A Smart City has a emergency plan…

I love to be in cities. The bustling life, the choice in restaurants, the observing of people from a terrace with a special beer in front of me… I mean, I discovered that the cities most lovely attractions are mobile and sooner or later will pass the terrace…

But when I sit there I start thinking and I get worried . Worried about our cities. They grow bigger and bigger, and the bigger they get, the more complex and demanding they become. Where do all the resources come from? They are depending on the fact that someone, somewhere starts to supply the city, with immense amounts of energy, food, water, materials… and growing. What if one of the complex and now global supply lines breaks? A strike, a boycott, a blackout or even a economic collapse? Or just shortage of some kind, on a globe of 10 bullion people and ever growing consumption…

Like in Greece a few years ago, when many people where fleeing Athens, since they could not survive any longer in the city? They were lucky to have still some family in the countryside with some land, where there was food. [1]

Of course, I was worried about my next beer… , but the threats are pretty realistic: Banks are still not safe. We are globally facing food production limits. Land grabbing to secure food has become daily practice for countries, securing food supplies. Leaving locals without. [2] And energy blackouts are more likely: last year 600 million people in India faced a blackout for months. Luckily they still had some old fashioned knowledge and means to survive. But even Belgium, the Eu capital, warned for blackouts, and even made a scheme so that everyone knows who will be switched of first…. It led to huge increase in sold diesel generators. [3]

The city becomes a large urban organism, (‘Orbanism'[4] )from whom nobody knows how it will react to all kinds of threats. And all the buzzy bees living and working in that urban environment are trapped: there is no way out, no option to supply yourself with energy, water, food or materials in case supply systems fail.

There is some experience, like in Havana, when Russian support was withdrawn early nineties: Within a few years the Cuban people had to reinvent their society: producing for locals in stead of imports, innovate local brick production for building, and immense urban farming in Havana: up to 30 % of vegetables came from Urban ground. They managed but went trough a rough time. And this is hardly a megacity like in industrialized countries. [5].

Or Detroit : immense collapse of the system, the city dropped from over a million to 700000 , a 25 % drop in just 20 years. ( even more over larger period) And the remaining people surviving growing food between the spooky empty buildings. [6]

Is it a destiny for more cities? “Ah, but” , my companion beer drinker replies, “we develop smart cities now!” . Yes, smart, but whats that? Most of the time its about technology, about connecting things, IOT, the Internet of Things. So my refrigerator will order new food when it runs empty? But still : something somewhere has to supply it….

Its more like I-DI-OT: ‘Internet dependency-increase of things’. Just a few months ago I saw a documentary on smart cities, with Amsterdam as an example: They introduced an app, by which cars can easily find an empty parking place. But inhabitants are fed up with visitors and tourists. They demonstrate against it, and don’t want to make it easy for people to find their city via empty parking lots. Who is smart here? The technology? Yes, but the city…? Who is the city, is the question? The inhabitants also protest against big ocean cruise-boats entering Amsterdam, while the city government just agreed on 600 million Euro to enlarge the locks for the largest cruise-boats to visit Amsterdam…. While Venice already banned large cruise-ships [7]

Its similar like the problems Barcelona faces. The city is full of banners saying: ‘Let us sleep…! ‘

I know, since we were sitting on the terrace below that banner, enjoying a beer… [8] .

Smart cities and the interconnection of everything, is also supposed to help reduce energy demand and relieve climate change, since energy can be distributed effectively. I don’t believe in that. Its only more of the same. I became aware of that, when a new wind park was announced in the North sea, producing electricity for 60.000 households was advertised. At the same time Google built a huge datacenter nearby, to facilitate all smart devices. And contracted all the energy from that new wind park just to supply their data center: All new produced renewable energy is swallowed by the needs form our Internet of things, our smart community. While the households continue with gas and coal produced energy. [9][10]

For me a smart city is not a city with a “ technology plan” , but a city that has an emergency plan: That knows what to do when supply lines fail. How can its citizens survive, during a blackout, what to do when drinking water gets contaminated, if food distribution fails due to bad harvest or boycotts? What if banks collapse again, (not too big to fail, but too big to save)? This seems to me the first task of a city, in a era in which risks become bigger and bigger , due to international tension and interdependency, shortages om global markets, or simple by hackers that block the system.

