dedicated gas pipelines[3] (photo). An electric heat pump would have reduced energy use with 75%, given perfect isolation. Exactly to avoid the expenditures for isolation, housing corporations are considering hydrogen in older houses. However, the financial advantages of ‘green’ hydrogen, in the long run, have to be seen[4]. Eventually, heating on hydrogen will be reserved for historic city centres, where few alternatives are available.

But what if hydrogen will become much cheaper?  In the near future, the Gulf States will export cheap ‘green’ hydrogen converted into ammonia on a large scale. The production costs of solar energy in desert areas are considerably lower than in Europe, because the yield of solar panels and collectors is twice as large due to the high intensity of insulation[5]. The feasibility of this alternative depends on geopolitical considerations in the first place: Many Western countries will be reluctant to become dependent again from ‘former’ oil producing countries. However, the advantages are obvious.

Another attractive prospect is that hydrogen (ammonia) offer a new destination for a couple of brand new but already depreciated energy plants. In this respect, an experiment in the Magnum power plant at the Eemshaven is of great importance. NUON is investigating whether this type of power plants can be used in a flexible way for the production of electricity while deploying various types of low- or no-emission fuels like hydrogen. In times of a surplus of green electricity, these plants can be used to produce hydrogen. If there is a shortage of electricity, the power plant can convert imported cheap hydrogen into electricity. In the future, probably one of the gas-powered energy plants in Amsterdam will be deployed in the same way. 

e-Bike on hydrogen. The Alpha 2.0. Photo Pragma Industries

An also frequently mentioned application of hydrogen is transport[6]. In the meantime, for all forms of transport – even e-bikes[7]– hydrogen models are available. 

With the foregoing in mind, hydrogen as fuel for passenger cars – not to speak of bikes –  is quite odd[8]. Although the range is about 600 km and refueling is fast, the difference with electric cars is reducing fast. There are few car brands left that go for passenger cars on hydrogen; Toyota is one of these. The development of a hybrid car that runs on electricity with a battery that can be charged by a fuel cell while driving is noteworthy. Daimler is working on this, after having stopped the development of a fully hydrogen-powered passenger car recently.

For other means of transport, the verdict may be more positive[9]. The rule is, the larger the desired range and the heavier the load, the more the benefits of hydrogen equal or outweigh the advantages of batteries. Examples are buses, lorries, but also planes[10]and ships[11]. The province of Groningen and QBuzz, a regional transport company, are experimenting with buses on hydrogen. The 20 buses will run on the long routes. This in contrast with the rest of the fleet, which will become electric because loading can be fitted into the timetable. 

The conclusion is that the use of Dutch solar or wind energy for the production of hydrogen is costly and does not qualify mostly when electricity can be used directly[12]. The availability of cheap imported hydrogen might be a gamechanger. In the first place, it is a ‘green’ alternative for the use of natural gas particular in buildings or parts of the town where a high level of isolation is costly or infeasible at all. In the second place it is an excellent alternative for long-term energy storing probably in combination with depreciated gas-powered energy plants. Buses, trucks, trains, ships and planes might be a third application.


[1]MRA Warmte Koude – Grand Design 2.0: Handelingsperspectief en Analyse, september 2018 Metropoolregio Amsterdam

[2]https://www.nijmegen.nl/fileadmin/bestanden/bestuur/bestuursdossiers/Nijmegen-aardgasvrij/Warmtevisie-Nijmegen-2018-180626.pdf

[3]https://www.stedin.net/over-stedin/pers-en-media/persberichten/eerste-huizen-verwarmd-met-waterstof-komen-in-rotterdam-rozenburg

[4]https://www.berenschot.nl/actueel/2018/oktober/co2-neutrale-warmtenetten/

[5]http://www.wattisduurzaam.nl/5969/energie-opwekken/zonne-energie/zonnestroom-mexico-duikt-4-dollarcent-per-kilowattuur/

[6]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/30369/waterstof-toepassingen

[7]https://www.pragma-industries.com/products/light-mobility/

[8]https://medium.com/the-future-is-electric/hydrogen-still-has-some-potential-as-a-transportation-fuel-c693e8cdf375

[9]https://www.businessinsider.nl/zijn-waterstofautos-in-de-toekomst-onmisbaar-deskundigen-denken-van-wel-dit-is-waarom/

[10]https://www.hydrogenics.com/2015/10/15/hydrogenics-joins-german-h2fly-consortium-to-enable-zero-emission-passenger-flights-using-fuel-cell-technology/

[11]https://www.ship-technology.com/features/featureis-there-a-future-for-hydrogen-powered-ship-propulsion-5731545/

[12]http://www.wattisduurzaam.nl/15443/energie-beleid/tien-peperdure-misverstanden-over-wondermiddel-waterstof/

Energy storage: The missing link

Hornsdale Energy Reserve Australia – Photo TESLA

Many are convinced of the value of sustainable energy and the number of proponents continues to grow. Nor is energy storage an issue anymore. In this short essay, I discuss three different methods for storing energy[1]. 

A forth solution, storage in hydrogen, will be dealt with in a next article.

