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Stories about the lives we've made

module:Urban sustainability

Cities and the role of technology


Urban futures

The 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg on sustainability initiatives both reaffirmed existing goals and agreed new ones.

Existing goals reaffirmed:

  • to reduce mortality rates for the under-fives by two-thirds and maternal mortality rates by three-quarters of the prevailing rate in 2000
  • to cut by half the 2 billion people living without a clean water supply by 2015 (a reaffirmation of the Millennium Development Goal)
  • to reduce HIV prevalence amongst 15–24 year olds by 25 percent in the most affected countries by 2005
  • to combat malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases (a reaffirmation of a UN General Assembly resolution)
  • to achieve a significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2002 (a reaffirmation of Millennium Development Goal 'Cities without Slums' initiative)
  • to improve access to reliable and affordable energy services (reaffirmation of Millennium Development Goal)
  • the summit also affirmed the goals of reducing Third World debt, increasing aid and reducing the number of those living on under $1 per day – all of which indirectly affect the chances of any one city becoming sustainable

New goals agreed:

  • to halve by 2015 the proportion of people who don't have access to basic sanitation ‑ bringing proper sanitation would significantly reduce diseases such as cholera
  • to ‘substantially increase ‘the amount of renewable energy'

It will have been evident from the tutorial that there are complex links between the many forms of technology available over time and the way in which cities have evolved and changed.

Recycling in Marrakech. © Kim Adams

Technology has had overall positive effects on lifestyles, as consumerism and quality-of-life standards (ranging from electricity, transport systems to CDs and Internet access). Indeed the latter revolution in technology may bring about more change in cities and their functioning than any other form of technology! The tie between workplace and home has been reduced in cities in more economically developed countries at least. There is growing evidence however of some negative effects which may not have been considered such as air pollution and congestion resulting from the car.

Sustainability is a current ‘buzzword' in all aspects of city planning whether by elected governments or trans-national corporations. The underlying concept of not depriving our grandchildren and their successors of the basic amenities and opportunities provided by cities has long been part of decision making but it was given more prominence following the Earth Summits starting in 1992.

What we do today will have an effect on the future and technology (whether it is low tech like a simple automatic gas safety cut off valve or high tech like cable fibre optics or earthquake proof buildings) will play a critical role in all a city's form and function. Decision makers have to create more circular metabolisms for long-term security - although only smaller cities such as Curitiba, Chatanooga and possibly Leicester show any real signs in the Western world of such integrated planning.

Technology use depends on a variety of social, political, cultural, economic and environmental factors. The role of poverty and the ever widening development gap between the richer countries of the North and poorer countries of the South will play an increasing role in how much technology is available in cities. However the so called ‘digital divide' is shrinking with the role of aid and globalising companies – hence the growing importance of countries like Malaysia with its ‘multimedia corridor' project and the increasing role of places like India as outsourcing centres (such as call centres).

Individuals play the largest role in all of the above aspects – as innovators, inventors, entrepreneurs, consumers and planners. Individuals make ‘ecological footprints' and calculating the footprint for cities is now big business as can be seen with London.

Urban futures will therefore depend not just on inventions and developments in technology but the decision makers who control their use whether as individuals, governments, trans-national governments or the United Nations. Last, but not least the legacy of the past cannot be ignored: many cities have centuries of growth and complicated systems built up over time.

Resource Descriptions

Recycling in Marrakech.
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