Thursday, 21 October 2010

Digital age - sustainable technology?

This week, I attended a conference on making Birmingham smarter and more sustainable through the use of technology.

It was a 2-day event called Beyond 2010, but after the first morning, I decided just to attend a couple of seminars, as they were the only parts that were really relevant enough to my line of work. I'd like to believe that technology could play a larger part in transforming our cities for a low carbon future, but I'm afraid that a lot of it just seems to be intended to driver further consumption, which is completely unsustainable.

Much of the first seminar I went to was rather over my head, as people from companies including BT talked about the ways of increasing broadband speed and getting more people online. Part of why I went to the event was that I have been asked to look at the big city plan in terms of the smart living agenda bits, so I thought this might help me to understand what local authorities need to do to enable private companies to provide the digital infrastructure needed.

The next seminar was chaired by Keith Budden from BeBirmingham Environmental Partnership and was more about what I wanted to get from the event. Firstly, Chris Lane from centro tried to persuade us that even if bus services are pretty awful and overly expensive (after all the subsidies are removed by government), so long as people can look up when the next one is on their smart phone, we'll all want to use them. I can't say I agree with him.

This presentation from Gerald Santucci was one of the more insightful, with lots of stuff about what European cities are doing, although I'm still not totally sure what the Internet of Things is.

At the end we came to the Q&A session and I totally stumped almost everyone on the panel with my question about consumption and how digital technology can be sustainable when it seems to be based around the very unsustainable planned obsolesence principle that has been prevalent in the motor industry. Keith Budden as chair agreed that newspapers could not be produced for everyone in the world, so it is even harder with hi-tech consumer goods.

The materials needed for producing some of the smart phones and other high-tech gadgets are mined in the poorest areas of Africa and other unstable parts of the world (as can be seen here). It seems to me that we won't be able to manufacture all the stuff we need to continue consuming with not only oil running out, but other precious commodities too.

Am I wrong, or is technology really a sustainable solution that will not only help transform people's behaviour, but make cities operate more efficiently?

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