Storage in batteries

For the time being, Tesla has built the largest energy storage battery in the world in South Australia with a power of 100 megawatts and a storage capacity of 129 megawatt-hours[2]. The electricity comes from a local wind farm. The battery has immediately proven its value. In the event of a recent power outage, it restarted the supply of energy many times faster and without any problems for the users than the available gas turbines. Moreover, for a price that is 90% lower. It is very plausible that a storage system of sufficient size could have prevented the problems at Schiphol half a year ago due to a short-circuit in a Tennet cable[3].

Vattenfall uses 500 BMW i3 batteries for its energy storage project in Wales[4]. Their joint power is 22 megawatts and they are fed by of 76 wind turbines. They supply 13% of the electricity needs of all households in Wales annually.

The projects mentioned-above are examples of centralized storage facilities for large-scale delivery of renewable energy. The Amsterdam virtual power plant is a small-scale example[5]. Here 50 households produce electricity with solar panels, store them in-house and trade them if the price on the energy market is the most favorable. Tesla will do the same in Australia, but with 50,000 households[6]. The company is working on a huge virtual power plant. Each household has solar panels, with a power of 5 kilowatts and a Tesla Powerwall 2 battery with 13.5 kilowatt-hours capacity. The power of plant as a whole is 250 megawatts and its storage capacity 675 megawatt-hours.

Neighborhood battery – Photo DNV GL

Energy production and storage in the Netherlands will contain both large and small-scale elements. In the report Feasibility and scalability of the neighborhood battery, DNV GL investigates the contribution to the storage of energy in the Netherlands of small-scale energy storage systems, also known as neighborhood batteries[7]. Their construction is simple and the impact on the environment is limited. The concept of the neighborhood battery is well applicable in residential areas. It enables peer-to-peer exchange and trading of electricity.

The Amsterdam Energy Arena is an example of the application of a neighborhood battery. Its storage capacity is 3 megawatts[8]. Energy comes from 4200 solar panels on the roof of the stadium. This virtual power plant will supply power in the immediate vicinity and is also a buffer for the grid.

The grid of the Amsterdam Energy Arena – image Amsterdam Arena.

All projects that have been discussed up to now deploy Litihum (li’ion) batteries. The fast-growing demand makes lithium increasingly scarce and expensive. That is why alternatives are sought. One is the manganese-hydrogen battery[9], another the silicon battery[10]. The latter might have a storage capacity that is ten times larger than that of the li’ion battery. However, it will take years before both are on the market.

Test set-up heat storage in salt – Photo TNO

Heat storage in salt

The storage of heat is very simple. All you need is a block of salt of two cubic meters. This will provide enough energy to heat your home throughout the winter: Thermal solar collectors convert sunlight into heat. The heat causes a chemical reaction in the salt, resulting in its dehydration. Conversely, adding water to the dry salt releases heat. 

PhD student Pim Donkers (TU / e) investigated how that process works exactly and which salt you can use best[11]. The biggest problem was the degeneration of the salt, which gradually reduced its storage capacity. 

The Dutch research institute TNO has solved this problem by influencing the properties of the salt used[12]. The advantage is obvious; salt is cheap and widely available. TNO is collaborating with nine companies in eight European countries to develop this invention into a market-ready product within the framework of the European project CREATE. A demo house that is supplied with heat in this way will be open for the public in short notice. 

For several years, Marnix ten Kortenaar has been working on the development of the sea salt battery in his company Dr. Ten[13]. In all its simplicity, the principle is a container with dissolved sea salt and carbon electrodes. The Gridflex project is a pilot in the Dutch village of Heeten, deploying 25 salt batteries and that aims to create a local energy market[14]. The solar energy is generated, stored, traded and consumed completely locally. For this pilot, Energy cooperative Endona was granted exemption from the Dutch Electricity Act[15].  

A third example comes from the German company EWE that intends to use salt domes for the storage of electricity[16], based on the principle of the redox battery[17].

The largest redox battery in the world – Image EWE

The project is called brine4power. A positive and a negatively charged electrolyte form the basis for this ‘natural’ battery, starting from the ions of ordinary salt[18].

A test set-up is realized in containers. Their storage capacity will gradually be increased to 2500 kilowatt-hours. Next, the storage of the electrolytes in salt domes will be piloted . This trial will take place in Jemgum along the Ems, near Groningen. EWE now uses these domes for the storage of gas. In 2023 ultimately, the battery will consist of two salt domes with a volume of 100,000 m3 and a total storage capacity of 700 megawatt-hours. As far as is known yet, no harmful effects are attached to this form of sustainable energy management. 

Energy storage with water 

Plan Lievense 1981 – Drawing brothers Das 

One of the oldest and still most common way of storing energy is pumping water to reservoirs with the help of surplus electricity. In times of energy scarcity, this water is used to generate hydro-energy. In the early 1980s, Luc Lievense designed a number of applications for this principle that could be used by the Netherlands[19]: Artificial lakes in the Markerwaard and even in the North Sea varying in height from a few ten to hundred (!), meters. 

It soon became clear that maintaining one or two conventional power plants for peak capacity was much cheaper. 

Nowadays, the idea of heat storage in water or in another liquid, follows another track: Excess energy is converted into heat which is that is stored in water[20]. The company Ecovat has developed a storage vessel (‘the ecovat ©’) in which 1500 m3 of water is stored underground for a period of 6 months with a temperature of 90 ° C and a yield of 90%.[21]

Cross-section of an ecovat © – Figure Ecovat

The ecovat © is a double-walled vessel. Heat exchangers between the double wall provide for the extraction or addition of heat to the water in the vessel. The water that runs through the heat exchanger is heated with sustainable heat from local geothermic sources , waste heat and solar energy. The ecovat © is also equipped with control software. This ensures, among other things, that action is taken on the basis of current weather forecasts and energy prices. 

