“Where are ‘smart’ sustainable cities made?” Recognising, raising and responding to shared questions…

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by Rebecca Windemer, Torik Holmes and Carla De Laurentis

Where are ‘smart’ sustainable cities made?

The three of us met during our respective ESRC post-doctoral fellowships during the Covid pandemic. Eager to strengthen existing connections and forge new ones, during a time when researchers were grappling with learning new ways of academic working, we engaged in a number of online discussions related to our research interests. We soon realised that although from different disciplinary backgrounds (planning, innovation, and sociology), our research areas overlapped and we shared a topical concern with energy transitions and their material, spatial and temporal dimensions.

We have now organised two workshops, written a book chapter and a journal article (both currently under-review) focused on the connections between infrastructures, climate change and sustainability. Under the artistic direction of Mair Perkins, we also produced the embedded animation above. It draws on insights from our independent and combined research.

The video’s title – ‘Where are ‘smart’ sustainable cities made?’ – is one of the questions we have raised and responded to in conjunction.

‘Smarter’ and more sustainable city visions hinge on the increasing generation of clean power and the electrification of everyday modes of travel, working and living arrangements.

The animation tells an important story about socially, institutionally and geographically saturated and stretched energy infrastructures and the interconnections between various sites of demand and systems of provision. Indeed, it conveys the importance of ‘following the wires’ to reveal points of tension along networks of provision where sustainable transitions are calibrated. This somewhat bucks against the norm.

‘Smart’ city research has typically involved turning to cities with smart and sustainable aspirations to address empirical questions, examining, along the way, local discourses, strategies and sited innovations. A great deal of resources, time and effort have been poured into smart city discourses and, indeed, into making cities smarter and, so the rationale goes, more sustainable.

Following the wires can help reveal points of tensions along networks of provision.

Researchers have taken a great deal of interest in these topics and things going on ‘in’ cities. Recognising this and drawing on our knowledge, we were drawn to focus instead on the wider ordering and management of key service infrastructures and the provision of renewable sources of energy, both of which have received less attention in smart city literature. This is the case even though these are critical for smart and sustainable city ambitions. In quite rudimentary terms, without an ability to connect to electricity networks and without the provision of clean energy, smart and sustainable city buildings, technologies, policies and initiatives would not (and will not) materialise.

We hope the video speaks for itself and sparks discussion and consideration of what changes are needed in and indeed beyond cities to facilitate sustainable shifts. Through doing so, we hope it also reveals the benefits of interdisciplinary collaborations in facilitating broader discussion around sustainability and net zero agendas.

We are thankful to the ESRC for funding our post-doctoral fellowships as well as the video produced.

A short note about the authors:

Dr Rebecca Windemer is a senior lecturer in environmental planning at UWE and a member of the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments. Her teaching and research crosses the disciplines of environmental planning and energy geography. Her teaching and research interests involve the regulation of renewable energy infrastructure and how the planning system can help achieve net zero ambitions.

Dr Torik Holmes is a sociologist and social science researcher based in the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. His research interests focus on connected systems of provision, consumption and disposal, with electricity and plastics forming central subjects.

Dr Carla De Laurentis is a lecturer in Environmental Management in UWE and a member of the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments. Her research interests converge around the geography of innovation and low-carbon transitions. She is particularly interested in understanding the mechanisms that lead to an effective diffusion of renewable energy technologies and how energy infrastructure networks, and their reconfiguration, might influence renewables deployment.   

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