Region Forward Blog

The Morning Measure: Waiting for a technological genie?

Mar 7, 2011


We’ve discussed the evolution and future of “smart growth” many times at The Morning Measure most recently in early February where we talked about the rise of the term “intelligent cities” as an alternative to smart growth. This nominal change seems to be more than a matter of semantics and as we indicated in February could have both positive and negative implications for the planning process. While we were concerned more with the loss of a period for reflection in decision-making that the proliferation of technology-based planning tools may encourage Kaid Benfield at NRDC recently took on another concern: the technology-as-savior problem.

As Benfield notes we can’t rely on technology alone to resolve some of the critical issues we face behavioral changes will be necessary as well. Just to give an example of the technology-as-savior problem take briefly the concept of geoengineering. In essence geoengineering would deploy a variety of technological and chemical schemes to prevent the effects of greenhouse gas emissions from impacting the planet and it is an idea that has moved from a fringe concept to a topic of mainstream discussion. While the actual employment of geoengineering is doubtful it is symptomatic of an erroneous approach to major problems namely because it doesn’t actually solve the problem – emissions aren’t reduced the effects of our continued production of them are simply held at bay (the instant any techno-shield we’ve conjured up is removed the planet could bake).

This isn’t a call for abandoning technology by any means but rather to embrace sensible technological advancements along with some behavioral changes – driving less living compact mixed-use developments promoting energy-efficiency increasing transit usage etc. – that are proven to achieve the result we need: reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

A fitting closing comes from Benfield’s piece where he quotes the planning director for the city of Vancouver who was reflecting on panel discussions at a conference on improving cities: “I found myself surrounded by tech-company reps hard-pitching to a global audience. I likely disappointed them by stating that in my opinion the ‘technologies’ that will do the most good are not new – compact mixed-use walkable communities; bikes separated bike lanes and bike sharing; transit; simple techniques that we’ve forgotten like passive building design; or globally-understood tech like district/neighborhood energy based on renewable resources. But those big companies weren’t selling those products. They were selling smart city solutions.”

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