A demonstration project has been realized in the Dutch village of Uden.  This project has a capacity of 88,000 kilowatt-hours and can supply up to 1,000 homes with heat. Ecovat works together with Enexis, a regional grid operator in the Netherlands. Ecovat is part of a consortium called Flexible Heat and Power (FHP). This consortium is co-financed under Horizon 2020. 

The reduction of the production of natural gas production in the Netherlands has increased the urgency of the question from where we will get our heat in the future. Sustainable sources like wind, sun and earth are plentiful, provided huge investment to make them available.  For the purpose of storing several alternatives are available too, which enables making locally-adapted choices. 


[1]https://www.lazard.com/perspective/levelized-cost-of-energy-2017/

[2]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/27113/tesla-gaat-voor-grootste-virtuele-energiecentrale-bestaande-uit-50000-huishoudens

[3]https://www.volkskrant.nl/nieuws-achtergrond/ik-weet-het-even-niet-zegt-ict-schiphol~bdcf9424/?utm_campaign=shared%20content

[4]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/23689/alfen-levert-mega-energie-opslag-van-bmw-batterijen-aan-nuon

[5]https://www.expirion.nl/blog-3–burgers-bouwen-eigen-virtuele-elektriciteitscentrale.html

[6]https://electrek.co/2018/02/04/tesla-powerwall-solar-virtual-power-plant/

[7]https://www.dnvgl.nl/publications/haalbaarheid-en-schaalbaarheid-van-de-buurtbatterij-113722

[8]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/stad-van-de-toekomst/29203/hoe-148-tweedehands-elektrische-auto-accus-de-arena-van-stroom-voorzien

[9]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/28415/nieuwe-batterij-voor-goedkope-opslag-hernieuwbare-energie

[10]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/energie/28421/duitse-onderzoekers-ontwikkelen-silicium-accu-met-hoge-opslagcapaciteit

[11]https://www.cursor.tue.nl/nieuws/2015/november/sluitstuk-zout-als-verwarming/

[12]https://www.tno.nl/nl/aandachtsgebieden/bouw-infra-maritiem/roadmaps/buildings-infrastructure/energiepositieve-gebouwde-omgeving/warmtebatterij-doorbraak-opslag-duurzame-energie/

[13]https://www.buurkracht.nl/nieuws/thuis-energie-opslaan-met-een-zeezoutbatterij

[14]https://www.natuurenmilieuoverijssel.nl/friksbeheer/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/energievoorziening-in-de-toekomst-GridFlex-Heeten.pdf

[15]https://www.rvo.nl/subsidies-regelingen/projecten/grid-flex-heeten

[16]https://www.ewe.com/de/presse/pressemitteilungen/2017/06/ewe-plant-größte-batterie-der-welt-ewe-ag

[17]https://www.deingenieur.nl/artikel/redoxbatterij-levert-buffer-boerenstroom

[18]https://www.ewe-gasspeicher.de/home/b4p

[19]https://www.deingenieur.nl/artikel/lievense-de-man-van-het-opslagbekken

[20]http://www.dgem.nl/nl/andere-duurzame-energie-oplossingen/thermische-energieopslag-systemen

[21]https://www.ecovat.eu

Swap smart city for inclusive city

Last year I wrote 24 short essays about smart cities. They are collected in an e-book, that can be downloaded for free here. What to expect?

Smart city tales

For more than 10 years, ‘smart’ has been a ‘leitmotif’ for tackling urban problems. Companies such as IBM and Cisco, and later also Apple, Amazon and Google all emphasised that technology is the key to their solution. Many city administrators, entrepreneurs and young starters felt attracted to this idea.

But why these blinkers? Anyone who focuses blindly on technology as the solution to contemporary problems will quickly lose sight of the problems themselves. They underrate the problems caused by technology itself and also that for many problems other solutions than technological ones are indispensable.

Some examples of problems that make people worried

  • Will I come around with my income?
  • Do I find an affordable house?
  • Is there still work for the children?
  • Is the air that I breathe healthy?
  • Why is my manager so unreasonable?
  • How secure is the internet?
  • Who will take care of my mother later?
  • Can I trust what I eat?
  • Developments are all going too fast for me
  • Who is actually in charge
  • Does a world war will break out?
  • Does my child like to go to school
  • Who can I still trust?
  • Can I still say what I think?
  • Is my country still my country?
  • Why do top managers earn so much money?

Core values

Reducing these problems to four categories proved to be helpful:

  • Threat to basic needs
  • Pillage of the earth
  • Injustice
  • Abuse of technology and data

Each of these categories also refers to core values ​​that in mutual connection will improve the quality of life in a country and the happiness of its inhabitants.

Inclusive growth

 Well-being

The satisfaction of our basic needs such as livelihood, housing, education, health care, social contacts and personal growth. There is still a lot to improve here.

 Sustainable prosperity

The earth has all the ingredients for a healthy and even prosperous life for us and our offspring. This requires a circular economy based on reuse of resources, the elimination of CO2 emissions, and a less materialistic attitude. The awareness is growing, there is still a lot to do.

