Tech Route to Greener Cities only ‘Smart’ if Residents Follow

Portable technology, solar panel, tablet, laptop and backpack in a forest
Portable technology, solar panel, tablet, laptop and backpack in a forest

Cities find they need to invest in communicating how cutting-edge efforts to fight climate change will benefit citizens, to deploy them effectively

By Megan Rowling

BARCELONA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – High-tech solutions to make cities greener already exist – from local clean power grids to electric transport hubs and intelligent buildings – but deploying them fast enough to curb climate change is a challenge, city and business officials said Wednesday.

Efforts to cut planet-warming emissions by shifting to less-polluting energy and transport, and using natural resources more efficiently, will not succeed unless residents participate, they told an international conference on “smart cities” in Barcelona.

“I think it’s very important to involve people, and to give them the opportunity, the possibility to really do something,” said Anna Schindler, director of urban development for the Swiss city of Zurich.

The banking hub aims to use technology to “solve real problems for real people” in ways that improve their quality of life as well as tackling climate change, she added.

For about a decade, Zurich has been working towards a local aim of creating a “2000-Watt Society”, where residents use only as much energy as would be sustainable for each person on the planet to consume.

Reaching that in Switzerland requires cutting energy use by two-thirds and meeting at least 75% of energy needs from renewable sources, so that each person emits only one tonne of greenhouse gases per year.

Zurich is working to achieve that goal by 2050 through measures such as creating an online platform that shows users how to source local clean energy and at what price, Schindler said.

And in a city where many people rent and do not own homes, they can purchase square meters of solar panels to be installed on the roofs of public buildings as a contribution to shifting the urban energy supply towards renewables, she explained.

In France’s industrial powerhouse Lyon, authorities want to use open data to help inhabitants make informed green choices, such as showing them if their roofs are suitable for solar panels, said Karine Dognin-Sauze, vice-president of smart city initiatives for the metropolitan area.

As the city’s population expands, it also is trying to reduce the half a million cars moving daily in Lyon, and to redesign its industrial zones into smaller units that run on renewable energy, she added.

To achieve some of these grand aims, there is “a need to break the concept that we have politicians on one side, business on another and citizens on another”, she said.

“There is too much division and debate that avoids real action,” she noted, urging better cooperation to agree on the right solutions together and “get things done”.

City residents are “anxious” about climate change and need to be offered “reachable” solutions that make their lives easier, she said.

That might include things like making it simpler for them to ride bicycles for enjoyment and coolness, she added.

But winning support for major changes to homes, workplaces and public space can be tricky, especially among low-income groups, government officials noted.


In the German city of Cologne, an EU-funded “GrowSmarter” project to test smart-city solutions – including neighbourhoods that use less and cleaner energy – was a hard sell in Mulheim, a district in the northeast that is being regenerated.

City official Barbara Möhlendick said only a handful of the 1,000 residents affected – more than half of whom receive welfare payments – turned up to early meetings where the planned green transformation of their homes was explained.

“They were not interested in the topic of climate, but in their life quality,” said Möhlendick, the city’s secretary of social integration and the environment.

To bring them on board, the city had to invest in better communicating its plans to local people, she said. Gradually as work started, their interest grew, and the city made efforts to carry out other minor improvements residents wanted, such as lighting around bicycle stands, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Preliminary analysis shows the district’s energy-saving measures – from smart meters and use of heat pumps to local solar power generation – have cut carbon emissions by about 70%, she added.

One key lesson from the five-year “GrowSmarter” project – also implemented in Stockholm and Barcelona – is the importance of interacting with the users of buildings from the start and showing them how they will benefit from the changes, said Manel Sanmarti of the Catalonia Institute for Energy Research.

Bertrand Camus, chief executive officer of French water and waste services company SUEZ, which is working on smart city projects in Dijon and Angers, said getting more people on board with any push for faster climate action was crucial.

Like many people, he shared “this feeling of impatience” to address what some call a “climate emergency”, he said, but time was needed “to develop solutions and to really get the buy-in from the right stakeholders, starting with the population”.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation

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