Why the Luster on Once-Vaunted ‘Smart Cities’ Is Fading by Jim Robbins and published in Yale Environment 360 cannot be overlooked or worse ignored. It’s a matter of literally vital if not existentialist presence in the built environment. Especially in those countries of the MENA region.
“Smart cities” built from scratch have so far failed to live up to their much-hyped promise. Some critics argue that rather than grafting a new city onto the landscape, it is better to integrate high-tech for clean, efficient energy and transportation into existing cities.
1st December 2021
Last February, the Toyota Motor Company broke ground on what it calls Woven City, a built-from-scratch futuristic urban center on 175 acres in the shadow of Mount Fuji. Woven City is a reference to the way the project plans to weave together cars, robots, data, and computers to create a city that the builders say, is highly efficient, pollution-free, and sustainable.
The new city will be carbon neutral, Toyota says. Autonomous cars will run on non-polluting green hydrogen, while solar and wind provide other energy needs. And sensors embedded throughout Woven City will gather a range of metrics and process them with artificial intelligence to help the city constantly become cleaner and run more smoothly.
Woven City is one of a burgeoning number of “smart cities” that have been recently built or are now being planned or constructed. NEOM is a $500 billion sprawling futuristic city for a million people under construction in Saudi Arabia. Egypt is building a new smart capital near Cairo that planners say could eventually be home to 6.5 million people. Telosa, proposed by a former Walmart executive, would be a city of 50,000 in the western United States “in a place yet to be determined.” Numerous smart cities have been or are being built in China.
There’s no single concept of a smart city. But the basic definition is a city filled with sensors that monitor myriad aspects of life, from traffic to pollution to energy and water use. In the case of the Woven City, “smart homes” will feature sensors that will monitor the occupants’ health. All the monitors in these cities are connected to the backbone of these prototype communities, the Internet of Things (IoT), meaning the interconnection of tiny computers placed in everyday objects. The massive trove of collected data will be interpreted with artificial intelligence to make cities greener and more livable.
Some prominent smart cities have faced serious obstacles to realizing their utopian visions.
While proponents say these communities represent the future of a healthier planet, some prominent smart cities have faced serious obstacles to realizing their utopian visions. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi abandoned its smart city master plan because of financial problems that began in 2008 and continued because the cost of some aspects of the city was far more than forecast. Songdo is a completed smart city with a population of 170,000 in South Korea that has not been able to fill its buildings. It’s sometimes described as a ghost town, or, variously, as cold, impersonal, homogenous, and dully predictable.
One recent paper on smart cites grappled with ways these cities can introduce serendipity into daily life to combat their monotonous nature.
“There are a lot of good things that can come of” smart city concepts, “especially for the environmental applications,” said Shannon Mattern, a professor of anthropology at The New School for Social Research and the author of A City is Not a Computer. “But it really limits your [ways] of intervention to the types of things that lend themselves to quantitative measurement,” she said. “When you take messy ambiguous dimensions of human nature and try to find ways to algorithmicize them, there is always a failure there, something that slips through the cracks.” History, culture, and the spiritual aspects of life are among those aspects that critics cite as missing from — or are diminished — in smart cities.
There has been criticism, as well, of smart cities being alien to the landscape on which they are built. In her book Spaceship in the Desert, about Masdar City, Göckcę Günel, an anthropologist at Rice University, said both Masdar City and Neom “share the vision that the desert is an empty zone on which any kind of ideal can be projected,” she said. “That’s why I compared Masdar City to a spaceship insulated from the rest of the world.”
Despite the fact that trillions of dollars are being spent to create these spectacular, Oz-like, all-encompassing cities of the future, some leading analysts believe in a very different concept of smarter cities.
“I hate almost every effort at building a greenfield smart city,” said Boyd Cohen, a professor at EADA, a business school in Barcelona, who is one of the pioneers of the smart city concept and a longtime climate strategist. “A smart city without people is a dumb city. You are building a smart city in the absence of people, in the absence of history, in the absence of culture. The developers say, ‘We are going to build this great, amazing city and people will come,’ and they don’t. People want to live in communities and have culture around them.”