Justice

The fact that we live together with others is of vital importance, whether it is a partner, family, the street, the city or the country. The quality of our social life depends on the mutual acceptance of equality and diversity and the balance between give and take. Here too, humanity still has a lot to learn.

Digital connectivity

Just like all forms of technology, computerization is able to support the other core values, but is also a value in itself. ICT adds a new dimension to human creativity and inventiveness and can improve the quality of our lives. However, the virtues of digital connectivity ought not to be appropriated by certain groups. Interoperability, ‘edgeless computing’, ‘blockchain’ and the use of open software standards and open data can contribute to prevent this.

The four core values ​​can be at odds with each other, but also reinforce each other. In the latter case, I refer to inclusiveness.

In each of the 24 short essays the ‘smart city idea’ as a starting point. Sometimes politicizing, for example when it comes to the way the big technology companies take control of society, but also anecdotal, for instance in the smart cities cases like PlanIT Valley near Porto, but also very practical, for example in introductions to circular construction, electricity-generating windows and the storage of energy.

In the final essay I propose to replace the idea smart with inclusive growth. To become more concrete about what that means, I have drawn up a charter that every city or region in the world can use. I already recognize the quest for inclusiveness of a number of cities such as Barcelona, ​​Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Melbourne and Seoul. However, these and all others ones still have a long way to go.

India’s 100 Smart Cities Mission is flawed

Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing compete with London, Paris and New York for the top of the global city ranking. Do not take rankings like these too serious but the absence of Indian cities in the higher tiers is not startling. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) India releases the fourth largest amount of CO2 emissions in the world and Delhi is the world’s most polluted city. Air pollution is the direct cause of 627.000 deaths annually. The dysfunctionality of the infrastructure is not limited to transport: An official study of 1,405 cities revealed that only 50% of urban areas have water supply connections and that water is supplied on an average for only three hours a day. Waste disposal and sewage treatment plants are missing in most Indian cities, 30 per cent of the households have no toilets, the coverage of the sewage network is merely 12 per cent while the treatment of sewage is even lower at 3 per cent. Most of the untreated sewage is discharged into rivers, ponds or lakes, which by-the-way are the main source of potable water.

Without mayor changes the problem will worsen every year because of the unprecedented growth of the urban population. Between 2010 and 2050 about 500 million inhabitants must be added to the urban population of 377 million nowadays.

In the meantime, India’s economy is expanding rapidly. By 2030 it is expected to have grown by five times, buoyed largely by the country’s urban centres and resulting in a growth of its labour force by 200 million workers. India’s energy demand is expected to increase three times in the coming 10 years.

The Mission

Against the background of these challenges, prime minister Modi presented a ‘Mission’ in 2015 named “Digital India” announcing the foundation of 100 smart cities across the country. This plan is envisaging making India a leader in digitally delivering a broad array of services:

  • Adequate water supply
  • Assured (green) electricity supply
  • Sanitation, including solid waste management
  • Efficient urban mobility and public transport
  • Affordable housing, especially for the poor
  • Robust IT connectivity and digitalisation
  • Good governance, especially e-Governance and citizen participation
  • Sustainable environment
  • Safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly
  • Health
  • Education

The Mission is definitely not lacking in ambition!

Project management

A competition that took two years resulted in the selection of 107 areas where the new cities are supposed to appear. Each project is funded with $150 million spread over five consecutive years. Hiring foreign project management is mandatory. For instance, the city of Kota is collaborating with the Dutch HaskoningDHV.

Artist impression of the World trade Centre of Dholera Special Investment Region.

Taking into account the total costs of the realization of each plan, the available funds are peanuts, which necessitates the acquisition of additional sources. Options are public private partnerships, commercial bank’s lending, take out financing, infrastructure financing institutions, external commercial borrowing, and foreign direct investments.

The competence of the incumbent administrative bodies was judged to be inadequate to lead the projects. Therefore, Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV), acting under company law and headed by a CEO have evoked. The private sector might even become the biggest single shareholder of an SPV, so long as the combined shareholding of the state and local government is bigger. All rights and obligations of the municipal council with respect to the smart city project will be delegated to the SVP, including the power to collect taxes!

Artist impression of Gujarat International Financial Tech-City

A strategic turn

At first the ‘Mission’ had two strategic equally weighted components: Area-based developments and pan-city initiatives. The former are aimed at transforming existing precincts through retrofitting and renewal, and to develop new extensions to cities through greenfield developments. The latter envisage the application of appropriate smart solutions to existing city-wide infrastructure.

Reviewing the proposals which have been accepted, contrary to the original requirements, 71% of the funding will be spend on area-based development, the beneficiaries of which are about 4% of the city’s population on average and it involves less then 3% of the total area.

Under area-based development, plans have proposed redevelopment of old and creation of new central business districts, retrofitting infrastructure within these districts such as water supply, sewerage, and creation of public spaces. The proposals for the entire city, however, are limited to IT-based services like a CCTV-monitored central command system, “smart” education portals and “intelligent” water and traffic management systems and do not include investment in the infrastructure itself.

