It’s refreshing to talk with Dr Olga Kordas from KTH about the future of smart and sustainable cities. Whilst she mentions sensors, systems integration and big data with the natural authority she’s earnt through being the Director of KTH’s Energy Platform, technologies are not the focus of our conversation at all. People are. For Olga Kordas smart cities are about enabling lives in sustainable urban environments.
“We have witnessed a lot of “technology push” over the past decade in smart city thinking” comments Olga, smiling at projects that promised to switch on washing machines remotely in the middle of the night when power is readily available, “but these ideas have struggled to find traction in real life”.
“Today” continues Olga, “we want to help people live and enjoy their lives in cities that are sustainable; smart technologies are an enabler of this. That’s what “smart” means now. It’s about understanding the users of cities, its people, and how the cities these people can successfully reduce their impact on the planet”.
In the short film above, Olga introduces some of KTH’s work on smart and sustainable cities.
Whilst Olga in no way dismisses the intelligent control and optimization properties of smart solutions – such as smoother transport flows or better distribution of power – seeing these as making an essential contribution to urban sustainability, her approach suggests these properties should be placed in the context. Instead, she argues that we need to draw forward the human focus that is necessary to ensure that smart solutions are relevant, useful and adopted.
The human future of smart
Olga highlights three areas of research focuses around people, human behaviour and social systems essential to future-thinking about Smart Sustainable Cities.
The empowered citizen
First, particularly in Scandinavia, she thinks that smart technologies have an important role to play in enabling the citizen, providing a channel through which people can access information to support their decisions – and contribute information to help city-makers take better decisions on their behalf. Shouldn’t the city’s transport information system and weather information be integrated and available to commuters to help them make better decisions about their route to work, for example? Today might be a fine day to cycle, instead of take the bus.
Technologies for humans
Second, Olga argues that smart technologies should be designed after societal needs, not simply from technology potentials. A meter that shows you how much money you as an individual are saving through optimizing energy use in your home may be less effective that a meter showing you how the sum of energy savings in your neighbourhood are contributing to CO2 reductions in the city as a whole. We are social beings, motivated to be part of wider communities and goals. Whilst we will have to adapt our behaviours to achieve sustainability goals, we need to work with our underlying behavioural preferences in an intelligent manner to get results.
Third, Olga reflects that city and industry leaderships, again groups made up of people, need better support to establish how they want to engage with smart urban technologies at a strategic level. Olga comments further that many existing business models are not receptive towards the benefits of smart sustainable cities, such as reduced power needs, making industry reluctant to engage. Leaderships need information, experience and supported during this transition phase.
KTH is currently drawing its considerable resources in smart and sustainable cities together so that the different dimensions of this challenge can be addressed in the round. Together with partners from public life and industry the university has produced a Strategic Innovation Agenda for Smart and Sustainable Cities which can be accessed here.
Last month KTH – Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm had the distinction of installing world-leading Harvard scholar, Edward Glaeser, as an Honoury Professor. To mark the occasion Ed Glaeser visited KTH and gave a lecture titled: Cities and the Post Urban World.
The recording is available here:
As always, Professor Glaeser gave a sparkling performance spinning data, method innovations and insights together like the premier craftsman of contemporary urban studies he has become. The great thing about watching his lecture on YouTube is that you can pause it (!) to let the impact of his many powerful observations and interpretations sink in. This is a Master’s course in contemporary global urbanism delivered in a little under an hour.
Sustainability for Stockholm – and Beyond
In the context of prosperous and beautiful Stockholm, Ed’s core message really hit home. The global battle for sustainable urbanism will have its front-lines in developing world cities. It is here that the majority of the world lives today and will live in the future. It is here that the greatest urban challenges are being faced – around housing, transportation, healthcare, energy provision and, vitally, equity. And, it is here that we must find solutions.
For a university like KTH in a city like Stockholm that is, perhaps, the world’s most sustainable capital, there is a responsibility beyond ensuring our own future. Those insights we establish in Stockholm and technologies we develop here must be taken forward and made use of in cities around the world. Sustainable urbanism is a global, shared challenge. Many of our projects (and projects developed in other European capitals) would benefit from having this perspective in mind from their initiation. Great for my city AND great for the world should be our mantra.
Is “DIY Urbanism” a research topic – isn’t it about action?
When asked whether research on DIY Urbanism contributes to urban planning, KTH Associate Professor Karin Bradley is clear in her reply, “As researchers in urban planning we can deepen our understanding of city making by understanding why DIY urban interventions are happening, in what contexts. We can also analyze their effects and importantly map out what this could mean for urban planning and decision-making.” She goes on adding, “We can also help cities understand how they can use the power of DIY urbanism and how they might engage more deeply with it within their traditional planning structures, even re-considering what planning means today.” Urban planners and city makers have much to learn from understanding DIY initiatives; research studies provide a method for collecting, analysing and summarising this knowledge.
What is going on at KTH in this area?
