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Our Sustainability is Someone Else’s Disaster: Cities and the Environment

By Maria Kaika

Are we on the right track to create environmentally friendly cities? As things stand today, putting too much hope in tech-savvy urban environments may significantly stall progress towards a sustainable future, as smart techno-managerial solutions have become the perfect alibi for intensifying resource extraction, profiteering, and increased inequality in our cities.

Green European Journal: Is there something about the way cities function that makes them a good venue and catalyst for progressive ideas?

Maria Kaika: There seems to be a widely shared perception that cities have the capacity to become laboratories of progressive ideas. Let me bring an example for that: in May 2016, air pollution in parts of Amsterdam, Maastricht and Rotterdam reached hazardous levels and broke EU quality standards. But only one month later a new Dutch smart technology promised to remedy the problem with tree-wifi, a smart birdhouse that monitors air quality, and signals pollution levels by changing colours. When air quality is good it glows green, and as a reward, it offers citizens free wifi.

A report by The Guardian speculated that this could be the type of invention to help improve air quality in cities. The United Nations’ New Urban Agenda presented at the October 2016 Habitat III meeting seems to agree with this claim. This was the first time that, on such a high-level forum, cities are seen not only as problems for our environment, but also as opportunities; not as overgrown cancer cells that consume too much energy, water and resources, but as incubators for creative thinking, progressive politics, and innovation. They are considered as key hubs for driving change towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. But to drive this change, the New Urban Agenda suggests, cities first have to become ‘smarter’. And to become smarter, cities have to invest in greater data collection and data analysis technologies, as well as in better technical management.

We all love the idea of smart cities, cities that strive to repair environmental damage and fulfil the social, economic, environmental, and even political needs of their citizens through the application of new and increasingly sophisticated technologies, from smart cars and smart water and electricity metering, to smart fridges and smart voting. Smart cities sell well, they are sexy, they create new investment opportunities, and, most of all, act as the totem of our hope to repair the environmental damage we create. Unfortunately, however, these smart cities and technologies cannot be the solution to our global socio-environmental ills. Because in fact they are part of the problem.

What exactly do you mean when you say that they are part of the problem?

To illustrate this, let us come back to the smart birdhouse example. If we care to perform a full socio-environmental cost-benefit-analysis of the production, consumption, and final implementation of this (or any other) smart technology, we would come across some very disturbing findings. One of them stems from a vital component of any smart technology, namely columbite-tantalite (or coltan), a metallic ore that is necessary for all mobile communication switchboards. Coltan is present in our smartphones, smart cars, smart fridges, and it is literally everywhere in our cities. But, if we follow the global metabolic flows that enable coltan to be present in every smart device, in every city, home, and pocket, we get a very disturbing picture about how sustainable these smart technologies really are. More than 40% of the world’s coltan is mined by hand in Congo, under conditions that, according to UN reports, can be described as systematic and organised exploitation of people and environments.

And this is just one of the many examples that prove that our improved sustainability and smartness is someone else’s socio-environmental disaster. In broader terms this means that we cannot possibly understand cities without looking underneath and outside the strict geographical area of the metropolitan area. We cannot even talk about cities and nature as separate entities. Therefore, in my work, since 2005, I do not use the term ‘city’ or the term ‘nature’. Instead, I talk about a process: ‘the urbanisation of nature’. There is no way to understand and change ‘cities’ unless we understand the urbanisation of nature, the global metabolic flows, processes, and power relations between human and more than human actors (such as trees, animals, oceans, mountains, but also infrastructure, buildings and networks) that keep urban environments ticking and functioning.

Can you please elaborate? How exactly does the urbanisation of nature take place?

If this were the 19th century, the act of making hot clean water run out of a tap with a turn of a switch on a daily basis in someone’s home would be considered a magic trick. To turn this kind of magic into everyday normality, it took centuries of continuous capital investment and technological innovation, but, most importantly, it took and still takes the continuous exploitation of human labour and the exploitation of natural resources across the world. The field of urban political ecology excavates these power relations that make cities function, tick and change.