Artist impression of Vijayawada Smart City

So you’re not even going to have 100 smart cities. You’re going to have 100 smart enclaves within cities around the country, predicts Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of the The Housing and Land Rights Network

The interests behind IT-centred thinking

The direction in which the plans have evolved is unmistakably orchestrated by the bunch of IT-companies that is involved in the development of smart cities world-wide from 2006 on, when IBM started its ‘Smarter Planet’ campaign, Cisco followed with its Smart+Connected Communities initiative, Siemens launched its CityCockpit, and Microsoft presented its CityNext programme. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews expressed this perfectly in his speech at the Smart Cities Summit in Mumbai: I am joined today by representatives from 18 leading American environmental technology companies, all of whom are looking for new business opportunities in India’s growing infrastructure market. Indeed, business opportunities seem abundant: The consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan estimates the global smart city market to be worth $1.56 trillion by 2020.

Cultural awareness instead of indifference

The pictures in this post are taken from glossy brochures and video’s of the plan. They reveal the direction in which the wannabe smart cities in India are supposed to develop. Let yourself be impressed for a while by the animation of Dholera Special Investment Region.

You will see fascinating architecture, futuristic transportation systems and multi-lane express ways. Not to forget, the air is blue and fresh.

Indian master architect Doshi warns that the urban vision behind the smart city proposals will destroy the informality and diversity that is the cornerstone of the country’s rural and urban society. In his view people do not have to live in multi-story towers in the age of the internet, and he rejects the necessity of expanding cities as long as adequate choices and opportunities can be generated in rural areas. I think the land pressure is actually an illusion. Why should you be close-by all the time to a million people? he asks.

Artist impression of smart Bhopal

Urban designer Rajeev Kathpalia suggests that India needs to build smart cities which respond specifically to its culture and rural networks. We have to rethink the concept of cities as centralized entities. In stead he advocates the conception of independent and self-supporting settlements at different scales, each one complete by itself or moving towards completion.

Mumbai-based urbanist Rahul Mehrotra agrees: The problem with the notion of ‘smart cities’ is that it sets up the environment to be fashioned in a single image, it’s not about cultural specificity.

Whatever problems the Mission will solve, these are not the dismal services nor the on-going growth of the population. We have to deal with the basics first, Shivani Chaudhry said. The basics are housing, employment and infrastructure and not technology as such. The Mission will not provide big public investment in expanding urban infrastructure except for enclaves where businesses and prosperous citizens are welcomed. She accentuates that Instead of trying to mitigate the effects of urbanization, the government should aim to address its causes -the agrarian crisis, rural distress, failed land reform, and forced migration.

Indian papers are critical too. They question the role of SPV’s and the curtailing of democratic control. The ‘Mission’ is a flight ahead, not only leaving the already mentioned problems unsolved, but it is unrealistic itself, as the lion’s share of the investment capital is still missing.

Artist impression of Amaravati Smart City

What would a better Mission have looked like?

Personally I believe that – in contrast to what actually happens – a pan-city approach, including a whole city and its rural fringes should have been be prioritized. The competition could have focussed better on master plans for the development of territories of let’s say 1000 – 5000 km2. These plans should have taken into account all aspects of the existing infrastructure, the expected population growth in the next decades, the options for sustainable growth and development and the cultural identity of the region. Within this master plan a handful of pilot projects could have been selected, offering a spectrum from a down-town business centres – if necessary – with 21th century high-rise buildings, to industrial areas where clean industry and housing are realized within walking distance and to small rural towns surrounded by agriculture. Delegation of power to a centralized body is probably wise, but not at cost of democratic participation. And without realistic funding any plan is a pie in the sky.

An initial experiment in ten regions might have increased the credibility of the Mission. I would have selected proposals that equally address economic challenges, infrastructural problems, and a decent life for all inhabitants as well. My winning plans will unlock the potential of the whole rural – urban continuum, promise to spread the prospective growth of the population, realize sustainable solutions, preserve environment and culture and have been developed in dialogue with inhabitants. And not to forget, they deploy the enabling potential of ITC.

Are smart cities also sharing cities?

Aside from smart and resilient, a growing number of cities is wielding the adjectieve sharing. Seoul was in 2013 the first self-appointed Sharing City in the world. In 2015 Amsterdam claimed to be the first one in Europe. 

San Francisco

However, the most eyecatching initiatives with respect to sharing originate from one city in particular – San Francisco – the hometown of sharing-oriented start-ups like Twitter, Dropbox, Lyft and Airbnb. A sharing aptitide is characterizing the life style of many of its millennial population: co-working, co-living (also due to sky-rocketing rents), eschewing car-ownership and a preference for living in the city center.

sharing cities San Francisco brand of ‘sharing’ is commercial in the first place and has beside winners also many losers, for instance the drivers of companies like Uber and Lyft and those in other taxi-companies. The unprecedented influx of tourists in cities like Amsterdam and Barcelona due to the succes of one of the sharing economy icons, Airbnb, also will not contribute to its popularity.

For this reason Duncan McLaren & Julian Agyeman plea for a brand of real sharing cities, based on just sustainabilities. In their seminal book Sharing cities’ (MIT Press, 2015) they elaborate examples from Seoul, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Medellin to clarify a more inclusive communal sharing paradigmthat goes beyond commercial motives. Real sharing cities relate questions with respect to social needs and welfare – economic opportunity included – to social justice and environmental limits imposed by supporting ecosystems.

