C. Technology in support of green and social values

13. Technology must contribute to sustainability. Use all policy tools to accelerate the deployment of green technology. Make sure our smart city is not someone else’s environmental disaster.

In order to live within the boundaries of the earth's carrying capacity and to meet everyone's needs at the same time, technology – in addition to changes in behaviour and consum­ption, especially of the world's richest inhabitants – is indispensable.

Pricing the degradation of natural resources is an excellent tool for boosting the deve­lopment and use of green technology. The polluter should pay. Due to the slow pace of fiscal greening, the European Union and national governments are hindering the break­through of clean tech. Municipalities, however, also have possibilities for greening levies; for example, they can waive fees for people retrofitting their homes for energy efficiency.

Standards, long-term goals, subsidies, and government purchases are also important governmental instruments for accelerating the roll-out of green technology. In regards to purchasing, tenders, and in-house projects, it is important that municipalities and other authorities make their choices on the basis of inclusive calculation models, which show the costs (and returns[1]) of buildings, roads, vehicles, and appliances over their entire life cycle, inclu­ding energy consumption, maintenance, and decommissioning.[2] The assessment is more likely to favour green technology if the calculation models antici­pate a high price for greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 shadow accounting), for fossil fuels, and for scarce raw materials such as phosphate.

Governments must exploit the opportunities for synergy between systems: the heat from waste water can feed heat networks, and (shared) electric cars can deliver storage for green electricity. As we move towards a fully renewable energy system, artificial intelligence will acquire a major role. Smart grids help keeping the supply of and the demand for heating, cooling, or power in balance, using data on the forecasted weather, the available storage and conversion capacity, and the willingness of companies and households to make their energy con­sumption dependent on supply and price.

Local generation of renewable energy offers a unique opportunity to create new commons. Collective solar roofs, neighbourhood heat pumps, collective batteries, and distributed smart grids, managed by energy cooperatives, can speed up the energy transition, democratise the energy system, forge new bonds between neighbours, and prevent sensitive data on the energy use of households from coming into the hands of large energy corporations. Renewable energy cooperatives deserve municipal support.

For closing the materials loop, (information) technology is essential as well. A circular economy, without waste, requires a meticulous documentation of products and mate­ri­als in order to enable their safe reuse and recycling. Materials without ‘identity’ are likely to end up as waste.[3]

Online registers of materials passports of buildings[4] and products, RFID tags that give information about the origin and composition of products, sensors that report when a structure needs maintenance, smart appliances that give instructions about how to be disassembled, robots that assist workers in dismantling buildings and products for recycling, trading platforms for ‘harvested’ materials and secondary raw materials – a circular city is a smart city.[5]

A smart city should pay careful attention to the data, energy and materials it consumes in order to become smart. The ecological footprint of big data should be taken into account when deciding on its value for society.[6] The hard­ware needed for digitalisation, from datacentres to sensors, must be energy efficient, emissions-free, long-lasting, repairable, and recyclable. It must also be free of raw materials that come at the cost of human rights violations or severe damage to the environment. Our smart city should not be someone else’s civil war or ecological disaster.[7]

As a signatory of the Green Digital Charter[8], the Swedish city of Malmö has committed to decrease the carbon footprint of the ICT used within its own organisation by 30 per cent in 2020. The city is on course to reach this goal. It has reduced energy waste in its datacentre and endeavours to procure the most energy efficient equipment on the market. By requiring sustainability certification for ICT products and holding regular meetings with suppliers, Malmö aims to set the highest possible demands on fair trade and circularity as well. These demands reflect the city's commitment to the implementation of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals.

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Further viewing & reading

Presentation: Fabian Reetz, Smart grids and the energy transition

Presentation: Christine Milchram, Smart grids and energy justice
Report: European Data Protection Supervisor, Smart meter in smart homes, on the privacy risks of smart grids


[1] In a climate-neutral economy, buildings, infrastructure etc. will increasingly be net suppliers of energy. In a circular economy, the costs of decommissioning – for example the demolition of buildings – will increasingly be surpassed by the revenues. Minimising the consumption of primary raw materials leads to a high demand for secondary raw materials.
[2] The 'total cost of owner­ship and usership'.
[3] Thomas Rau & Sabine Oberhuber, Material Matters, Een alternatief voor onze roofbouwmaatschappij, 2016 (in Dutch)
[4] See for instance Madaster
[5] See for instance Circular Economy Collective, 4’33’’ Time for a Circular Economy, Fontys, 2017
[6] Federica Lucivero, 'Big Data, Big Waste? A Reflection on the Environmental Sustainability of Big Data Initiatives', Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 26, 2020
[7] Maria Kaika, 'Our sustainability is someone else's disaster: Cities and the environment', Green European Journal, 2018
[8] EUROCITIES, Green Digital Charter (revised), 2016

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