Smart cities are said to be more livable, productive and sustainable, but at what cost to the environment? While many of the technological advancements in modern cities are put in place to help with waste collection, energy reduction and environmental protection, the needs of nature should not be ignored by cities.
Smart devices that are installed by municipalities require electricity or a power source, adding dependence to the power grid. However, these devices are becoming more efficient and the power supply is becoming more environmentally-friendly. So, are smart cities really better for the environment?
What are a smart cities?
A smart city is one that is connected and managed through computer and electronic advancements in technology. They use sensors and data to gather insights into its population, transport network, economy and environment, allowing the city to run more efficiently and easily.
For example, the installation of motion sensors in buildings and bus stops can be used to switch the lights off when no one is around, saving electricity. Energy systems can be automatically monitored and adjusted based on people’s use of public spaces.
Fitting city buildings and hubs with technological features can make them more energy efficient and safer, but they also allow the city to plan and develop better growth strategies for the future. Technology can also help a city’s services to respond to unexpected events.
Sensors and processors can also be used to monitor and maintain the infrastructure. Public bins can notify the city’s waste management services when they are ready for collection. Irrigation systems can track water usage and reduce wasteful practices. Public transport, such as Cape Town’s MyCiTi bus service, can use technology to make transit easier and more efficient for residents.
The environmental balance of a smart city
While smart cities may run more efficiently and benefit more of the population, when they go unmaintained it can be costly for the city management. Besides being more expensive (as maintenance and installation costs are generally high), smart cities are also more energy dependent. However, South Africa’s new energy plan for the next decade is paving the way for greener sources of energy such as wind and solar power.
Studies have shown that a city’s reliance on information and technology leads to higher energy use. This is not such an issue as sustainable energy sources become cheaper and more efficient, smart cities will also do the same.
Right now, smart cities end up being no more or no less sustainable than regular cities with the current technology available. While their power-saving efforts may reduce energy use, the rest of the technology draws more energy from the grid. The positive and negative energy implications tend to cancel each other out, but in the next few years, this will change. Smart cities will get more energy from sustainable sources, making them better for the environment.
One concern with smart cities is the increase in e-waste. More computers, monitors and smart devices mean that they will inevitably become outdated one day and will be discarded. This electronic waste is difficult to dispose of and often contains harmful chemicals (such as in the batteries).
Cities have a responsibility to ensure that electronic devices are disposed of correctly. Certain components can be recycled or reused, but the rest needs to be processed responsibly so that they don’t pose a threat to the environment of human life. As new methods of disposal and better recycling capabilities are created, e-waste will become less of a problem.
While technology, devices, data and networks have an important place in our future, cities need to ensure that the technology is actually beneficial on all fronts. Smart cities are certainly better for humans, but their environmental impacts need to be monitored and studied carefully. As technology improves and cities move away from carbon-emitting power sources, smart cities will become more eco-friendly and the way of the future.
Averda is a leading waste management provider with over 50 years of experience across three continents. Through growth, transformation and engagement, we strive to find new ways of managing waste while protecting the community and environment.
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