Summing up, sharing means that more persons use the same product or service without owning it. This can apply to the (re)use of bikes, cars, appartments of books. But the sharing paradigm includes also includes recycling, common facilities for water and energy, credit unions and cooperative banks. Sharing might be motivated by cost reduction by social justice or by decreasing our ecological footprint.

Seoul

Communal sharing is connected with the sources of wellbeing: Fresh air, water, energy, education, cure and care, socializing, inclusion and liveable space. The city of Seoul offers many examples in this respect. The concept of jeong plays a key role. People believe that being kind and cooperative will benefit all in the long term. More specific, the administration of the city is promoting and supporting collaboration and caretaking in the densely populated apartment blocks. At the same time mayor and eldermen value listening to the inhabitants. People can easily utter complaints and requests talking in the ‘listening ear’ in front of the town hall (photo below).

sharing cities

The city administration also plays an intermediate role in the economic development. Start-ups are supported by the ‘Dreambank’, a pooled facility of 20 banks.

Medellin

sharing citiesOther cities offer additional insight in the intermediate role of city government to enhance the ‘sharing potential’ of their towns. An striking example is Medellin, the second town in Colombia and the former center of drug trafficking, also known as ‘murder capita’ of the world. After that military shot the infamous gangleader Pablo Escobar, the city government started to repair the ruined social fabric of the town. It invested large sums in education and communal facilities, often in iconic buildings like the Biblioteca de Espagna in the middle of poor areas, to enable their inhabitants regaining some feeling of proudness.

At the same time all isolated parts of the town were connected by a new public transport system of metrolines, gondolas and escalators. Participatory budgetting was introduced an instrument to increase citizen involvement.

Copenhagen and Amsterdam

McLaren & Agyeman also feature Copenhagen and Amsterdam as examples of ‘social urbanism’, because these city’s sharing policies are community motivated in the first place. Copenhagen has improved the liveabllity of its city center with an infrastructure based on the use of bicycles. Amsterdam did the same with its dense public transport network and creating bikelanes as well. In addition Amsterdam’s social housing policy has accomplished more integration of its immigrant population than many other cities. The city also facilitates a huge number of ‘commoning’ activities.

sharing cities

Reflecting upon the cases above, a couple of concepts demand clarification.

Collaboration

Collaboration is used often as an equivalent for sharing. This is not necessary true. Collaboration refers to collective action to get things done; sharing usually involves individual action. Collaboration happens in the economic domain – for instance cooperative work, self-managed companies and community currences and in the social domain as well, for instance commoning activities like gardening, cooking, the exploitation of collective housing, community shops and even swimming pools and transport. Apart from the direct benefits of collaboration, its value is also the growth of social capital. As a consequence, collaboration is a necessary extension of the concept of sharing.

Connectivity

Commercial sharing depends heavily from the availability of IT-platforms, think of Airbnb and Uber. But connectivity is also critical for certain social forms ‘sharing’, for instance instaneous mapping of damagein case of earthquakes or flooding in order to support rescuing activities.

Sharing versus smart

Sharing and smart are not equivalents; however accentuating its sharing capacity, might be a way to for smart cities to be more specific about its characteristics. My description of Smart City 3.0 includes many characteristics of the sharing city that are described above.

Amsterdam is profiling itself for some years as a smart city. Recently, the city also embraced the adjectives ‘sharing’ and ‘collaborative’. I doubt the wisdom of this policy. The content of the missions of Amsterdam Smart City and Amsterdam Sharing city do not differ that much. Therefore applying two adjectives is confusing, given that most citizens still have to become acquaintant with the benefits and challenges of living in a smart city. From a communication viewpoint, I would have chosen to clarify being smart with a small number of key words. Sharing might be one of these. My choice of the other ones would have been: citizen-based, inclusive, entrepreneurial, collaborative, sustainable and IT-enabled. Maybe my advise is still useful.

This article was published before in the Smart City Hub

How stupid can ‘smart cities’ be ?

home for every new yorker
Demonstration for affordable housing – Photo: Getty Images

Smart cities intent deploying big data, information and communication technology to become more sustainable and livable. At best, they proceed not only in favour of their citizens but together with them in the first place. In addition, they enable citizens to develop initiatives of their own. So far so good.

Who is invited to the party?

The question is arising: who are those citizens? Or using Suketu Mehta’s words: Who is invited to the party? After all, making a living in big cities becomes unattainable for many. Buying an apartment in New York City is virtually beyond reach even for double-income couples. Not to speak about renting one. A mattress in a room in Chinatown NYC during an eight hours timeslot a day, costs you $ 200 a month.

Chinatown

Chinatown apartments – Photo: Getty Immages

Already now 50 percent of households in NYC spend more then 30 percent of their income at housing. Thirty percent of all households spend more than half of their income. As a consequence, 14 million households in the USA have already moved out of urban areas during the last decade. In the same period in Chicago only, the number of school children decreased by 145,000. We are in the middle of a large-scaled process of de-urbanization.

The real estate revolution

Saskia Sassen has been studying real estate in world cities since the eighties. Throughout this period, the size of speculative investments has increased annually. Over the past five years, rise has been spectacular. In 2015, it went up to $ 1 trillion, compared with ‘only’ $ 600 billion in 2014. More striking is that nowadays real estate transactions often include whole territories, for instance old industrial areas or railway yards. The purpose of these investments is demolishing existing structures and erecting fancy offices and expensive apartments. A recent example is the acquisition of Atlantic Yards in NYC for $ 5 billion. Currently a territory with small industries and homes. They will be replaced by fifteen giant apartment complexes.