A good example from 21st-century exploitations is the celebrated Masdar eco-city project in Abu Dhabi. This carbon-neutral, planned city became the poster child of all those who believed in a post-carbon urbanisation ‘miracle’. However, the reality is much grimmer. As Amnesty International reports, Masdar was built by underpaid and often uninsured migrant labourers, working under inhumane conditions. All in the name of sustainable development.

And the pursuit of sustainability through techno-managerial solutions and indexes can also be found in the so-called ‘Western world’. The San Francisco Bay area is a prime example of a new type of displacement taking place in cities: a phenomenon that is termed ecological gentrification. The sociologist Miriam Greenberg, for example, documents how the new urban policies, including smart commuting, electric transportation, use of biofuels and online waste reduction tools, that turned San Francisco Bay into a smart ‘ecotopia’ were the very same policies that also turned it into one of the most unequal areas in the US. If we pay attention to the developments of the past decades, we can see that the rise in San Francisco’s sustainability indexes came hand in hand with skyrocketing poverty and homelessness rates.

Over the past 30 years, since the Brudtland report, a 1987 United Nations-commissioned report on environmental challenges, coined the term sustainable development, we so much wanted to believe that creating a better world was just a matter of better design, better management, and better technological solutions. We wanted to believe that global socio-environmental equality was a form of medication which we could simply inject into our cities in the form of smart roofs, monitoring technologies, recycling, or smart cars. But 30 years on, the failures of the past can no longer hold the alibi of the new. Today we know that smart solutions are not sufficient to deliver socio-environmental protection and equality.

Yet, despite the evidence, we still delude ourselves, sleepwalking into disaster. We continue to depend on failed paths, re-package old and failed methods as new solutions, and promote agendas driven by the very same questions that drove failed policies of the past.

So, what would be your suggestion? How could we overcome today’s problems?

There is something seriously wrong with the methods and policies we have been using so far to pursue sustainable cities. Should we pursue top-down or bottom-up solutions? Should we trust the management of urban infrastructures to the public or the private domain? These are the false dilemmas that drove our decisions, instead of rethinking the contradictions of sustainable development. With our previous, ‘smart’ solutions, we were aiming to remain in the context of a growth-based economy, which did not eradicate the problems but just moved them out of sight. Now, we need to finally admit that sustainability has come of age and we need no more experiments to know that we cannot continue with economic growth as usual. Thus, socio-environmental protection cannot be reduced to sustainability or resilience indicators and smart solutions.

So, what I propose instead of focusing on outdated dilemmas, is a move away from the pursuit of consensus-building over new sustainability indicators, so that we can actually focus on issues where dissensus and conflict arise. I suggest we seek out actors, groups, and communities who pose fresh questions and produce new, radical imaginaries for environmental management, actors who have been thus far systematically excluded from the sustainability debate, and start engaging with them. But, in order to do so, we need to invest in qualitative research and data collection, instead of focusing on quantitative big data.

Can you bring some concrete examples?

There are numerous good examples of how we can use qualitative data in a fruitful way. We could start, for example, by taking seriously the Stop Calling Me Resilient campaign, launched by Tracie Washington at the Louisiana Justice Institute. Washington’s New Orleans community survived both Hurricane Katrina and the British Petroleum oil disaster, and was thus repeatedly praised for its resilience. Sick and tired of the media and politicians’ empty words, Tracie Washington cried out: “I don’t want to be resilient!” As she explains, every time one says, “Oh, they’re resilient” that implies to her that something new could be done to them. “Instead, I want to fix the things that create the need for me to be resilient in the first place,” she said. This is not only a clear message, it is also a proposed method that suggests to stop focusing on improving resilience indicators, and instead start tracing what people and what processes generate the need for this so-called ‘resilience’ in the first place.

