Tag Archives: Sustainability

Smartness as an enabler of life

KTH – Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm has invested in a major push around the topic of smart and sustainable cities.  Smart cities have been discussed for several years, the Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment asks what’s new in the university’s approach.

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.

Smart leadership

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.

Sustainable Urbanism Beyond Stockholm: Harvard’s Ed Glaeser talks at KTH

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.

KTH was also honoured to welcome Professor Fran Tonkiss form LSE Cities and Professor Peter Nijkamp from VU Amsterdam as respondents to Ed Glaeser. Their excellent and insightful lectures are included below.

Professor Fran Tonkiss, LSE:

Professor Peter Nijkmap, VU Amsterdam:


The KTH Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment blog will take a break over the Christmas holidays, returing in the New Year with a blog theme of Smart and Sustainable Cities.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!



The Do-It-Yourself Urban Future

This week the Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment at KTH introduces a new blog theme – DIY Urbanism. Curious? Then follow the blog over the next four weeks as we explore the theme from different angles in the company of Karin Bradley, Associate Professor at KTH and engaging thinker on the future of the city.

So, what is DIY Urbanism?

Are you passionate about changing your city? Are you willing to get your hands dirty? How about strike up conversations with a stranger from down the road? More and more people are answering “yes” to these questions. Rather than waiting for local municipalities to improve their neighbourhoods, people are starting initiatives themselves. Vitally, these people are not acting alone or on behalf of their own interests; instead they are collaborating with other people, locally and internationally, on projects that make neighbourhoods better, meaning friendlier and more sustainable places to be, especially with regard to the environment. This is Do-It- Yourself (DIY) Urbanism and together with its close cousins, “tactical urbanism” and “guerilla urbanism”, it will be changing a city near you shortly.

“Local planners”, KTH researcher Karin Bradley comments, “have engaged the public in planning decisions for many years now. DIY Urbanism is different. It’s about a new wave of urban initiatives that have their origins in society, which come from people, rather than from the municipality”.

Karin Bradley, Associate Professor at KTH

Karin Bradley, Associate Professor at KTH

This global movement is in part is a product of dissatisfaction with traditional top-down urban planning, especially its struggle to respond to environmental challenges and a lack of high quality public spaces that support a feeling of community. It also reflects a wider change in society with people now re-casting themselves as active “prosumers” who contribute towards what they need rather than passive consumers of items produced by other people.

“Before” Karin Bradley comments “people read a handful of newspapers and these were written by experts, journalists. Now there are millions of bloggers using the internet to write and share stories that they think are interesting. The same thing is starting to happen in urban planning; the agenda is being shaped from the bottom-up and this is releasing an unprecedented wave of community creativity and engagement.”

Whilst positive towards this development, Karin thinks we should also question it, “There are issues about accountability, representation and the role of public authorities in these bottom-up processes that we still need to understand, reflect on and develop.”

Exploring DIY Urbanism

Over the next few weeks this blog will look at DIY Urbanism in more depth. What sort of activities are DIY urbanists starting? What are the strengths of these? What issues do these types of activities raise for society more widely?

What do DIY Urbanists do?


A park created temporarily in a parking space in San Francisco. Photo from Park(ing) Day.org.

As a first stop-off point on the journey Karin directs us towards the Park(ing) Day movement started in San Francisco by design-art-activist group Rebar that’s about transforming car-parking spaces in to community parks, often on a temporary basis. In 2005 Rebar created its first urban park by hiring a car-parking space for two hours and transforming it for those hours into a miniature urban park that included grass, a tree, a park bench and a “Park Open” sign.

Is DIY Urbanism really changing anything?

Park(ing) Day celebrated in Singapore

Park(ing) Day celebrated in Singapore. Photo from Park(ing) Day.org.