Atlantic Yards

Atlantic Yards, NYC – Photo AP

A similar phenomenon can be observed in London. The sale of entire areas – for instance the area of the Battersea Power Station –  is accompanied by the privatization of public space. Granary Square near Kings Cross station is one of the biggest London ‘pops’ (private-owned public spaces) with its own rules and guards.

Granary Square, Kings Cross London – Photo: John Sturrock (the Gardian)

Booming housing costs: A global phenomenon

Booming housing costs are a global phenomenon. Even a sharp rise in rentals (sometimes 300%) indicates the beginning of gentrification in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, which have become safer places due to pacification programs. The next next step will be large scale housing in cheap high-rise apartment buildings, as happened happening in many Asian cities. Leaving a lot of empty space for prestigous destinations.

The tragic human cost of smartification

In Africa, the process of smartification also took off. A number of smart cities are being built from ‘scratch’, for instance Eko-Atlantic City in Lagos (Nigeria). Bulldozers and police force are mighty tools in the process of their creation. Recently, the High Council of Nigeria has stopped the demolition of Mpape, a neighborhood of at least 300,000 inhabitants adjacent to the capital city of Abuja, because of the absence of any prospect of rehousing of the expelled residents.

The abolition of Otodo Gbame, Lagos (Nigeria) – Photo: Common Edge

In the end, the result of unbridled speculation might be that only the rich will benefit from smartification. Amsterdam too must be vigilant. During 2013 – 2014, property sales to investors increased by 248%. In 2016, the average price for housing increased by almost 23% compared with 2015 . Affordable rental is virtually non-existant.

Because of the exclusion of a large group of citizens, the process of smartifcation is at risk turning into a proces of foolification. Foolish cities are sterile cities, inhabited by a rich cosmopolitans. Without young people socializing at in the squares, craftsmen in their workshops, middle classes people in their shops and a diverse and plural group of inhabitants, they will become dead cities, in spite of all smart technology.

This is the second of a sequence of six reviewing aspects of the smartification of cities. Fiction or reality, mission or marketing, progress or illusion. This article has already been posted in The Smart City Hub.

If smart cities are the solution, what was the problem?

Looking for an answer to this question[1] I found the proceedings of the symposion Beware of Smart People! Redefining the Smart City Paradigm towards Inclusive Urbanism held in Berlin on 19 – June 20, 2015[2]. This post is partly based on this report, in which I recognize many ongoing discussions.

The world’s population is growing and concentrating in cities. Needless to say that this causes major problems, especially in emerging countries. At the same time, business also concentrates in urban areas. Consequently, cities compete at world level and – inspite of all problems – position themselves as global, affluent, mundane, and smart.

The concept of a smart city refers at a loosely connected set of confluences between data, digital and other technologies, and urban proceses. The promise is of the digitally-enabled data-driven, continually sensed, responsive and integrated urban environment and a manageable entity[3]

Whether this promise will be kept is questionable: What remains to be seen, is the extend to which the smart city agenda is anything else than another instantiation of corporate power grabs, entrenching surveillance, private control over urban management and repacking neoliberalism in the dressing of seductive technologies and reimagined municipalities and citizens[4]. The modern city is a battleground of market forces, an icon of consumerism, and it is characterized by growing inequality, alienation and intolerance. Digital technologies are associated with control and power.

Naamloos3
Control center in Rio de Janeiro

Opposite to the technology-dominated image of smart cities is the concept of commoning: Citizens share, shape and maintain their living space together based on principles of share-economics and direct democracy more than on the basis of technology. Residents’ initiatives to enforce an alternative land-use at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin are a frequently cited exemple.

Naamloos 2
Commoning at the former Berlin airport Tempelhof

Another way to frame the smart city is the perspective of urban utopia. Examples are Songdo (South Korea), Mazdar (UAE), Dholera (India) and PlanIT Valley in Portugal, who are all developed from scratch. Investors value these cities as assets in global competition, because of attractive living conditions, full-featured office space, outstanding connectivity and accessibility and high environmental standards. Residents are considered as benificiaries but in a lesser degree as active participants. In spite of the huge investments, these smart utopias rarely are a successful. In some cases they turned intp ghost cities, like Ordos in China. Songdo (South Korea) is sucessfully attracting residents from the adjacent overcrowded town of Seoul but the number of international companies remains far behind expectations. Trafic on the $ 1.4 billion,12 km long six-lane suspension bridge connecting the city to the airport is low while a fast rail link with Seoul is seriously missed.

Naamloos 5
An artists’ view of Songdo

One might wonder whether these different approaches of smart city are compatible.

I believe that the the answer is confirmatory. However, four questions must be answered in advance:

  1. What is the most desirable use of urban space, seen from a multi-actor and multi-stakeholder perspective?
  2. How can all residents maximize their participation in urban life?
  3. What mix of companies generate the most diversified sustainable employment?
  4. What is the best way to involve as many citizens as possible in decision making at all levels?

