Tackling Climate Change, How Smart City Thinking Can Help

I originally posted this blog in LinkedIn in September 2019, however, I believe that the Covid19 epidemic has escalated the urgency of the situation. Governments around the world are already starting to invest vast amounts of money in economic stimulus measures. This gives a unique opportunity to refocus economies towards a more environmentally positive way, or to use one of the buzz words of today, to build back better. I outlined this economic argument in more detail in this blog post in May

The original blog started here

With climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion actions and Greta Thunberg’s UN speech gaining media attention, like many people I have been thinking a lot about climate change. These seem to be more focussed on highlighting the problem rather than offering viable solutions. Sometimes climate activists suggest that we need to significantly reduce economic growth. I do not see this as constructive. In a talk about climate change a few years back, I recall Anthony Giddens powerfully arguing that we need a positive vision of the future if we are going to avoid environmental Fortunately the interconnected concepts of collective intelligence, industry 4.0, cyber physical systems and the circular economy offer a positive vision of radically different economic growth.

A smart City Illustration

In my PhD I studied smart city ideas along with some related concepts. Although I was looking at how they might be able to help improve healthcare efficiency, many of these ideas translate across into other areas. In her UN speech Greta Thunburg passionately argues that to tackle climate change we need to do more and we need more radical change. I agree with her, and believe that the thinking associated with smart cities could help unlock the shift that is needed. I defined the concept of smart community as human and non-human agents collaborating with the aim of significant positive change. To address climate change I argue this kind of collaboration offers a solution. I was looking at included artificial intelligence, monitoring devices and internet forums. Whether we like it or not these are all increasingly becoming part of the fabric of the world that we live in. The way that we connect with these technologies and how we harness them to connect with each other and make decisions is the key to the kind of radical change that is needed.

The internet of things is one part of the technological jigsaw that could help address climate change. There are now more internet connected devices than there are people connecting to the internet with devices. Many connect without the need for people to directly operate them. Traffic lights, and for increasingly connected to the internet. In transport this allows us to give priority to public transport within city transport systems. Such internet connected devices give us vast amounts of data that could be harnessed to inform our decisions about everything.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and other computing technology increasingly allow us to make sense of messy and unstructured data. Making sense of messy data gives us the potential to make better decisions about everything. This includes decisions about how we structure our cities and how we do business. These decisions do not need to be just about money, but could also include social, cultural and climate objectives.

Collective intelligence is expanding rapidly through global Ideas are moving around the globe at a rapidly accelerating rate. New ideas can open up solutions to challenges such as climate change. Jumping back to Anthony Giddens’s climate as well as arguing for a positive vision of the future, he also claimed that we already have the technology that we need. The challenges he argues, are: political, economic and sociological. More detail is outlined in his book ‘The Politics of Climate Change’ and on this video

For me, one of the most exciting areas of collective intelligence is where it connects with artificial intelligence. It connects through the idea of symbiotic computing. Here we have people and computers interacting together to create new ideas and new knowledge. This may seem like some far off science fiction inspired idea, until we think of what is already possible. Google already adjusts the results of your internet search based upon your past activity, Facebook tailors adverts based on your activity and location. I should stress that it is the interaction of people with computers and with each other through computers that I find exciting. Deferring control them is something that I believe could have some dystopian consequences. Some thoughts about human computer interaction is outlined in this talk

The circular economy is another idea that offers radical positive change. If we shift towards an economic model with far less waste we can significantly reduce our environmental impact. This new economy would be more service based and enabled by technological change. For example the emergence of electric cars could wipe out the desire for car ownership. When you can get a car to drive to you whenever you want, why would you need to actually own it. As most cars sit idle most of the time, this would reduce environmental impact as far less cars would need to be produced. Circular economy is illustrated in this video

Perhaps the most important aspect of smart city thinking is that it is a systems thinking way of looking at the world. It is a holistic way of looking at the information technology and what it might be able to do. Addressing the challenge of climate change is one that requires such a systemic way of looking at the world. Due to the complex interconnection of factors that impact on climate change a reductionist approach is unlikely to help. Single discipline thinking risks the emergence of unviable or counterproductive solutions based on a partial understanding of the problem. For example if we only consider scientific evidence we may lose sight of the challenges involved in getting people to buy into the change that is required. Instead we need an approach that considers the interconnections between different parts of the problem and between understanding from different disciplines.

Whilst we might think that technology can already do some pretty amazing things we are still at the very beginning of the change that is coming. The technologies we need might be already around us, but we are only just beginning to grasp the potential that we can harness from them. The shift that is happening with technological change could be captured to create the radical transformation that we need to address climate change.

I would like to bring together academics, consultants, business leaders and city officials on finding solutions that harness smart city technologies to help address climate change. As a starting point I am looking for other academics and consultants who I can work with to put together a clear offer to put to business and city leaders to help them meet this challenge. If you might be interested in collaborating with me towards this goal then I would love to hear from you.

I originally posted this blog on LinkedIn in September 2019. I am however still looking for collaborations in this area.

This is a link to the original blog post https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/tackling-climate-change-how-smart-city-thinking-can-tim-woolliscroft/

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