Cities as Forces for Good Network

Smart, Humble & “Prosuming” Now

Insights · November 30th, 2015

Contributed by M. B. Beck


Much has been said of the promise of the Internet of Things (IoT). And it is hard to escape the conclusion that promise remains indeed the operative word (as argued recently elsewhere). The work of CFG associates, Drs Zongguo Wen and Hua Zhang, at the School of Environment, Tsinghua University, and the School of Humanities and Economic Management, China University of Geosciences, Beijing, is the shining exception to that rule.

Insight on the Internet of Things and Waste in Suzhou

The Prosumer

Who would have thought it: that an on-line, real-time market for residential “waste” recycling is being developed with a delightful combination of the old and humble (bicycles) and the new and smart (the ubiquitous smartphone)? There is an unmistakable sense, what is more, of this market becoming conducive to householders behaving as both producers and consumers — householders as “prosumers”, in other words. They would be purchasing pre-consumption resources and selling the post-consumption resources they generate — and not necessarily electricity for the smart grid, as one might suppose, but nutrient resources (carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, among other materials). This would be the prosumer as but one conceptual (yet focal) processing node in the vast and tangled webs of global material flows.

This would be the notion of the prosumer as itself an idea with which to break the mold of another mindset: that households suck in resources; they are the end of the supply chain and the start of the waste chain; they spit out the unwanted. Therein lies the deeply entrenched conceptual dislocation and breach between the sink and the source. As the prosumer looks up and back along the chain of pre-consumption resource flows s/he makes purchasing decisions conditioned upon having looked forward and down the chain of post-consumption resource flows. Someone, somewhere (I feel sure) once used the phrase “designer sewage” — that we should eat with that in mind. What an arresting thought.

Restaurants and Material Cycles in Suzhou

Happening now in the city of Suzhou, China, and facilitated by the IoT, is an opening up of the possibility of restaurants (not households) becoming prosumers. This is the subject of the present Insight, contributed by CFG associates Zongguo Wen and Hua Zhang. Carbon (C) is the material of interest, in its compound forms in food and edible oils.

The University of Georgia is collaborating with Tsinghua University under the auspices of CFGnet in a companion study of material flows on a broader scale across Suzhou: those of C, nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) primarily. Whereas our case study of the city of Atlanta (also here) was a prototypical account of city-hinterland resource flows and that of London (also here) an examination of the uncertainties, technological innovations, and economics of the same, generic flows of resources, the Suzhou case study was stimulated by Tsinghua’s broader exploration of the role of smart technologies in enhancing city sustainability. All three case studies, together with a fourth for the city of Maputo, Mozambique employ our Multi-sectoral Systems Analysis (MSA) software.

The Atlanta, London, and Maputo case studies grew out of an original emphasis on resource-bearing flows of water into, around, and through the city. In Suzhou our interest is instead in flows of “solids”: food, in fact. Business opportunities and the scope for innovation in the recovery of nutrients from food-waste (primarily N and P, but also C) feature significantly in our first companion BeCleantech Insight. What we can discern of smartness — and sustainability — in recycling food-waste from the restaurants of Suzhou in the accompanying (CFG) Insight here, for post-consumption resource flows, is mirrored there (the BeCleantech Insight) as smartness in the pre-consumption resource flows of food supply and distribution on the upside of the city.

When the image of the pantomime donkey was brought up in the Tale of Two Slogans (Sustainability and Smartness), it was intended to symbolize (some) smartness on the upside of urban water (its supply), comparative dumbness on its downside. Attaining smartness in the management of material flows is all about weighing — how much mass is where and when. It is relatively easy, then, to be smart about handling generic, bulk fluids (the water) and the exquisitely appetizing composite solids (food). It is hard indeed to be technologically smart about the specific resources (N and P, for instance) borne within the water or the food, pre- or (especially) post-consumption.

Insight on the Internet of Things and Waste in Suzhou

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