An alternative to a spanking new city rising on virgin land is to incorporate smart technologies into existing cities, Cohen said. Singapore, London, and Barcelona, are among the cities that lead the world in adopting smart technologies to more efficiently operate their infrastructure and become greener. In London, for example, sensors on light poles monitor air pollution and show particularly polluted spots that can be avoided. Because collecting trash is the most expensive part of the waste disposal process, Barcelona adopted “smart bins” that signal when they are full and ready for pick up. But technology is not always a be-all and end-all.
Cohen believes cities are on the front line of climate change and need to become smarter to survive it. “In 2009 [at the UN climateconference in Copenhagen] everyone thought Obama and the United Nations were going to save the world” with agreements to restrict CO2 emissions, he said. “It didn’t happen and still isn’t happening. So I turned my attention to cities. That’s the place where we will get faster action on climate change.”
Smart cities have run into trouble over the issue of who owns the data collected and how it will be used.
Urban planning, says Cohen, may be the single most important way to reduce fossil fuel pollution and consumption. Effective urban design — density, walkability, mixed use so people don’t have to drive long distances, and efficient, clean electric or hydrogen public transportation — is the foundation. “Then you layer in tech,” he said. “Technology around renewable and distributed energy. And to make our buildings more energy efficient. If you tackle energy consumption and transportation and urban planning, you have gone a long way toward solving the climate problem.”
Smart grids are a key component of smart cities. These power grids optimize the delivery of electricity by receiving information from users over the IoT. This data provides experts with information about how, where, and when energy is used. In some models, it interprets that data with artificial intelligence. But as energy sources are diversified — solar and wind from large and small sources, even individual homes, as well as traditional sources — it makes it harder for electrical systems to efficiently sense where power is needed and to allocate it. Because it can better manage available power, a smart grid avoids waste and can make the most of renewables.
A host of other smart applications are being used in cities. Parking is the bane of urban dwellers, so smart parking has gotten a lot of attention. Santander, Spain, for example, is considered one of the world’s smartest cities because it has 20,000 parking sensors connected to the IoT. Sensors under parking spaces can tell when they are empty and send that information to antennas that beam it to a control center. Signs guide drivers to the empty spots, limiting time spent driving around looking for a space and reducing fuel use, carbon dioxide and automobile pollution, and traffic congestion.
In Utrecht in the Netherlands, people ride “sniffer bikes” that measure three types of particulate air pollution, as well recording their location, speed, battery voltage, temperature and humidity, road conditions, and organic gases, which are sent to a central data hub. People can choose the cleanest route and are themselves de facto sensors, providing information to city managers.
Water use is another prime target of smart applications. A smartphone app, for example, can alert residents to an undetected leak in their plumbing and allows them to monitor consumption and quality.
Barcelona has pioneered a smart water irrigation system in its public spaces. Officials inventoried the species of plants in each park and determined precisely how much water they need. Water and humidity sensors, coupled with data from weather stations and rain gauges, provide information on how moist the soil and air are, and allow delivery of the right amount of water. The city says it saves 25 percent on its water bill — more than 400,000 euros a year.
But smart cities have run into trouble over the issue of who owns the data that is collected and how it will be used. A Google affiliate called Sidewalk Labs had plans for a 12-acre smart city development, called Quayside, on Toronto’s lakefront. The project ran into a buzz saw of opposition, largely over whether it could be trusted to manage the data. Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist, wrote a letter to the city council and said the information technology behemoth could not be trusted. “The smart city project on the Toronto waterfront is the most highly evolved version to date … of surveillance capitalism,” he wrote. The company will use “algorithms to nudge human behavior” in the direction “that favors its business.”
Sidewalk Labs CEO Daniel L. Doctoroff said the 2020 cancellation of the project was largely a result of the pandemicand economic uncertainty in the Toronto real estate market. “It has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan,” Doctoroff wrote last year.
It’s clear that the vision of what works as a smart city is still in the early stages, especially as technology and concepts continue to evolve. “It will take time to scale up the most sustainable models across a city, let alone the world,” said Cohen.
(The image above is of Jamesteohart / Shutterstock)
Today, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) have become big business. Throughout the 2020s, Harvard Business Review estimates that these technologies will add $13 trillion to the global economy, impacting virtually every sector in the process.
One of the biggest drivers of the value-add provided by AI/ML will come from smart cities: cities that leverage enhancements in such technologies to deliver improved services for citizens. Smart cities promise to provide data-driven decisions for essential public services like sanitation, transportation, and communications. In this way, they can help improve the quality of life for both the general public and public sector employees, while also reducing environmental footprints and providing more efficient and more cost-effective public services.