Whilst Park(ing) Day is a clear example of citizen-led urban intervention, what makes it especially powerful, Karin reflects, is the way in which Rebar uses open-source tactics and the internet to enable the initiative to go global. As of 2011 Park(ing) Day has spread to 162 cities in 35 countries.  Rebar’s “how-to” guide to making your own Park(ing) Day is open to anyone to download and act on – or improve. One Park(ing) Day initiative is interesting, hundreds of such days spread over the world is an urban movement capable of creating change. Park(ing) Day.org has been established to share information and they even have a Facebook page. In case you are interested, global Park(ing) Day is held the third Friday in September each year.

Park(ing) Days organised in North America and Europe in 2014. From Park(ing) Day .org

Park(ing) Days organised in North America and Europe in 2014. From Park(ing) Day.org

And things have changed, notably in public planning authorities. The San Francisco Planning Department now supports the creation of temporary parks seeing them as a civic asset that challenges the car-culture of the city. They have minted a new typology term the “parklet” and created a process that allows people to apply to create one. By 2013, 40 parklets had been launched in the city and a further 40 are under development.

Park(ing) Day projects are getting bolder and bolder. In 2014, a cinema parklet was created in Vancouver by the Vancouver Public Space Network.

A cinema created in a car park in Vancouver for Park(ing) Day 2014. Photo by Chris Bruntlett.

A cinema created in a car park in Vancouver for Park(ing) Day 2014. Photo by Chris Bruntlett.

Next week the blog will look in more depth at some Swedish DIY Urbanism initiatives.



There’s no place like home: can reimagining our concept of the “good home” help us reach sustainability goals?

Close your eyes and imagine a good home. What do you see – a house in a garden, a cottage by the sea, an apartment, high up, in the city? Who lives there? Go inside – what do the rooms you walk through look like? How does it feel?

As KTH architect Erik Stenberg’s blog showed, urban planners and architects had a clear set of answers to these questions when they started building mass public housing in Sweden during the 1960’s – the so-called Million Homes Programme era. They saw bold, modern apartments set admits nature and connected to the city by sweeping roads. These apartments were inhabited by Swedish nuclear families, each with 2.7 kids.

Time and changing circumstances have shown how transitory this image of the good home and its inhabitants really is. We have moved on, become different and more diverse. The apartments built during this period however remain, sustaining in weather-bleached concrete a fading ideal of the good home.

The Ideal of Home

The research of Pernilla Hagbert, a doctoral student associated with both Chalmers and KTH, is deepening our appreciation of the powerful role that such ideals of the good home play in our personal living decisions, as well as in the development of housing market more widely.

“Today’s media presents us with a clear but limited set of images of what the home looks like,” Pernilla comments. An owner-occupied detached house sits proudly in a well-maintained garden plot – or the childless residents of an apartment look out through floor-to-ceiling windows over the lights of the city. “These norms are attractive and work for many people,” Pernilla continues, “however, in an increasingly diverse society, there is a clear need for alternative ideas about home, particularly ideas that make more effective use of our limited resources.”

Pernilla’s work has led her to explore contemporary collaborative housing initiatives, sometimes called collective housing initiatives in Sweden – though Pernilla warns that the word “collective” comes with outdated associations that can hinder discussions and exploration of this form of housing.

A collaborative house development in Sofielund in Malmo opened December 2014. Image from Pernilla Hagbert.

“In a contemporary collaborative housing initiative”, Pernilla continues, “a group of people take decisions about how they can live better through sharing certain resources and facilities.”

Contemporary Collaborative Housing Initiatives in Sweden

Pernilla gives an example from Sofielund in Malmö where a community of residents has worked together with the local housing authority, MKB, and developers NCC to deliver a diverse set of homes that make different use of shared facilities. One-person homes have a private living area but share facilities for making food and socialising. Larger units provide a home for example for small teams of single parents who share social spaces, this allowing them to support each other with childcare. “These homes challenge norms about the good home, allowing us to become more creative and responsive to the real needs of our lives,” Pernilla reflects.