At KTH, DIY Urbanism and associated areas are increasingly active fields of research as well as teaching with many different people contributing from different angles. Karin is currently running a project called Urban Sharing that looks at the evolution of sharing initiatives and sharing cultures in cities. “Many people are sated with shopping and want an alternative to the consumer society; indeed, they are willing to build this alternative themselves” Karin comments. The project is exploring contemporary urban sharing schemes, examining why they start and how they grow as well as their consequences for the development of the city. The project draws on case studies in Malmö, Barcelona and London. As part of this research project she has made a documentary film, called “Dela är det nya äga” (Sharing is the new owning), together with film maker Lotta Ekelund.
Karin is also connected to a project based at KTH called Beyond GDP-Growth. This project develops scenarios for cities and small towns in a future when GDP-growth has been halted. This may be due to a redirection of politics towards a steady state economy or it may have come as result of financial crisis or failed growth politics. “We are questioning the status quo,” Karin comments, “and developing scenarios for a very different future.” From the perspective of her own research, Karin reflects that the grassroots “DIY” sharing of resources may well play a far more significant role in a post-GDP-growth society, at a neighbourhood level but also more widely with the help of digital technologies. The project has a focus on the built environment, reflecting on scenarios for building, transportation and welfare provision.
Elsewhere at KTH researchers are exploring how the power of computing is enabling community engagement in urban and other developments. This is in part about developing tools for analyzing the big data sets that cities and governments are releasing with ever greater frequency to let us engage in urban development. It’s also about supporting the open source and hacker communities. The Centre for Sustainable Communications provides a hub for many of these activities such as the Green Hackathon.
“A feature of DIY urbanism and research on it” Karin Bradley notes, “is its interdisciplinary. It involves bringing lots of people with lots of different skill sets together to create solutions. Here at KTH many of those skill sets can be found – and technology can be explored as a vital force underpinning, as well as enabling the next wave of DIY Urbanism.” It’s an approach that Karin is keen to instill in the next generation of urban planners through the courses she teaches undergraduates at KTH.
Looking beyond the university, Karin comments that most typically she collaborates with municipalities and civil society organizations in her work. She is also keen to work with more people from the open source software world and digital fabrication.
How can I become a DIY Urbanist?
If you feel inspired by this series, becoming a DIY Urbanist yourself is only a Google away. “A key feature of this movement”, Karin comments “is its openness and many projects produce wikis or handbooks that they publish online to allow others to replicate their work”.
Mike Lydon has produced a series of Tactical Urbanism Guides that can be downloaded. Via the Open Source Ecology project, you can find information on DIY hardware – how to build ovens, 3D printers, multipurpose tractors etc: the “tools of civilization”
Finally, what books should we read on DIY Urbanism and the cultural shift surrounding it?
Karin suggests the following texts:
Tactical urbanism: Short-term action for long-term change. Lydon, M. & Garcia, A. (2015).
Urban Catalyst: The Power of Temporary Use. Oswalt, P., Overmeyer, K. & Misselwitz, P. (2013)
Insurgent Public Space – Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities. Hou, J. (ed.)
If you would like to contact Karin Bradley about her research, she can be reached via the links on this page.
A challenge to how we understand urban development today
This week the blog will focus on DIY Urbanism as a global phenomenon. As the Ordinary Streets film from London showed, beyond the hip, new label of “DIY Urbanism”, many communities around the world are engaged in building grass-roots urban capacity. In developing countries its often the only type of urban development on the agenda; in developed countries its a form of local re-engagement and, sometimes, push-back against the establishment.
There is much that can be learnt from DIY initiatives in other countries and access to the internet as well as social media is changing the impact these initiatives have. DIY Urbanism has now raised itself to be a global force, concerned with civic engagement, fairness, quality-of-life and climate change, with which urban planners and other in positions of more traditional authority are learning to engage.
What’s new in the DIY Urbanism world?
Certain cities such as Berlin, Amsterdam and Barcelona in Europe and Portland or San Francisco in the US have strong reputations as pioneers in DIY Urbanism. In Berlin, the massive urban park created at a dis-used airport, Tempelhof, has become a hub of experimental DIY Urbanism.
The future of Tempelhof is heavily contested in Berlin, with some wanting it to be developed, in part, for housing and commercial uses, whilst others want it to remain a public and un-commercialised park. Many sites in cities across the world are similarly contested, a frequent outcome of which is that they sit, un-used and neglected, for many years whilst the planners and protestors battle it out.
Not so in Berlin. Whilst discussions about Tempelhof’s future are on-going, the city and citizens are working to ensure it finds an interim purpose, especially as a home to DIY initiatives. A part of the field has been dedicated to so-called “pioneer plots” where citizens can apply for a temporary tenancy of a grass plot, no more than a few meters squared, which they can do anything they like with, as long as it is not for commercial purposes. Most people turn their plots in to allotments – many of which are eye-catching and innovative, providing a fantastic scene for other Berliners to enjoy a stroll past. The planning process of Tempelhof field is being studied by Meike Schalk at the KTH School of Architecture and further reflections on this innovative process can be read here in the recently published book, “Green Utopianism”.
Karin Bradley comments, “What we are seeing in Berlin is a new approach to urban planning where activities take place whilst the plan is being negotiated, indeed, these activities are influencing the urban form the plan will make possible. This is a far more dynamic, flexible and engaged type of urban planning than we traditionally see”.
