Portugal plans ‘smart’ eco-city

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2010

OK, so ‘smart’ is a persistently misused word in the modern context (my smartphone isn’t smart; damn thing can’t hold a decent conversation for more than a minute or two), but nonetheless: the northern end of Portugal will, if all goes to plan, play host to a designed and networked ecological city, wired to the gills with sensors and systems to control the consumption of energy and water. Unsurprisingly (and in keeping with the general trends in ecological product marketing) it has a stupid smug pun of a name:

Like other sustainable cities, PlanIT Valley will treat its own water and tap renewable energy. Buildings will also have plant-covered roofs, which will reduce local temperature through evapotranspiration, as well as absorbing rainwater and pollutants.

Yet that is where the similarities with other eco-cities end, according to its makers Living PlanIT based in Paredes. For a start, PlanIT Valley will be built closer to existing transport links than the likes of Masdar. More significantly, its “brain” will use data collected from a network of sensors akin to a nervous system to control the city’s power generation, water and waste treatment (see “Brains and nervous system”). It’s a kind of “urban metabolism”, says Steven Lewis, chief executive of Living PlanIT.

While this network of sensors sounds expensive, the cost of installing it will be offset by using more efficient building techniques.

Rather more utopian and blue-sky than the Cisco city-in-a-box, then, which – one presumes – focusses more closely on the infrastructural bang for the buck required in the rowing economies of Asia than on touchy-feely eco-gubbins; one suspects some sort of mid-point between the two might be an ideal worth aiming for.

While PlanIT Valley is obviously a well-meaning project, the designed city doesn’t have a wonderful history of successes, at least not here in the UK; anyone who has ever visited Milton Keynes will know what I’m trying to say here. As pointed out in the article above, it’s all very well to build a technological marvel of an urban space, but all bets are off until people move in and actually start building a community there… and as even the most casual student of utopias will be aware, it’s usually the people that cause the problems rather than the buildings that house them.

[ Why, yes, I am feeling rather pessimistic today – how did you guess? ]

Barrier, heal thyself

Paul Raven @ 16-09-2010

Add some bacteria to your concrete mixture, and you get walls that heal themselves:

The researchers found just the right candidates: a hardy bunch of spore-forming bacteria belonging to the genus Bacillus that make a great living in the alkaline soda lakes of Russia and Egypt. Jonkers and his colleagues placed the spores and their food source, calcium lactate, into small ceramic pellets to prevent them from being activated prematurely by the wet concrete mix and adversely affecting the integrity of the material. The spores remained dormant until the formation of a crack allowed water to sneak in, waking the bacteria and their appetite. As they began to chow down, gobbling up the calcium lactate and water, they also began to pump out calcite (a very stable form of calcium carbonate), which quickly went to work filling up the holes. Now that they’ve successfully tested the bacteria’s mettle, Jonkers and his co-workers plan on comparing the strength of their natural concrete to that of the real thing.

Regular readers may remember that this is an idea we’ve seen before.

Brazilian farming methods could feed a hungry planet

Paul Raven @ 27-08-2010

There’s few things I enjoy more during my daily feed-reader trawl than a headline with two potential meanings… and here’s a classic case from The Big Think: “Brazilian Model Could Feed The World“. Wow – has he/she started a gene-mod crops business with his/her superstar income? Or perhaps he/she is just very very large, and thus could be sliced up and distributed to the world’s most needy?

As you’ve probably guessed from my own headline, it’s nothing at all to do with a monstrous fifty-foot Brazilian catwalk star (which is slightly disappointing for the B-movie fans in the audience, I guess). As the target article at The Economist explains, the model in question is Brazil’s agricultural policies:

Even more striking than the fact of its success has been the manner of it. Brazil has followed more or less the opposite of the agro-pessimists’ prescription. For them, sustainability is the greatest virtue and is best achieved by encouraging small farms and organic practices. They frown on monocultures and chemical fertilisers. They like agricultural research but loathe genetically modified (GM) plants. They think it is more important for food to be sold on local than on international markets. Brazil’s farms are sustainable, too, thanks to abundant land and water. But they are many times the size even of American ones. Farmers buy inputs and sell crops on a scale that makes sense only if there are world markets for them. And they depend critically on new technology. As the briefing explains, Brazil’s progress has been underpinned by the state agricultural-research company and pushed forward by GM crops. Brazil represents a clear alternative to the growing belief that, in farming, small and organic are beautiful.

