Building Smarter Cities: A Crucial Challenge

How can cities, especially those in developing countries, become more energy-efficient and sustainable? The recent World Cities Summit in Singapore brought no easy answers.

Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia from India highlighted during the conference’s keynote plenary that her country needs to pump in some $400 billion in the next two decades to improve its urban infrastructure including public transport, roads and sanitation.

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Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia (Photograph by Pei Ling Gan)

“Some of the cities in India are ready to join the industrial world in [terms of] consumption standards but many of us are still dealing with the margins of existence,” said the chairperson of Indian Council for Research for International Economic Relations.

While Indian cities struggle to deal with slums and catch up on their infrastructure deficit, Chinese cities have had to resort to quotas to keep the unsustainable growth of car ownership in check.

Zhou Zhengyu, deputy secretary-general of Beijing’s municipal government, shared during the discussion that the Chinese capital was the first to impose a cap last year, allowing only 240,000 cars to be registered annually.

Previously, the number of cars in Beijing has grown by 500,000 in 2009 and 800,000 in 2010. Now, with the quota imposed in 2011, there are still more than five million cars in the city with a population of 20 million.

After Beijing, Guiyang and most recently, Guangzhou have also enforced quotas on car ownership in a bid to curb traffic congestion and rising carbon emissions.

Jeremy Bentham, Shell’s Global Business Environment Vice-President and one of the panelists at the keynote plenary, described prosperity as the “paradox of modern life.”

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Jeremy Bentham (Photograph by Pei Ling Gan)

“Prosperity is a wonderful thing, it’s improving the capability of hundreds of millions of people to lead good lives; at the same time, it’s creating pressures that can undermine the benefits of prosperity.

“If we look up to 2030, we could see these pressures building up in our ecosystems, with energy demand increasing by at least 30 percent, water pressure 40 percent and food 50 percent,” said the economist.

These stresses do not act independently, but like a “nexus” in which they feed off each other and as a result, built up more quickly, in a non-linear fashion. He noted that it is in cities especially that these environmental pressures are aggregating, due to rapid urbanization.

“Business-as-usual is just not feasible,” said Bentham, who foresees an era of increased business, political and social volatility in the next few decades.

He stressed that urban planners need to make the right choices now, by designing compact cities that enable smarter mobility. Otherwise, poor choices will be locked in for the next 30 to 50 years, due to the massive scale and investment involved in infrastructure development.

Buenos Aires and Bogota are two examples of cities that have taken great pains to reduce the number of cars and improve public transportation.

The Argentinian city administration drew a lot of flak when it first converted major roads in the city center into pedestrian streets. “We faced many critics and complaints. People wanted their cars, Buenos Aires Chief of Government Mauricio Macri recalled at the forum. “[But now] property values have increased…Those spaces are now safer, with more people walking.”

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Mauricio Macri (Photograph by Pei Ling Gan)

Meanwhile, Bogota’s former mayor Enrique Penalosa increased the gasoline tax during his term from 1998 to 2000 and used half the revenue to fund a new bus system that now serves thousands of commuters daily. He also spearheaded the building of bike lanes and banned cars from the city’s main roads on Sundays and public holidays.

Still, Buenos Aires and Bogota remain isolated examples.

While many cities from developed countries are carrying out plans to go low-carbon and become climate-resilient, most cities  in developing countries like China and India have yet to catch up. As we move towards a more resource-constrained era, they will need to make the transition fast, and alleviate the environmental stresses that are building up by managing their energy, water and waste more efficiently.

Bentham had helped Shell develop its future energy scenario outlooks: the world of scramble and the world of blueprint, which was released in 2008. The oil company has been using scenarios, detailed alternative views of the future, to assist in its business strategy development for more than 30 years.

In the world of scramble, events outpace actions. Governments respond to extreme climate events without cohesion or consistency, and implement politically-straightforward policies to the detriment in the long-term.

“On the energy side, this is the world where you’ll see, for example, the continuing surge in the usage of coal,” Bentham said.

More optimistic is the world of blueprint, where different levels of governments, businesses and civil societies find common interests and work with each other to find sustainable solutions to today’s problems.

“Wealthy entrepreneurs might see the farmers’ concern with water and find a common interest. These common interests will bring patchwork of developments,” he elaborated.

In this world, renewable energy options would be cost-competitive against fossil fuels, which are well managed with carbon capture and storage, by 2040s. This is the world where carbon emissions will be going down by mid-century.

“The [environmental] pressures are outstripping what we’re doing collectively. I would tell cities: Seize the day!…Don’t be complacent!” Bentham concluded at the end of the plenary session.