In addition, we could look at the practices of the Platform for Mortgage Affected People in Spain that was formed to support the one million plus people who had their homes repossessed by banks because they could not repay their mortgage debt after the crisis. As state welfare is becoming increasingly scarce or privatised, the platform reinvented welfare as a form of commons. The platform established a new imaginary of housing that is neither private nor public. In their imaginary housing is an undeniable right. When taken away, it has to be taken back. Therefore, the platform has developed distinct methods for preventing evictions and for re-housing evicted families. First, the members of the platform try to stop evictions by legal means, thus making evictions a lengthy and costly act for the state and for banks. Second, they physically try to stop evictions by providing a strong militant presence of human bodies during planned evictions Third, they occupy empty buildings that belong to banks and re-house evicted families. In short, they actively promote a process that not only re-houses, but also re-dignifies evicted people, by taking them outside the domain of defining themselves as powerless, indebted objects that can only be saved by the banks’ charity or the state’s goodwill.

And last but not least, we can take sustainability beyond the ‘market efficiency vs. public accountability’ dilemma, by looking at the initiatives that tried to produce a new imaginary for managing water as a commons in Thessaloniki, Greece. The movements against water privatisation in Greece turned the question of water resource management from a techno-managerial issue and a false dilemma (e.g. is water best managed publicly or privately?) into a real political issue. A political question was posed not only to policy-makers but also to each citizen: Would you rather keep 136 euros in your pocket as spending power and turn it into 6 jumpers or a smart phone, or would you be willing to turn these 136 euros into real capital? That is, into the ability to make actual decisions over the use, management, and allocation, of water resources in your own city? Initiated by the water company’s trade union, this movement spread to a wider citizenship base, including – among others – the movements K136 and SOSte to Nero (SOS Water). Instead of simply protesting against privatisation, the union and the citizens’ movements built the means to bid for buying up the water company of Thessaloniki when it came up for sale, and to subsequently run it as a citizens’ collective in collaboration with municipalities. “Buying back the public, 136 euros at a time” was the motto of the movement K136. And 136 actually refers to the amount of euros that each citizen would contribute in order to make this bid possible. To reach its goal, the movement did not hesitate to form ‘unholy alliances’. It got help from a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation programmes and managed to raise a one billion euro guarantee fund for their bid from global investors.

The examples I mentioned, with all their contradictions and differences, share two key things in common. First, they point at exactly what is wrong with pursuing sustainability through smart and techno-managerial solutions. Second, they propose new and concrete methods to address the core problems.

Smart solutions do not question the reasons that created today’s problems. They treat the symptoms, but do not cure the disease. Now, if we are looking for real smart solutions, real creativity and real innovation, here they are. In the methods and practices born out of dissensus and necessity, not out of consensus. This is a mature moment to take the failures of the past seriously, break away from path dependence, and stop sleepwalking into disaster by investing massive public funds in smartening up our immunological practices.

What could a progressive political force, like the Greens in Europe, do in order to put this issue on the political agenda?

Let’s stop talking techno-politics and talk real politics again. Democracy has never been a consensus-building exercise! Ever since it was born, democracy has been an agonistic process, so let us dare to be democratic again, and return to the process of imaginative policy-making. As the philosopher Luce Irigaray suggests, let us desire what does not exist yet as the only possibility for the future. It is our academic and political responsibility to experiment with these emerging methods for managing urban resources as the commons. And if you think that such experiments are risky strategies, think twice. The risk we take by continuing to invest in failed methods is much higher than the risk involved in trying to find new alternatives. Of course, we might fail again by doing so. But as Samuel Beckett famously said: “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”


Maria Kaika’s responses are based on her published article, which includes the full list of references and material that the article draws upon. Maria Kaika remains the copyright holder of the academic article and of this printed text.

Kaika, M (2017) “Don’t call me Resilient Again! The New Urban Agenda as Immunology … or what happens when communities refuse to be vaccinated with ‘smart cities’ and indicators. Environment and Urbanization 29: 89-102; DOI 110.1177/0956247816684763.

Our Sustainability is Someone Else’s Disaster: Cities and the Environment