Pernilla is especially interested in the role that new ideas about the good home can play in helping us live more sustainably. “Collaborative housing allows us to live smaller and share, using less resources,” Pernilla comments. She draws attention to the work of architects such as Hauschild Siegel who are re-thinking the detached suburban house in a compact urban form – that still manages to capture the ideals that led homeowners to seek a property in the suburbs such as access to a garden and individualised design choices – whilst (at least in theory) aiming to limit their environmental footprint.

A multi-dwelling in Malmö by Hauschild Siegel. Image from hauschild-siegel.com

A multi-dwelling in Malmö by Hauschild Siegel. Image from hauschild-siegel.com

 Utopia Architects in Stockholm have put forward a collaborative housing proposal focused on younger city residents called KomBo  that outlines a plan for a housing block with a mix of private and shared facilities. The goal is to speed up the provision of housing to this vulnerable group as well as establish a sense of friendship and community.


Drawings of how the KomBo development might look in plan. Images from Utopia Architects.

Drawings of how the KomBo development might look in plan with shared and private spaces. The image above shows the outside of the building. Images from Utopia Architects.

Architects Paradiso in Stockholm and OkiDoki! in Gothenberg are also producing cutting-edge work exploring new combinations of housing forms that make less use of resources.

Building with Flexibility in Mind

As earlier blogs in this series have shown,this re-thinking isn’t only about new housing. Existing housing can be renovated and repurposed to permit greater diversity and resource sharing.

Pernilla and many others at KTH argue that any new building unit conceived today should be designed with flexibility and repurposing in mind; our ideals, needs and resources change over time and the built environment must be designed to adapt effectively.

Looking forward, the main challenge – and opportunity – Pernilla identifies to the acceptance of new ideas about the good home is amongst housing policy makers and other actors in the traditional housing market. “The system today is designed for an idea of the good home that is standardized,” Pernilla reflects. “Many actors are interested in exploring alternative models, however, it is challenging to move these in to the mainstream when, for example, it is difficult to get bank loans for collaborative housing initiatives.”

Pernialla Hagbert can be contacted here: hagbert@chalmers.se 



Can a city be too smart?

In this third of the “pre-launch” blogs from the Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment, KTH Professor Kristina Höök gives a short talk on how we can make better use of smart technology in cities. Kristina works in the field of human-technology interaction. She argues that, in our cities that are ever-more connected by technologies such as sensors and smart phones, these technologies need to be designed to suit to people, indeed, they need to be desirable to people, or else they run the risk of being ignored – of being “too smart”.

Kristina makes her presentation in Swedish. A summary in English follows.

English Summary

Kristina reflects that visions for technology and big data use in urban contexts haven’t materialized as planned – our fridges don’t order milk for us. She argues that this is, in part, because these visions were developed by technologists who tend to be fascinated by the potential of their tools, rather than by the needs of people. The work of Kristina and her group focuses on human needs and desires, seeking to explore how technology can respond to these. We move to cities to live more interesting lives, not simply more effective lives, and the development of cities must respond to this. Indeed, Stockholm is, by styling itself as an “attractive” city, rich in experiences and multidimensional.

Kristina introduces the audience to the “Internet of Things” and the “Cloud” that supports its functioning. These technologies mean that it is possible for people, objects and information to be connected constantly. Smart phones and other devices act as our portals into these systems. These connections make it possible to develop an entire wave of new smart solutions – solutions that are designed for people.

Kristina and her colleagues have developed a range of human smart solutions. One allows you to track your stress levels via a wrist band. Another allows you to couple nature into your city apartment so that you can see real time weather or the dynamics of other natural systems in your home. A third uses design to develop an attractive energy meter for the home – a meter that is also a ceiling lamp. As you reduce energy use in your home, the lamp opens, flowering outwards. Controlling your energy use thus becomes a pleasurable, positive experience.

Kristina and colleagues have also developed connected apps for people out in the city, for example, that allow you to trace other people’s responses to museum exhibitions. Another smart phone based app allows skiers to track their performance in real time.

Developing these connected systems requires a broad range of competences – ICT, materials, data analytics – and, vitally, insights into human behavior. KTH has the range of skills to deliver desirable, human solutions, enabled by outstanding technologies.