SDG11: Decentralization, digitalization, and symbiotic relationships

Cities are responsible for 60 to 80% of the global GHG emissions (European Commission). However, if properly and sustainably managed, cities can provide a unique opportunity to reduce these emissions. The point of departure in this endeavor should acknowledge that nearly ¾ of GHG emissions are a direct consequence of the choices we make. Among those, it is food, shelter, and mobility (Hertwich & Peters, 2009) that drive more than half of these emissions.

These activities are driven by basic human needs and we don’t have a choice of changing them. Where we do have a choice is in adopting low environmental footprint lifestyles and switching to sources of energy that make our activities sustainable and available for the world’s fast-growing and increasingly affluent population.

Given the fact that in the decades to come most of the net population growth is expected to occur in urban areas (UN), the supply of energy for food, shelter, mobility, and other human needs must come from renewable sources. Otherwise, electricity, gas, oil, and solid fuel use, which accounts for over 80% of urban GHG emissions (Dhakal & Ruth, 2017), will continue to be an irremediable source of global climate change.

Cities shape citizens and vice versa. Behind this perpetuum mobile are the human relations driven by what the urban sociologist Robert Park so well defined by saying that the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold.

We are creative, industrious, and action-oriented creatures. Driven by these, as well as many other competencies, we became Earth’s dominant species that built societies in which ‘everything must be of some use’, as Hanna Arendt once wrote. Cities are the most visible expression of the use we give to our competencies. Driven by work, as central to all human interaction, cities emerged as melting pots where the surplus of human labor is in the constant exchange between economy, society, and culture. The way we work very much defines how we engage, not only in production but also in leisure activities. And these combined put pressure on energy use and natural resources.   

We have built cities to make our lives easier and by doing so cities have shaped the lifestyles of more than half the world population. By 2050 this number is expected to reach 80%. This makes city management one of the most important tasks in our future collective goals and endeavors. For the same reason re-thinking, the way cities are managed, built, maintained, and enhanced must provide opportunities for residents, businesses, science, and culture to flourish into cohesive strength that keeps cities running sustainably.

Mapping, detecting, and materializing these opportunities requires a greater awareness of what is happening at the niche level. It is at this level where much of the social and technological innovation occurs which brings us back to eco-effectiveness and the notion that any successful sustainable strategy implementation begins with local practices.

The covid19 pandemic has exposed the large city areas vulnerabilities and accelerated the trend of urban dwellers moving from large to middle and small size cities. Although forcefully, teleworking has emerged as a viable alternative to office work. At the same time, it made smaller size cities increasingly attractive to more people. Due to the fast paste of digitalization and new infrastructures, in the years to come, this tendency is expected to continue in many developed countries. That will lead to greater decentralization and transferring of more power and responsibility to local governments, which will face many new challenges.

While doing so, as advised by Sharing Cities: Activating the Urban Commons (2015) “To meet challenges, communities, organizations, and local governments are increasingly turning to a basic human practice: sharing.” This governance practice leads to adopting more sustainable lifestyles and greater symbiotic relationships between all socio-technical actors that are engaging in the sustainability transition.

For the transition to be successful, political leadership has to empower local governments to develop policies that stimulate and enable citizens and companies to integrate sustainable mindsets. Among those, perhaps the most important one is the ‘waste as resource’ mindset. It relies on the ability to keep constantly present the idea that what might be considered waste by someone can be used as a resource by someone else. This ‘symbiotic thinking’ is deeply rooted within the sharing economy and leads to greater eco-effectiveness.  

Electric power grids are already mapping out new scenarios where future sustainable urbanization aims to greater decentralization while benefiting from digitalization. From creating local electricity grids that are ready for distributed solar power to efficient district heating or cooling networks powered by renewable sources (Lee&Ericson, 2017), cities are choosing decentralization. In other words, through decentralization and digitalization, cities choose to no longer operate with centralized power supplies. In future cities, electricity, gas, heat, and transport networks will get ‘integrated, expanded, and made part of an effective Information and Communications Technology network to collect, share, and analyze data to provide the information required to optimize their operation’. (Dhakal & Ruth, 2017) At the same time, the design of cities’ sharing economy will strengthen the symbiotic relationships between citizens and between companies.

Local governments are closer to the day-to-day citizens’ needs and can therefore have a greater influence on the choices they make. In that sense, promoting sustainable lifestyles among local communities can help cities to shape sustainable citizens. It will lead transition where decentralization, digitalization, and symbiotic relationships are part of a global response to the question of what kind of people we want to be.  

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