Whether it be improved traffic flow, better waste collection practices, video surveillance, or maintenance schedules for infrastructure – the smart city represents a cleaner, safer, and more affordable future for our urban centers. But realizing these benefits will require us to redefine our approach towards networking, data storage, and the systems underpinning and connecting both. To capitalize on the smart city paradigm, we’ll need to adopt a new and dynamic approach to computing and storage.
Providing bottomless storage for the urban environment
In practice, the smart city will require the use of vast arrays of interconnected devices, whether it be sensors, networked vehicles, and machinery for service delivery. These will all generate an ever-growing quantity and variety of data that must be processed and stored, and made accessible to the rest of the smart city’s network for both ongoing tasks and city-wide analytics. While a smart city may not need access to all the relevant data at once, there’s always the possibility of historic data needing to be accessed on recall to help train and calibrate ML models or perform detailed analytics.
All of this means that a more traditional system architecture that processes data through a central enterprise data center – whether it be on-premise or cloud – can’t meet the scaling or performance requirements of the smart city.
This is because, given its geographic removal from the places where data is generated and used, a centralized store can’t be counted on to provide the rapid and reliable service that’s needed for smart city analytics or delivery. Ultimately, the smart city will demand a decentralized approach to data storage. Such a decentralized approach will enable data from devices, sensors, and applications that serve the smart city to be analyzed and processed locally before being transferred to an enterprise data center or the cloud, reducing latency and response times.
To achieve the cost-effectiveness needed when operating at the scale of data variety and volume expected of a smart city, they’ll need access to “bottomless clouds”: storage arrangements where prices per terabyte are so low that development and IT teams won’t need to worry about the costs of provisioning for smart city infrastructure. This gives teams the ability to store all the data they need without the stress of draining their budget, or having to arbitrarily reduce the data pool they’ll be able to draw from for smart city applications or analytics.
Freeing up resources for the smart city with IaaS
Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) is based around a simple principle: users should only pay for the resources they actually use. When it comes to computing and storage resources, this is going to be essential to economically deliver on the vision of the smart city, given the ever-expanding need for provisioning while also keeping down costs within the public sector.
For the smart city in particular, IaaS offers managed, on-demand, and secure edge computing and storage services. IaaS will furnish cities with the components needed to deliver on their vision – whether it be storage, virtualization environments, or network structures. Through being able to scale up provisioning based on current demand while also removing the procurement and administrative burden of handling the actual hardware to a specialist third party, smart cities can benefit from economies of scale that have underpinned much of the cloud computing revolution over the past decade.
In fact, IaaS may be the only way to go, when it comes to ensuring that the data of the smart city is stored and delivered in a reliable way. While handling infrastructure in-house may be tempting from a security perspective, market competition between IaaS providers incentivizes better service provision from all angles, whether customer experience, reliability and redundancy, or the latest standards in security.
Delivering the smart city is a 21st century necessity
The world’s top cities are already transforming to keep up with ever-expanding populations and in turn their ever-expanding needs. Before we know it, various sectors of urban life will have to be connected through intelligent technology to optimize the use of shared resources – not because we want to, but because we need to.
Whether it be a question of social justice, fiscal prudence, or environmental conscience, intelligently allocating and using the resources of the city is the big question facing our urban centers in this century. But the smart city can only be delivered through a smart approach to data handling and storage. Optimizing a city’s cloud infrastructure and guaranteeing cost-effective and quality provisioning through IaaS will be essential to delivering on the promise of the smart city, and thus meet some of our time’ most pressing challenges.
David Friend is the co-founder and CEO of Wasabi Technologies, a revolutionary cloud storage company. David’s first company, ARP Instruments developed synthesizers used by Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and even helped Steven Spielberg communicate with aliens providing that legendary five-note communication in Close Encounters of the ThirdKind. Friend founded or co-founded five other companies: Computer Pictures Corporation – an early player in computer graphics, Pilot Software – a company that pioneered multidimensional databases for crunching large amounts of customer data, Faxnet – which became the world’s largest provider of fax-to-email services, Sonexis – a VoIP conferencing company, and immediately prior to Wasabi, what is now one of the world’s leading cloud backup companies, Carbonite. David is a respected philanthropist and is on the board of Berklee College of Music, where there is a concert hall named in his honor, serves as president of the board of Boston Baroque, an orchestra and chorus that has received 7 Grammy nominations. An avid mineral and gem collector he donated Friend Gem and Mineral Hall at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. David graduated from Yale and attended the Princeton University Graduate School of Engineering where he was a David Sarnoff Fellow.
The World Green Building Council (WorldGBC), a global network accelerating sustainability and decarbonisation in the building and construction sector, has set out the updated value proposition to drive investment in a sustainable built environment by launching a new flagship report ‘Beyond the Business Case’ at COP26 in Glasgow.
In the lead up to Cities, Regions and Built Environment Day at COP26 on Thursday 11 November, the report ‘Beyond the Business Case’ provides a timely and unique perspective for decision makers to accelerate the industry’s sustainability transformation by capitalising on the economic opportunities, addressing risk mitigation and, importantly, also embracing the social value case.
Why this report matters
This report draws from and embraces the rapidly growing sustainability agenda across the built environment. The evolving scope of sustainability, broadening of what we call ‘green’, and closer alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and finally the rise in social value as not just a consideration, but a business driver for developers and investors.
The report demonstrates seven irrefutable co-benefits for investing in a sustainable built environment, across both the financial and social value case. These are:
• Social benefits, to building occupants through health, productivity & wellbeing • Lower or equivalent costs at supply chain, construction, and operational phases • Risk mitigation, providing resilience to inevitable climate impacts, environmentally and financially, as well as future-proofing against legislative changes or corporate expectations and reputational risk • Higher asset values linked both to performance and asset desirability • Investment opportunities through a rapidly transitioning finance sector protecting investments, supporting share prices, and increasing requirements on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting • Access to finance due to availability of finance for green buildings, from banks, bonds and institutional investors.
All of these findings are supported by evidence-based research through innovative case studies which bolster both the current, and future, business case for a sustainable built environment.
Going beyond the business case
A central innovation of this report is the analysis of climate-science aligned 2050 scenario modelling, proving that there is a stronger value proposition for investment in sustainable and quality real estate today. This is presented against a backdrop of recent trends. For example, wellness in real estate is projected to rise to a $198 billion industry in 2022 — heightening demand for healthy, sustainable spaces.
A powerful and up to date business case is essential to drive investment into green, sustainable buildings. With the built environment being responsible for 75 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, and real estate alone accounting for 37 percent, plus 40-50 percent of global resources extraction, the critical requirement for enhancing sustainability in the sector is undeniably clear. For the development of new buildings and the required upgrades of existing ones, the financial input will be monumental — new sustainable buildings alone are set to represent a $24.7 trillion investment opportunity in emerging markets alone by 2030, so tackling barriers to mass market engagement is essential.
WorldGBC unpacks the financial business case to explore drivers including the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), or country climate pledges within the Paris Agreement, regulatory change such as the European Union’s Taxonomy, and the rise in sustainable finance and the growth of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) reporting.
Beyond the Business Case also outlines reasons for the optimal economic opportunity from green assets, including greater access to investment, corporate reputation, higher asset value and investment resilience, lower build and operational costs and return on investment through occupant productivity.
Leadership and collaboration from across the globe
This report has been developed by the WorldGBC global network, with collaboration and support from a development task force including the Laudes Foundation, WSP, Johnson Controls, Buro Happold, Saint-Gobain, Mott Macdonald, Foster + Partners, Kingspan, SOM, CBRE, Lendlease, Institute for Human Rights and Business and our member Green Building Councils around the world.
“No business can afford not to embrace sustainability in real estate”
Cristina Gamboa, CEO, World Green Building Council, said: “As WorldGBC prepares for the dedicated Cities, Regions and Built Environment day at COP26, we recognise the need for a compelling value proposition for all actors across the global real estate sector, as well as the increasing importance of social value. People must be put at the heart of the business case, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to challenge us.
“Real estate alone accounts for 37 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, our report inspires urgency — but urgency with optimism. We champion an achievable transformation that brings future climate scenarios into today’s business decision making, demonstrating total clarity on why no business can afford not to embrace sustainability in real estate.”
In the MENA region through the years, wealth has always been absent and this for millennia especially in the Gulf area. Nowadays, images of gold buildings, fantastic motorways, and all the most expensive things in life have become commonly known and used. In the Gulf, however, one thing comes to most people’s minds first. It is oil. Dubai, Doha and Riyadh are among the top 5 in MENA ranking would not be a surprise since this region rich with its rich oil reserves and supply of that oil is one reason and a good one for those cities in this area have earned a spot on the list of the world’s wealthiest nations. Now turning that wealth into smart cities could be considered to be some achievement.
The above image is for illustration and is of Doha, Qatar.
Dubai, Doha and Riyadh among top 5 in MENA ranking
Dubai continues to lead the region in Kearney’s Global Cities report climbing four places in the global ranking, while Doha experienced the most dramatic jump globally, placing it third regionally, while Riyadh ranks fifth in Mena.
Riyadh also leads in Human Capital dimension in the GCC, highlighting its ongoing efforts in attracting international talent and large foreign-born population, according to the 11th edition of the report, which offers key insights into how Covid-19 and the resulting pandemic containment measures have impacted the level of global engagement of 156 cities around the world.
Comprising of Global Cities Index (GCI) and Global Cities Outlook (GCO), the report measures how globally engaged cities are across five dimensions: business activity, human capital, information exchange, cultural experience, and political engagement as part of the GCI. GCO, which is a forward-looking evaluation based on 13 indicators, assesses how the same cities are creating conditions for their future status as global hubs.
Global Cities Index
Dubai retains its top spot in the Index for the region, and is also ranked fourth globally in Cultural Experience, reflecting the city’s relatively early reopening to international travellers, bolstered by strict testing requirements, a rapid rollout of vaccines and Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing.
Doha saw the largest jump of any city on this year’s Global Cities Index, rising 15 places following the restoration of diplomatic relations between Qatar and its neighbouring countries, highlighting the importance of fostering regional relationships in addition to global ones.
Cairo ranked fourth in the Mena region, followed by Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s capital city leads in Human Capital in the GCC, where its strengths in attracting international talent and large foreign-born population contribute to the strong showing. This is in line with the country’s increased emphasis on strengthening citizens’ capabilities to compete globally, in support of the realization of several strategic objectives set out in the Saudi Vision 2030.
Overall, 21 cities in the Mena region rose six or more positions in the GCI ranking compared to last year. Istanbul climbed seven spots, with the city’s efforts to become a global travel hub proving their worth. Addis Ababa moved up eight places, propelled by Ethiopia’s development investments that have supported rapid economic growth.
Global Cities Outlook
In terms of outlook, Abu Dhabi ranks fourth globally, a testament to the city’s continued focus on providing accessible, high-quality healthcare and a commitment to reducing its environmental impact, which is core to the personal well-being dimension. Dubai and Abu Dhabi co-lead in the outlook for infrastructure, an illustration of the UAE’s commitment to a future of sustainable and resilient economic growth.
Antoine Nasr, Partner, Government Practice Leader, Kearney Middle East, said: “In Mena, GCC economies, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, are poised to lead regional recovery supported by accelerated efforts of their governments across the five main dimensions of the report. What’s also noteworthy is Doha has recorded the biggest gain globally for any city, a result of the compounded benefits of their strengthened economy and the newly restored regional ties. This reflects the importance of a balance between self-sufficiency and global connectivity.”
Five strategic imperatives for city leaders
The report highlights five strategic imperatives for city leaders along with a range of ways in which cities around the world can address the challenges they share:
• Win in the competition for global talent: with human capital as the driving force behind economic activity, cities that adapt to the new priorities of prospective residents, with a renewed emphasis on urban livability and economic opportunity, will be those that emerge on top • Embrace the rapidly growing digital economy: while it threatens to contribute to an emptying of cities and relocation of business headquarters, cities that harness the benefits of the global digital economy to drive differentiated competitive advantage will accelerate economic growth • Ensure economic resilience by balancing global and local resources: with the fragility of the global trade system exposed during the early months of the pandemic, cities that recalibrate and balance relationships at global, regional, and local levels will be most resilient to future disruptions • Adapt in the face of climate change: as climate change accelerates, and in the absence of unified global leadership on the topic, cities must lead the way in driving toward sustainability around the world • Invest in individual and community well-being: in recovering from the collective scars of the pandemic, cities that focus their investments on advancing the well-being of their populations will be those that create an environment in which innovation can thrive
“Though they were initially hit hardest by Covid-19, our 2021 report shows that the leading global cities have once again proven their resilience and adaptive capacity. Their broad diversity of strengths positioned them for a quicker rebound that, with leadership focus and clarity of direction, can transition into leadership of a long-term, global recovery,” concluded Rudolph Lohmeyer, Partner, National Transformations Institute, Kearney Middle East.
