Thursday, January 2, 2014

Would you like some water with that energy?

To truly earn the mantle smart city a key insight needs to be reached. Water, energy and other resources are interconnected and inseparable. This rather obvious realization will herald a revolution in the way cities plan, design, invest and implement sustainable, low carbon solutions that allow them to do more with less.

Cities’ contribution to sustainable development is epitomized through their will to lead; pioneering positive change instead of waiting for a global, UN brokered climate deal. Great strides are being made here and now with renewable energy initiatives, innovative recycling/waste management, public transport projects, smart grids and metering, green building codes/retrofits and water saving technologies.

However, despite the myriad of creative and technological solutions, these and other vital infrastructure investments risk becoming unprofitable and unsustainable unless they consider the interdependency of the underlying resources and their climate effects. For example:

Ø  The energy sector demands ever more water to produce the energy that keep our cities running (around 15 % of worldwide water withdrawal). In an increasingly water stressed world this equates to more blackouts when nuclear or solar plants shut down because of lack of cooling water or too hot water caused by climate change. On the flipside, water requires pumping to our taps and treatment to make it drinkable, involving huge amounts of energy.

Ø  Efforts to provide cities with clean and renewable energy, for example to its transport systems, have hailed biofuels as a solution. Unfortunately first generation biofuels like ethanol occupies massive landmasses and water resources and have caused certain food prices to rise 200 % and riots to break out.

Ø  With a growing population and changing dietary habits tied to rising affluence, additional food must be produced and transported, consuming more energy and water (agriculture uses 70 % of all freshwater resources). Much of the waste issue in cities relates to food (25 % of calories produced for human consumption are wasted). Reducing food waste through awareness and better storage would save vast amounts of land, energy and water.

Future scenarios? No, these and many other examples of interconnectedness around the world are occurring now. Cities need to update their resource planning and associated investment models to balance economic profit and sustainable development, thus avoiding crippling continued growth of cities.


Ø  Capacity adding investments of resources like water and energy must consider the systemic effect on interdependent resources to maximize efficiency and reduce waste. Here lies the key to positive environmental and social impact as well as a tremendous economic opportunity. Above examples alone result in hundreds of billions (USD) in savings.
Ø  Break free from silo thinking and mandate cross-departmental collaboration, policies and co-investments, for example through joint veto power for energy and water departments.
Ø  Stimulate cross sector alliances between businesses, government, social entrepreneurs and NGOs to guarantee investments have broader support and a cross resource perspective.
Ø  Use specific evaluation metrics that measure cross resource effects for optimal planning, more credibility and less negative surprises (produce more for less and hinder resource supply bottlenecks).

With the majority of the human race residing in cities, the success or failure of cities concern the entire population, not only city dwellers. The environmental footprint of cities (representing 70 % of carbon emissions worldwide) touches us all, be it through diverted water resources, massive energy installations or land for food conversion. Using an interdependent (=smart) approach must be standard operating procedure with cities advancing sustainable development. Coupled with continued leadership it represents the best path to securing the survival and prosperity of our cities. 

This post was written for Masdar's 2014 Engage blogging contest: Smart cities and sustainable development. You can also read the post directly on Masdar's site at: