With more than half the world’s population now living in urban areas, it makes sense that almost every technology company out there has at least a few “smart,” “smarter” or “sustainable” cities programs under way. But what about sustainability for the other near-half of the global population: people who live in rural areas, small communities, suburbs and exurbs? Can’t the non-urbanites among us get help building smarter futures for where we live too?
The good news is that, while such help typically lacks the catchy PR terms given to smart meter, grid and city projects, it does exist and is being offered by some of the leading technology firms. Across rural areas in Africa, Asia and South America, among other regions, you’ll find solar lighting initiatives, sustainable cooking projects, off-grid energy efforts and networking programmes all aimed at helping to make the world’s non-urbanised regions smarter too.
- Philips’ efforts to advance solar lighting in Africa;
- The 1000 Solar Village Project, run by The Climate Group in partnership with the Jet Li Foundation and Tony Blair, which is working to install solar-powered LED lighting in villages across China, Africa and India;
- GE’s waste-to-energy efforts in the Philippines;
- An IBM project to provide better, IT-enabled health care in rural parts of Nigeria;
- A Cisco program — Connecting Sichuan — working to help schools, hospitals and other organisations in the the earthquake-damaged region of China incorporate information and communication technologies into their operations. The program is aimed at eventually leading to prototypes that can be used in other rural parts of China.
Still, some places seems to be lacking in the solutions department. Among these are the suburbs and exurbs, that middle world that’s become so vilified and stigmatised (often for valid reasons) in recent years. As rubber-stamp and unsustainable — because of low densities, lack of public transport and a predominantly residential character — as they might be, however, suburban areas remain home to many millions.
In fact, many inner suburbs can find themselves lumped into the “urban” category, even though they lack much of what can make cities more sustainable: greater population density, walkable neighborhoods, ample public transport, etc. And then there are the vast — and fast-expanding — urban slums that have many millions in close quarters, yet without even the barest of other big-city amenities like basic sanitation, access to clean water or even electricity. In fact, after a brief decline, the population in urban slums is again rising … and could hit two billion over the next two decades. That’ll be about one-fourth of the global population, and about a half of the world’s urban residents.
Making central Stockholm “smart” is one matter. Making Dharavi or Kibera “smart” — when these areas’ “urban” residents enjoy a lifestyle that’s anything but — is another matter entirely.