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Smart technology calls for smart policies

Urbanisation is continuing all round the world. This sets challenges to reaching the global sustainable development goals and Paris Agreement on tackling climate change. New smart technologies offer enormous opportunities, but not purely on their own. They must be combined with smart policies.

Renewable energy is getting cheaper all the time. This also includes the price of batteries, which provide greater opportunities to store energy and for the electrification of the transport sector. Within the construction sector, new materials and technologies are being developed. Already today, houses can be built with half the climate impact of traditionally constructed houses. In area after area, we can see how new technologies offer new opportunities.

Does this mean we can sit back and think that technology will solve all the sustainability challenges we face? Sadly, the answer is no and this is due to a number of different factors, such as:

  • The time factor. If the climate goals are to be achieved, society needs to halve its emissions every decade to become climate neutral by around 2050. However, developing new technology takes time and phasing out old technology also takes time. If we are to succeed, not only must new technology be developed, but old technology must also be replaced more quickly.
  • New technology is often more expensive when it first arrives. Developing new technology is therefore only part of the story, political instruments will also be required, to make it profitable. The general costs then gradually sink as production is increasingly scaled up. However, the initial additional cost must be paid for somehow.
  • Knock-on effects. In time, new technology often leads to products becoming cheaper and more efficient. Electric cars are one possible example. They are (to date) expensive to buy, but cheap to run. If electric cars become mainstream, this can result in a sharp increase in road traffic. Even though electric cars have less environment impact in general than petrol and diesel cars, they have another environment impact related to the production of cars, batteries and electricity.

Sustainable urban development concerns many things, including zero emissions of greenhouse gases, better air quality, stronger ecosystem services, access to housing, healthcare, education and other basic services, opportunities to participate in decision-making processes and reduced divisions in society.

“Smart cities” have emerged as a concept that is sometimes used almost as a synonym for “sustainable cities”. However, it is by no means certain that “smart solutions” lead to reduced emissions or less segregation, for example. In addition to phasing out fossil fuels, energy efficiency measures and new smart technology, changes in practice are also needed, such as reduced demand for unsustainable products and less divisions in society.

And this will also need smart policies that can see and exploit the potential in solutions based on new technologies.