Cities as Forces for Good Network

Sustainability & Smartness: A Tale of Two Slogans

Insights · December 17th, 2013

Contributed by M. B. Beck

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Update (September, 2014): This article has been updated and published in a peer reviewed journal: Access the new version by clicking here

A few months ago, I confess, I took issue with the argument in favor of abandoning the slogan (or label) of Sustainability and replacing it with the slogan of Resilience. Now I am taking issue with the slogan of “Smartness”, in an Opinion I have prepared for the (new) journal Sustainability of Water Quality & Ecology.

BBC TV has an occasional program called Grumpy Old Men. My membership of any such club is assured. Still, an Opinion piece is meant to be thought-provoking; and I interpreted this to mean that I should err on the side of being definitive.

What troubles me, in particular, is the ever more rapid succession in labels for what we would like our cities to be, as if to reflect the ever increasing expansion in the potential — not actuality — of IT innovations. I have spent some time tracking down and reviewing several papers and websites on smart this, that, and the other, with respect to urban infrastructure and watersheds. In the majority, if not all of them, I was struck by the use of the future tense. That things will be like such-and-such. That, in fact and in practice, things are almost destined ever to lie in the future — because yesterday’s potential IT innovation has already become passé today. And that (being passé) was how it struck me we were beginning to consider the label Sustainability.

None of the smart articles to which I refer above, however, are cited in the Opinion. I contend that the sheer difficulty of monitoring what is of crucial concern in real time, in particular, the non-physical, biogeochemical contents of water, separates out the field of water quality and ecology from many others. Smartness succeeds where the physical attributes of an object or entity, such as its mass, location, level, physical presence/absence, velocity, geo-referenced movement, can be monitored and are sufficient for that which is to be so smartly controlled: as, for example, in real-time markets and infrastructure for municipal waste management. In comparison, we struggle still to be anywhere near as smart in monitoring the likes of ammonium, nitrite, nitrate, orthophosphate, microbial respiration rate, and so on (let alone bacterial species concentration) — all things that we would wish for in being smart on the downside of the city’s (waste)water infrastructure.

David Post (CSIRO, Australia) once said of something I had written, and in those Australian turns of phrase that bring one down to earth: “Boy, there’s enough Beck citations in this article to sink a battleship”. And so there are, true to form, in this Opinion. We have made them all downloadable, what is more, from within the body of the Opinion.

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