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Micro-scaling products and services is becoming not only possible, but is perhaps the optimal solution for smart sustainable cities 

For me, the definition of a smart city is one that utilises smart technology to create better outcomes for its inhabitants. Smart technology being internet-connected devices and sensors that generate and react to data in real-time, enabling adaptive systems and responsive behaviours. Better outcomes being those that enhance well-being and productivity in sustainable ways.

In 2009, the urban population exceeded the rural population worldwide for the first time and is predicted to increase to 70 percent by 2050. And for many people, their experience will not involve futuristic glass towers with robot companions tending to their every whim. The UN estimates that currently one third of city populations live in slums. There is little sign of that statistic dramatically improving in the near future.

When we think about cities and the new bigger variant ‘megacities’ – those with a population of more than 10 million – we tend to start thinking about stuff on a big scale. How do you design a transport system to serve 10 million travellers along with delivering goods and services efficiently? How many power plants will be needed. Where will the waste go. How much waste will there be?

Yet one recent trend suggests taking the reverse approach may have more impact – the miniaturisation of services. From food production to transportation, micro-scaling services could result in more productive and more sustainable cities. Here are three examples.

City Farming

Farming techniques in the past century moved towards factory-style systems from the industrial era – production of meat, dairy produce and crops on a massive scale to benefit from economies of scale – leading to larger volumes of cheaper food.

But factory farming has side effects whose costs should also be considered. They are destructive to the natural environment. Wild flowers, animals and insects can find their habit reduced or cut-off. Springs, streams and rivers polluted with chemicals sprayed to make crops disease resistant.  Trees and shrubs cut-down because it easier for large-scale (increasingly automated) machinery to traverse open fields.

Is this the most effective way to feed the global population? Statistics would suggest no. If media headlines and published research are to be believed, we already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. That almost half of the world’s food is thrown away.

We don’t have a food production problem,
we have a food distribution problem

The easiest way to solve a distribution problem is to move an affordable supply closer to its demand. Recent developments in agriculture and horticulture are enabling the production of food in hostile settings and in quantities that deliver much higher yields relative to their size. A small hydroponic tank produced a plentiful supply of cucumbers at home last summer without needing a garden (or much of a summer for that matter). Energy production is heading the same way, as more people experiment with local solar panels and small wind turbines, creating an excess of distributable energy. As well as a British astronaut walking in Space, a flower bloomed on the International Space Station last week. All of these developments increase the potential for cities to become self-sufficient in critical resources.

Should every new urban building development be required to include its contribution to distributed food and energy production?

A favourite example of urban farming innovation came from Canada, where a person managed to grow 50,000lbs of food on less than one acre of land. You can’t scale that by going from one acre to one-hundred acres. You need to micro-scale it, and have lots of one-acre (or less) plots adopting the same micro-farming and localised distribution techniques.

Sharing Facilities

The rise of the sharing (aka collaborative) economy is causing disruption to many regulated industries. Car sharing services like Uber and Lyft are providing more flexible services than traditional taxi ranks. Room sharing services like AirBNB are doing the same for hotels. Whilst much focus is on criticising their disruption, and not entirely without reason – it’s hard for a regulated industry to compete on the same playing field as an unregulated one – they are another demonstration of the benefits from micro-scaling services.

Services like Uber and AirBNB are based on the same principle – get people to ‘share’ under-utilised items that they own, whether it is a car that spends more time parked than in motion or a room that is mostly devoid of human lifeforms.  Smart technology is key – rides and rooms booked through mobile apps and web sites with a centralised organiser profiting by taking a slice of each transaction. That also means full records and the potential to analyse and predict fluctuating demand based on time of year, month, week, day, and hour, seasonal and situational variations such as annual conferences.

The flexible nature of these services enable the number of taxis and rooms to be scaled up and down to meet demand. Drivers and room-renters are encouraged to participate during high-demand periods through what is referred to as ‘surge pricing’, where the price charged for a ride or room varies depending on the demand for the resource.

What if car-sharing services started offering micro-delivery services? Cars don’t just have empty seats…

It’s not just people getting from A to B who can benefit from such flexibility. I’m surprised Uber or Lyft hasn’t partnered up with the likes of Amazon to start micro-scaling delivery services. For many working people, arranging parcel collections and deliveries can be frustrating and challenging. How much easier to book it via an app. Cars don’t just have spare seats, they’ve often got empty boots (trunks) too.

Imagine if, through people and parcels sharing transportation, the number of vehicles and wasted journeys could be reduced within central city districts. Combined with local food production, deliveries of degradable produce to shops could be reduced in size to more closely meet demand given it would be easier to receive a small top-up delivery later in the day. Reducing waste as well as pollution.

Mixed-Use Environments

The final example comes from the history of and lessons in urban planning. As city populations grew during the 20th Century, combined with the arrival and mass adoption of the automobile, zoning became popular. Instead of studying, working and playing all in an area within walking distance of your home, people began to live in one zone and used their cars to travel to a different zone for work, and perhaps another zone for retail and leisure activities. It led to the rise of suburbs, out-of-town shopping malls and campus-style office complexes.

Zoning has come under plenty of criticism by urban analysts and there are growing signs that people are recognising the benefits of reducing commuting times. Car ownership is declining amongst younger generations. People are recognising the social benefits of living, working and playing in close proximity. Back in the 1960s, urban specialist Jane Jacobs argued that mixed-use neighbourhoods within cities were safer because they led to frequent footfall and observation throughout the day. People travelling to/from work and school, visiting shops and galleries, hosting lunch-time meetings, getting together for after-work drinks etc. That thinking is gaining popularity again.

Whilst the traditional retail-dominated high street is unlikely to return or recover from the arrival of online commerce, there is plenty of desire from people for an active and social local area. But it requires affordable accommodation both for residents and small businesses. Link in the other two examples – a sharing economy producing local goods and services on-demand – and micro-scaling neighbourhoods begins to look like an attractive proposition. Far more so than the mass-produced housing estates designed and approved by people who are among the least likely to occupy them.

Wrapping it all up

This essay has explored the potential for micro-scaling goods and services, and why I believe it is part and parcel of the fabric for becoming a ‘smart’ sustainable city in the future. Whilst there are plenty of challenges to overcome, there should also be optimism. The following quote ignited my interest in smart cities and the disruptive potential being demonstrated by products dependent on the Internet and people carrying internet-connected devices:

By 2100, with a world population of 10 billion people,
everyone can be living at the current European standard of living
yet expending half the energy we are using today.
– Richard A. Muller, 2008

The argument is based on Rosenfeld’s Law . There are plenty of reasons why such an optimistic prediction won’t happen. But it need not be because of a lack of food, shelter or clothing for everyone. Technological advances are enabling us to produce more than we need whilst expending less energy. And I haven’t even mentioned the disruption that 3D printing could bring, if it doesn’t become ensnared in patent and copywriting protections…

For the vision to be realised, governments and industries should look to the opportunities from sharing and micro-scaling, instead of trying to ignore or criminalise the behaviours surrounding them.

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Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Great thoughts! Sad to read that “one third of city populations live in slums” and know that it isn’t likely to change, but lots of positive trends and possibilities here.

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