The rise of smart cities

Smart cities are not merely a far-off dream of the distant future. Innovative technologies are already making smart cities a reality. These technologies continue to expand, positively transforming the way people interact with transportation, buildings, public services and governance. Yet, the rapid growth of smart cities is making the urban-rural divide wider than ever.

The smart city is a post-industrial success story. It all began with the roll-out of high-end services in major cities in the 1980s and 90s. At the same time, the industrial heartland of countries like Germany began experiencing a decline in industrial output. The largest cities in industrial regions started replacing industrial production with the high-end service industry and its associated infrastructure.

This evolution has resulted in better transportation, faster connectivity and smarter construction codes. By the beginning of the 21st century, these reinvented metropolises had become the most concentrated, highly developed areas in the world. And that has made them very much in-demand as places to live and do business.

And the fall of rural communities

With all the excitement surrounding smart cities and next-generation urban technologies, it’s become sadly easy to overlook the needs of suburban and rural communities.

Rural and intermediate regions account for around 88% of Europe’s total. Yet, they are experiencing an ongoing population decline as more and more people move to dense urban centers. This is not just a problem in places like Germany, or even Europe as a whole. More than half of the planet’s population now lives in cities.

This shift has exerted a powerful economic pull on public resources towards cities and away from everywhere else. Rural and suburban communities are too often left behind, as policymakers and investors increasingly treat them as an afterthought.

Sustainable cities

The growing urban-rural divide

Today, we are faced with a damaging divide between our ultramodern cities and smaller towns that continue to lag behind. Because of the abundant opportunities and appeal of urban life, many young people are choosing to move to the city, loosening ties with their families. The result is a polarized demographic in which people of multiple generations live in growing isolation from one another.

Meanwhile, non-urban areas are often stuck with inferior services. They lack access to crucial infrastructure and technologies. This is causing a spiraling decline in their economic prosperity.

Recent political developments reflect the growing sense of disenfranchisement among these communities. People increasingly feel that metropolitan elites are running their countries as they see fit, while leaving the rest of the population to fend for itself. As these grievances intensify, the political situation becomes increasingly volatile.

Why smart communities?

The concept of a smart community gets to the core of what makes us human: caring for each other and for our planet. Economically speaking, it creates great opportunities for businesses to provide services that enhance our lives. It opens an untapped market and helps put sustainable environmental measures in place.

Smart communities are much more than just copying the “smart cities” concept and pasting it into non-urban settings. Instead, they are about building strong working relationships between customers and businesses. And they are about building a democratized service and technology infrastructure that works for everyone. No matter where we live, we should all have access to the same conveniences and advantages that people in the city enjoy.

From consumers to “prosumers”

If we’re serious about bridging the urban-rural gap, we can all learn a few lessons from the Swedish village of Simris. This community of just 200 people teaches us what’s possible when communities and businesses work together to create an economically sustainable service model. Simris has set itself on track to become Sweden’s first energy-sufficient community.

Decarbonization, digitalization and decentralization are rapidly transforming the energy market, in Sweden and around the world. Energy providers are abandoning the centralized generation of infrastructure and embracing bidirectional energy flow systems. This new approach turns consumers into “prosumers”: people who use their own energy, but also pass it on within the community and receive compensation for it.

Equipped with bidirectional energy technologies, the people of Simris now produce energy within their own smart energy community. Residents now produce enough renewable energy from a local wind farm to self-supply one-fifth of their own energy needs. If this model can succeed in Simris, then it can equally work in other small communities around the world.

Building a sustainable society

Today’s megacities exist within their own orbits. They reap the rich rewards of an economy centered on finance, tech, design and innovation. Yet, if we want to be socially sustainable, we need to strengthen small municipalities and open up new possibilities outside of the urban centers.

It’s time to acknowledge the importance of rural areas. These are the communities that secure food production for more than 500 million EU citizens alone. They also contain most of our water resources and are home to forests that cover nearly half of our land.  

By leveraging digital and social innovations that make smaller communities like Simris better connected to modern public services, we also relieve inner-city infrastructures from the influx of rural-to-urban migration.

We need to explore smarter ways of making places socially and environmentally sustainable. We should focus on reducing the growing technological and service divide that affects the social, environmental and political fabric of our countries. Let’s start by building smart, sustainable communities for everyone, no matter who or where they are.

We are on a mission to live in a connected, sustainable world—not just a city! 

First published on LinkedIn on December 18, 2019

About Thomas Birr
About Thomas Birr
Thomas Birr is a dedicated strategist and innovator with over 30 years of experience in the energy sector. His career reflects his own personal approach to life: energetic, unwavering and enterprising. He has served in wide-ranging executive positions, forging strategic leadership skills with his extensive expertise of energy, innovation and a global vision for the challenges ahead. Thomas writes about business transformation, technology and innovation
The contributions reflect the opinions of the authors and not necessarily those of E.ON. E.ON cannot be held liable for the use of the information contained in the contributions. In particular, E.ON accepts no responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the information supplied. Further, E.ON accepts no responsibility that contributions are up-to-date.

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