Which is not an easy task, and therefor its of utmost importance to decrease the dependency from distant and unknown supply, to reduce impacts, in stead of increasing risks by growing even more complex structures as in Smart cities and with Internet of things. And there are of course already cities that try to reduce the risks. In Sweden there are a few, Curitiba in Brazil is famous, but maybe the most inspiring is a small town in Austria, Gussing. The major with a few friends succeeded in 15 years to to develop their own energy supply system and become completely independent for energy. The energy prices are now stable, they make their own price. Even more important in stead of 6 million Euro going out to foreign energy companies, now after 15 years its 11 million Euro going round in their own economy, which led to 50 new SME’s, ans hundreds of jobs. That’s smart…! [11]

For a large city its more difficult, but not impossible. What helps , is if the end use demand is reduced , to start with. Of course for the inhabitants, and their houses. Which requires a large scale operation to retrofit 255 million house sin the EU. In a Eu project ‘More Connect’ we work with 7 countries on concept and guidelines for this operation. In which we include that the shift of burden from fossil energy to ( fossil energy produced materials ) should as minimal as possible. Which at the same time is a tough task. [12] As a spin of from the More-Connect project I presented with some international colleagues the first results at COP22 in Marrakesh from CO2 explorations in case we retrofit all houses to ZEB. Which requires a substantial amount of the remaining CO2 budget that maximum can be emitted to stay below 2(!) degrees. The report is planned for this spring, but already its clear bringing down the end users demand also requires adaptations in comfort and behavior , that we should work with materials with lowest embodied energy possible, and that industry should start producing with renewable energy as soon as possible.

That will be the New Smart: A Smart city 2.0… [13]

The discussion on the terrace on these issues is attracting attention,: “ if we can be more silent… “ Maybe, we should have this discussion digitally, on a smart terrace, on the Internet of discussions: Silently whats’apping and twittering each other on the terrace. Nobody gets annoyed that way. But that would imply extra energy for extra technology, which will force us to built extra wind-turbines. It remains difficult . I need more terrace-sessions, to figure it all out….



Ronald Rovers, is a speaker, writer, researcher and “ future thinker” : thinking to figure out how a zero impact future, that can be maintained, might look like. He is a former Professor, now working as a professional and frequent invited speaker, writer, organizer of masterclasses, and independent researcher in international cooperations. His main drive is closing cycles: how can we maintain a certain flow of energy, food and materials, without depleting the system, and with regenerating original stocks. He has a regular blog at ronaldrovers.com , and develops a new closing cycles calculation tool, called MAXergy( Maximising energy and materials Exergy), based on “Embodied Land” (to regenerate resources). (www.maxergy.org )


This blog is an extended version of a column published on the EU smart cities platform:



[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/13/greek-crisis-athens-rural-migration

[2] Fred Pearce, the Landgrabbers , https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/20/fred-pearce-land-grab-interview

[3] http://datafable.com/rolling-blackout-belgium/viz/

http://www.trouw.nl/tr/nl/5009/Archief/article/detail/3738780/2014/09/05/Belgen-wapenen-zich-tegen-winter-zonder-stroom.dhtml (dutch)

[4] Rovers R, 2009, Post Carbon – or Post crash – managing the Orbanism , World Transport Policy & Practice Volume 14. Number 4. April 2009, page 7-17 , http://www.eco-logica.co.uk/pdf/wtpp14.4.pdf

[5] http://english.ecosur.org/index.php/experiences/when-the-flow-of-oil-stopped

[6] http://www.dailydetroit.com/2015/07/06/10-detroit-urban-farms-rooting-goodness-into-the-city/

[7] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3807799/We-generation-live-Venice-Venetians-BLOCK-cruise-ships-docking-city-destroyed-tourists.html

[8] http://www.citymetric.com/business/why-amsterdam-barcelona-and-venice-are-all-trying-clamp-down-tourists-1617

[9] announced for 60.000 housholds: http://nieuws.eneco.nl/eneco-bouwt-groot-windpark-in-delfzijl

[10] sold to Google: http://nieuws.eneco.nl/eneco-bouwt-groot-windpark-in-delfzijl

[11] https://cleantechnica.com/2013/10/16/renewable-energy-powered-austrian-town-gussing/


[12] http://www.more-connect.eu/

[13] news will be announced at www.sustainablebuilding.info

Author: ronald rovers