The role of data, digital facilities and other technologies must be considered in conjunction with answering these four questions. The ‘real’ smart city needs to start with the city and its attendant social problems, rather than looking immediately to smart technology for answers[5]. Proceeding this way prevents narrow technologal thinking and opens the road to low-tech or no-tech solutions. Consequently, a city can claim to be ‘really’ smart if “… investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory government.[6]

A special contribution during the symposium came from Gautam Bahm from India. In his opinion, the smart city does not exist; placeless concepts have no meaning. A smart city in India is something completely else than a German one. In Indian cities commoning is the norm: Big parts of cities are auto-constructed, deploying another logic than planners and architects do. However, there is a great need for a basic infrastructure: About 17% of the ground is covered with ramshackeled pipelines for water supply and sewerage. The same goes for the wires for electricity and telephone. Here is an tremendeous challenge for urban planning, which is willing to adapt the existing fabric of local communities, rather than destroying it, as is happened in China and many other places.

Naamloos 1
Commoning is the hard of many cities in India

The concept of ‘smart city’ might become an icon of a new digitally facilitated form of living in urban space. This requires a view of the city as a place that is inclusive, shared and negociated and that considers residents as active producers and contributors because of their thorough local knowledge, expertise, creativity, networking skills and entrepreneurship

This post has already been published in the Smart City Hub

[1] Free paraphrased expression of Cedric Price, architect (1933 – 2003) who wrote: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?

[2] Find the report at https://goo.gl/cgDemx.

[3] This and the following quote are from Colin McFarlane’s contribution (p.89)

[4] Smart cities are strongly pushed by IT-companies. These companies are the main investors behing PlanIT Valley in Portugal.

[5] Robert Hollands: Critical Interventions into the Corporate Smart City Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. Vol 8 (1) 2015, p. 61.

[6] Andrea Caragliu, Chiara del Bo en Peter Nijkamp: Smart Cities in Europe, Journal of Urban Technology, Vol 18(2), p. 652011, 70).

Own country second, world first!

Redeeming the losers of globalization

Multinational companies[1] worldwide earned gold money in the years 1980 – 2013. In 2013 their profit after tax reached $ 7200 billion, almost 10% of the gross national product of the world. Half of the 2013 profits belong to North American and West European corporations[2]. The tremendous increase in profits is a direct consequence of globalization: The expanding global trade of goods and services at ever-lower prices, made possible by global competition, automation, offshoring, and low cost of raw materials[3].

Samenleving - olifantscurve

The question is who has benefited most from the increased wealth and who least? For many years the Serbian-American economist Branco Milanovic has focused  on answering this question[4]. He divided the world population into 10 groups for 30 consecutive years: The poorest 10%, the second-poorest 10% and so on. He calculated the change in income for each of these groups within this period. The graph below depicts the outcomes. This graph is called the elephant curve because of the eye-catching similarity with the back of an elephant.

The-Elephant-Curve

Worldwide, there are two groups of winners and two groups of losers.

The winners:

  • The richest 5% of the world, the 1% richest in particular. Half of the benefits of economic growth went to this group. Fabulously wealthy people can be found in all countries. However the majority are living in North America and West Europe.
  • The middle class within Asian countries. Its income increased about 200 to 300%. Hundreds of million people are involved, but the total monetary value of this growth is relatively limited as incomes were low.

The losers:

  • The poorest 10% of the world population. This group has gained nothing in 30 or more years. In the Republic of Congo, the average real income remained unchanged in 100 years due to corruption, self-enrichment by the rulers, natural disasters and wars.
  • The middle class in the rich countries. This group has also seen no progress in 30 years. As a matter of fact, many jobs were lost due to offshoring and automation in particular. Many people who belonged to the middle class in the end of the 20th century now have to settle for a job in the lowest paid sector. Here they enter into competition with migrants, who belong to the other group of losers.

Samenleving - wrong side of capitalism

Social democracy in Western countries has failed to notice this structural change and as a consequence its voters left for the extreme right or the extreme left. In the USA, the frustrated middle class helped Donald Trump to power and in the UK it voted for Brexit.

Policy makers in Western countries can learn from the elephant curve. Among others, the following policy measures will support the revitalization of the middle class worldwide:

  • Reduction of difference in status and income between jobs
  • Redistribution of jobs through a reduction of working hours and flexible retirement, supplemented with the option of a basic-income
  • Fair tax payment by companies, among others to co-finance the external effects of automation.
  • Realistic prices for raw materials and agricultural products for the benefit of the workers in poor countries and the farmers in rich countries
  • Supporting entrepreneurship in developing countries
  • Discouraging labour migration, among others to limit brain-drain
  • Continued support for peacekeeping in conflicts around the world, therefore strengthening UN rather then NATO.

In the long term fighting inequality is in everyone’s interest.

[1] Included are listed and unlisted companies with a turnover of at least $ 200 million. See: https://hbr.org/2015/10/the-future-and-how-to-survive-it

[2] Companies around the world still make huge profits, but the share of ‘Western countries’ has decreased as the distribution over the world of production is becoming more evenly . Further, especially in Western countries small innovative companies take over part of the production of the powerful but rather inflexible multinationals.

[3] He is from 2014 professor at New York University and was a researcher at the World Bank. For a recent interview: Humo February 8, 2017: https://blendle.com/getpremium/item/bnl-humo-20170207-132032

[4] Where necessary, he further subdivided these groups.