That alternative commands respect for three reasons. First, it is magnificently productive. It is not too much to talk about a miracle, and one that has been achieved without the huge state subsidies that prop up farmers in Europe and America. Second, the Brazilian way of farming is more likely to do good in the poorest countries of Africa and Asia. Brazil’s climate is tropical, like theirs. Its success was built partly on improving grasses from Africa and cattle from India. Of course there are myriad reasons why its way of farming will not translate easily, notably that its success was achieved at a time when the climate was relatively stable whereas now uncertainty looms. Still, the basic ingredients of Brazil’s success—agricultural research, capital-intensive large farms, openness to trade and to new farming techniques—should work elsewhere.

Nothing new about people giving the big-ups to sustainable farming, of course… but to see it lauded in a venue like The Economist (alongside an admission that there’s a food crisis on the way, and that the Demographic Formerly Known As The First World is in the firing line too) is a new one, at least to me. Are we seeing a shift in attitude in business and government – a recognition that the long game is the only one in town, if you want there to still be a town when the game is over?

Europe: less people, mo’ problems?

Paul Raven @ 30-09-2009

Global population density mapLeading on neatly from Tom’s post about sustainable population growth is another New Scientist piece, which posits that Europe’s predicted decline in population will actually bring a whole raft of economic and infrastructural problems with it:

… look a little deeper, and the picture becomes more complicated. Decreasing population does not necessarily promise environmental benefits. The cost per head of population for infrastructure such as sewage systems or electricity supply increases when population numbers go down, making clean water and non-polluting energy even more expensive than they are today.

So can Europe overcome its demographic and ecological challenges at the same time? The solution might be found in a rarely discussed concept: demographic sustainability.

High population growth, such as that now taking place in many African countries, is not sustainable. But very low fertility rates are unsustainable too. It will be hard for countries with persistently low fertility to remain competitive, creative and wealthy enough to keep ahead of their country’s environmental challenges. What is needed is a middle ground.

A demographically sustainable Europe needs to have a stable or slowly shrinking population as the existing infrastructure operates most efficiently when the number of inhabitants remains fairly constant. What would it take to achieve this? At present, the average fertility rate in Europe is 1.5 children per woman, and in countries below this line there is an urgent need for family policies to encourage women to have more children. Countries with fertility rates above 1.8, including France, the UK and Sweden, do not need further pro-birth policies as immigration will fill the demographic gap.

I’m not going to contest the maths, but I think pro-birth policies will probably be unnecessary. Climate change is going to produce a whole lot of environmental refugees in the next few decades, and those countries with a declining birth rate could open their borders to them – two birds with one stone, if you will.

However, if those countries also happen to be the ones most paranoid about being “overrun” by immigrants, I guess it’s back to the government-sponsored Have More Kids campaigns… [awesome CGI population density map image by Arenamontanus]

[ For the record, I think that it behoves us as a sentient species to limit our population so as to best protect and sustain the environment that keeps us alive (and hence protect and sustain ourselves). However, sentience and sense have never directly proportional, and show little sign of becoming so any time soon… so I guess mitigating the fallout is the best plan in the meantime. ]

Three speculative economies: which would you pick?

Paul Raven @ 28-08-2009

bank notesJamais Cascio is stirring things up at Fast Company again, this time with a multi-part article on speculative future economies. In this second part thereof, he lays out three possible economic scenarios, one each for the United States, Japan and the European Union – the other major powers have been left blank deliberately.

The three scenarios are:

  • Resilience Economics (US)
  • Just-in-Time Socialism (Japan)
  • Robonomics (EU)

They’re all optimistic – in that surviving the current downturn and the inevitable next one is a given – but they each have their downsides, also. Here’s a snippet from Robonomics:

The U.S. slowed down, Japan took control, and Europe… well, Europe got wired. Or got weird, depending on your perspective.

On the surface, you still have the same kinds of big companies, same kinds of consumption patterns, same kinds of advertising that you did a few decades earlier. But the twist is that almost nobody works–maybe about 25% of the population engages in income-generating employment, and at least half of that consists of educators, bureaucrats, and the self-employed. Manufacturing, transportation, and most basic services are done with robots, semi-autonomous systems that nobody even pretends have real intelligence, but work well enough to keep the economy humming. Personal service jobs remain in human hands, but those are often performed by recent immigrants, trying to earn the right to a BIG Card.

Go read all three, then pop back and leave a comment saying which one you’d choose. Personally, I’m kinda torn between Just-in-Time Socialism and Robonomics, though I rather expect the UK would end up with Resilience thanks to the fear of European amalgamation – a politcial bugbear almost as entirely predicated on disinformation and lies as the current healthcare debate in the US. [image by Unhindered by Talent]

Oh, and if you’re wondering which of them is dependent on sustainability…

… they all are–that is, environmental sustainability is intrinsic to all three of these models, as it will be intrinsic to whatever economic structures function successfully this century. As the next few decades unfold, any economic behavior that doesn’t take sustainability into account will fail.

So, where do you want to live?

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