Is DIY Urbanism only for big cities?
Vitally, it’s not only big cities that are being rocked by DIY Urbanism. In the north of England the modest-sized, former industrial town of Todmorden has been transformed through a bottom-up community gardening initiative called Incredible Edible. The project has engaged local people in planting edible crops at numerous locations throughout the town so as to share knowledge about food growing, improve people’s diets and build a stronger community.
Is DIY Urbanism only for rich cities and empowered citizens?
A criticism of the DIY Urbanism trend is that it is primarily a “hobby” for the urban, latte-drinking classes who have the time and resources to engage in projects. Indeed, some cynics comment that it’s as much about raising property prices as it is about raising communities.
DIY Urbanism as survival
Poor communities and cities have made use of DIY Urbanism under the more realistic label of “surviving” for hundreds of years, coming together to solve problems through local solutions – primarily because no external sources of support exist. Think of the “dubbawalla” lunch box delivery system in Mumbai (see the film above) or the Cooperative movement that developed across Europe during the industrial revolution. In Namibia, a grass-roots, cycle-design project has helped hundreds of communities across Africa access better health care. Started during the height of the AIDS/HIV epidemic, the Namibian Bicycling Empowerment Network (BEN) constructed a simple “bike ambulance”, a bike trailer able to transport sick people to hospital. BEN also re-conditions bikes for health workers so that they can work over larger distances.
Karin Bradley comments, “Actually, a lot of the DIY tactics comes from the ways of working and the experiences in poorer parts of the world, in informal settlements where you have to solve things together locally. The Hindi concept “jugaad” has received a lot of interest in innovation and urban development circles – basically meaning low-cost, ad hoc, solutions to solve immediate problems. There is a similar idea behind the concept of “tactical urbanism”, meaning low-cost urban interventions initiated by citizens. This is now being picked up by many official planning departments, in the US, UK as well as in Sweden, and used as a tool to make cities more livable, and one should add, sometimes covering up for the budget cuts in public planning.”
DIY Urbanism is a long-standing, global phenomenon that is being revived today as communities try to take greater control of their environments and futures. Its making cities more vibrant, creative, inclusive and diverse. The rapid expansion and increasing influence of DIY Urbanism has sparked questions about the authority and role of traditional city-makers, such as local authorities and developers, and top-down approaches. Questions have also been raised about the accountability and power of those who drive DIY initiatives. Who owns the city and who has the right to change it? In the next blog we will explore what research is telling us about the future of DIY Urbanism.
The feature image for this post was provided by Meike Schalk at KTH – thank you!
Researchers and practitioners in London have begun to reveal the processes and value of the “DIY street”. Should their insights change our approach to city centre planning?
Over the past month the role of the street in making the city has been addressed by two worlds I feel part of. The approaches taken to the street in each are markedly different.
In the city where I studied, London, the London School of Economics, has released a short film reflecting on the use of an unremarkable street, Rye Lane, in the wider context of the city’s development. It can be viewed above.
Meanwhile, the city where I live has published a new strategy for its principal inner city streets. This strategy is everything you would expect from a city planning authority, full of comprehensive maps, of-the-moment concepts – “the walkable city”, “activating the ground level, “the 24hour city” etc. – topped-off with pictures of cyclists and street cafes. Many similar examples cross my desk, so the exact location of this city is not relevant.
A fresh contribution
The LSE City film, by contrast, is unexpected. It is both gritty and dazzling, revealing the lightly-regulated (ignored?) street as a powerful site of integration, creation, community and change in the city. The street can be seen as raw DIY urbanism in action. (If DIY Urbanisim isn’t a phrase you are familiar with, please take a look at the first blog in this series where the idea is explored here).
Rye Lane, the street in Peckham, south east London, the LSE team follows, is worked through with “gaps”, sites on pavements where casual market shops can be set up and shops that can be sublet in to smaller units, creating a porous and flexible urban structure. This allows a diverse multitude of people to establish themselves in it and, it seems, thrive along it.
What do we learn from the film? At first it seems that the London film suggests planners neglect the street and abandon it as a site for DIY urbanism in the raw.
Including the Ordinary
The insights of the film’s creator Suzi Hall and her colleagues are more subtle. The film portrays the ordinary street’s potential as a city-maker, an active site of integration and development. The film also challenges our “vocabulary” of “who counts and what matters” when streets are developed.
It reminds us that as planners we must understand, indeed, simply see, what is there already – what is ordinary and DIY, in the un-hip sense of the word. In particular we must see people and appreciate the power and sophistication of interaction with each other and the built environment. There is much urban poetry already on our streets – as Jane Jacobs noted many years ago.
It also suggests that gaps and footholds be designed into our plans. We should be confident in the abilities of our city residents thrive on street that leave opportunities for them to take.
In rapidly expanding and diversifying cities, the type that publish glossy strategies for their inner cities, schemes that helped recent immigrants get access to cheap shops or market stalls, for example, would open an opportunity for people to make the vision of the city as a thriving, human-orientated hub themselves.
Before we plan with maps, we must plan with people.