The Electric City

This Urban Age newspaper revisits the notion of the ‘Electric City’, offering a critical reflection on contemporary innovations in urban infrastructures and technologies as we become more aware of environmental challenges and the threats of Climate Change. For over a decade, our research at LSE Cities has focused on the relationship between the physical and social dimensions of cities. Now, we have turned our attention to the digital and ecological age, to better understand how its technologies and infrastructures – powered by electricity – are transforming our urban futures, at a social and environmental level.

Electricity shaped the architecture of cities at the turn of the last century. Arc lighting, elevators and trams revolutionised the urban landscape and habits of many western cities as they expanded rapidly to absorb urban migrants. Electricity completely transformed cities and urban lifestyles, especially in public transport. The widespread introduction of petrol-based vehicles in the post-World War II era cities led to a reconfiguration of the urban landscape. Yet today, electric power continues to fuel the massive expansion in public utilities, transport, domestic appliances and modern commodities that characterise the ‘urban age’ where cities consume over 60 per cent of world’s energy and contribute to nearly 80 per cent of global CO2 emissions.

Skyscrapers and suburbs, commuting and sprawl, ghettos and CBDs have all followed on from these past waves of technological innovation. Cities have grown taller and fatter in the space of a few generations. Property values have gone up and slums have been created. Commuting times have escalated in some cities while others have rediscovered the efficiencies of the compact city, building on the synergies of increased proximity and more efficient public transport.

Today, electricity is re-emerging as a common denominator of a new technological revolution as unprecedented advances in information and communication systems are matched by radical innovation in green energy technologies and infrastructures. Much of this pervasive innovation nexus of power and information is, and will continue to be, centred in cities. Smart grid technology and the internet of things, battery-powered vehicles and shared urban mobility, GPS enabled apps for smart phones and integrated mobility services, online retail and virtual consumption, digital collaboration and e-governance are already part of our everyday urban experiences.

The more electricity generation is based on renewables – such as solar, wind and bio-fuels – the more electrification can deliver the greening of energy systems and cities. Electric mobility, electrically-powered gadgets and systems, and even electric heating and cooling can help make cities more environmentally balanced, offering more than just cleaner energy. Today innovation can be found both in the public sector and in private companies. Cities like Berlin, Paris and San Francisco have been proactive in leading on this transition by combining e-mobility with car-sharing. BMW, Peugeot and Toyota are re-inventing engineering paradigms for cars, concentrating on compact, light, and energy efficient electric vehicles as part of multi-modal provision of mobility in cities. Utility companies are beginning to use electric vehicles to store renewable energy that needs to be taken off the grid during peak loads.

But, as the visionary British architect Cedric Price noted over 40 years ago ‘Technology is the answer. But what is the question?’ The Urban Age Electric City conference has been designed to re-formulate these questions and initiate a new line of research that addresses the wider social, political and cultural impacts of the new technologies.

Some of the results of this research are presented in the Data Section of this newspaper. It includes an overview of the global geography of energy consumption and explores where and how electricity is generated and where CO2 emissions are most prominent in different regions of the world. The section goes on to investigate the physical structure, governance arrangements and environmental performance of twelve case studies, adding to the accumulated knowledge of Urban Age cities fresh evidence form six ‘green pioneers’ like Copenhagen, Portland and Bogota.

These cities, alongside Singapore, Hong Kong, Stockholm, New York and Berlin have made a step-change in sustainable and policies practice, often led by visionary mayors and an enlightened electorate. We also take a closer look at how London and its directly elected mayors have performed, after a decade of effective metropolitan governance, noting that residential waste and car ownership have dropped substantially, while fossil-fuel dependency, air pollution and per capita levels of consumption remain unacceptably high.

In parallel to this quantitative overview, we engage with some of the more profound sociological, cultural and political questions of the electric urban age though essays and provocations included in this newspaper and the conference itself. Architectural and urban critic Deyan Sudjic defines electricity as both an idea and a thing. It has theoretical and practical implications. It is the combination of the two which has resulted in a particularly strong impact on cities. As such, electricity is an invisible technology but its physical manifestations as basic innovations are easy to detect. History, can help us since, in some ways, we have been there before. The impact of basic innovations on cities is omnipresent, a theme elaborated by Climate Change economist Nick Stern and his colleagues, who argue that cities have both increased their appetite for consumption but also been at the vanguard of sustainable solutions which ‘decouple higher living standards and increasing resource consumption.’

Author of Triumph of the City Ed Glaeser picks up the baton on relating form to environmental performance, highlighting the economic and environmental benefits of higher densities of city living and working as a prerequisite of urban sustainability. He critiques the US model of profligate car-dependency and urban sprawl, urging emerging countries like India and China to take note that much can be achieved by tight and visionary urban leadership and the adoption of the compact city model. Bruce Katz turns the spotlight onto the green economy and jobs, highlighting research from the Brookings Institution that identifies the potential of the green economy for the renaissance of US metros, a theme that is echoed by Max Nathan analysis of London’s growing digital economy sector and the dynamism of the Tech-city initiative.

Sociologist John Urry reminds us of the difficulty to predict potential development pathways particularly when technology is disruptive with respect to existing practices. Instead, he offers four scenarios of what a potential future might be ‘after the car’, informed by our acceptance of electric hypermobility. Saskia Sassen analyses the effects of such rapid transitions and the effect that technologies have on urban space. She both endorses the effects but recognises the limits of intelligent systems in cities, arguing that the next phase of technological development is charged with negative social potentials where we could slide ‘into a managed space where sensored becomes censored.’ Carlo Ratti and Anthony Townsend extend this argument by highlighting the potential of new systems of information and communication on the virtual infrastructure of cities and on their impacts on networks of associations and interactions.

In their essays, Richard Sennett and the Milgram Group reflect on the ‘stupefying’ effect of smart cities, analysing how the new urban environments of Songdo and Masdar currently being shaped by a new generation of urban infrastructures remain alien and lack the visual and creative energies of conventional urban form. By identifying historical precedent, Sennett warns that new tools can have deadening rather than liberating effects and that our first instinct is to blame the machine itself instead of asking ourselves how new urban technologies can be used more intelligently, raising questions about urban design and people engagement. Dan Hill and Maarten Hajer delve deeper into the social dimensions of smart cities in an ecological age, arguing for greater awareness and experimentation in the use of new urban technologies and making more of their political potential. In his closing overview, the Politics of Climate Change, Tony Giddens reflects on how technological innovation has to be a core part of any successful climate change strategy, but that the state and government must have a significant role in making such innovation possible, suggesting that now is time to call for a ‘return to planning’.

This brief synopsis of the arguments laid out in this newspaper suggests that we are not taking the Electric City at face value. We use this term as a catch-phrase to capture the social, economic, cultural and political complexities of what comes under the general banner of ‘smart cities’. We recognise that these dimensions need to be better understood before new technologies are accepted by citizens who are highly sceptical of technological fixes and worried about affordability and data protection. At the same time, urban policymakers and city leaders seem hesitant to embrace change and impose untested technologies. They are also concerned about the risks of investing in what might turn out to be the ‘wrong’ technology at extremely high costs. It is out hope that this conference will stimulate debate and bring clarity, offering new insights into the social and environmental sustainability of cities.

Ricky Burdett is Director of LSE Cities and the Urban Age. Philipp Rode is Executive Director of LSE Cities and the Urban Age.