Gaza is a landscape of extreme economic deprivation born of the region’s complicated political dynamics – but one whose contours may soon become more common. So why may The Gaza Strip be The City of The Future? Let us see what World (c) 2021 and Zach Mortice, Bloomberg tell us.
When Americans turned on the TV or glanced at their smartphones for news of the deadly clashes that engulfed the Gaza Strip in May – or if they followed the more recent spasm of violence in August that threatened to break the region’s fragile truce – many saw scenes that looked familiar: streets flooded with protesters, engaged in a struggle against highly armed security forces on the streets of a battered-looking city.
In many ways, the political and physical conditions of the Gaza Strip are unique: Nearly 2 million people are packed into a 25-mile-long rectangle of land along the Mediterranean roughly the size of Philadelphia. For decades, the territory has been home to Palestinians displaced by the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, and subject to Israeli occupation since the 1967 Six-Day War. But since 2007, after the political wing of the Islamist group Hamas was elected to power, Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade. In response, Hamas militants have attacked Israel with suicide bombers and missile attacks, and the two sides have settled into a gruesome rhythm of low levels of violence punctuated by intense conflagrations. In May’s fighting, as many as 260 Palestinians were killed; in Israel, 12 people were killed. Gaza is a landscape of extreme economic deprivation born of the region’s complicated political dynamics – but one whose contours may soon become more common.
That’s the premise behind the recently released book Open Gaza: Architectures of Hope, published by imprint. Edited by, an urban geographer who focuses on the Middle East, and essayist, theorist, activist, and provocateur Michael Sorkin, the book presents a vision of Gaza as a glimpse of an imminent future, where violence, surveillance, resource scarcity and provisional use of an extremely compromised built environment are visited on all.
Sharp sees connections, for example, between the unrest in Gaza and the racial justice demonstrations in U.S. cities after the murder of George Floyd in 2020: In both, the key issue is who has a right to the city – the right to claim contested urban space. “The Black Lives Matter protests and that broader movement and recognition of the types of oppression that are going on [in Gaza] is something that’s been made visible,” he says.
The Gaza Strip, the book’s promotional copy declares, is “one of the most beleaguered environments on earth.” But the territory and its urban center, Gaza City, is appallingly understudied in terms of architecture and urbanism. That makes it a fitting swan song for Sorkin, who died last year of Covid-19. “Michael wanted to go where others wouldn’t dare,” says Sharp.
Featuring contributions from scholars, urbanists and architects from the occupied Palestinian territories, Israel, India, the U.S. and the U.K., the book’s essays explore the extant condition of Gaza and its wider socio-political context, and offer speculative designs aimed at wresting back sovereignty and dignity for its residents. It posits that the ad-hoc, low-carbon design techniques that Gazans have developed look ahead to a planet failing to meet the challenges of a climate cataclysm, a global pandemic, and growing inequality. As brittle regimes are wracked by crises, mass migrations harden borders, and infrastructure buckles, Open Gaza suggest that the rest of the world may start to look more and more like Gaza.
Or has already. Anyone who’s searched for clean water in Flint or has seen their home destroyed in wildfires or floods might understand what who contributed to the book, means when she says, “The Palestinianization of cities is happening worldwide. It’s happening by destruction and erasure, but also with dramatic climate change.”
Eco-Adaptation by Necessity
Open Gaza isn’t content to just praise the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Gazan and allied urbanists and architects; nor is the book interested in depicting Gaza purely as a dystopian prison. “You could call [these visions] utopian, but I think these are alternative possibilities,” says Sharp. “They’re not fantasies.” Instead, the collection serves as a “demand that [Gazans] be able to live and shape their urban context and infrastructure, and social lives in ways that are dignified and respectful of their humanity,” he says.
The book presents Gaza’s architectural condition – extant and speculative – as defined by its power imbalance with Israel. This asymmetry means Open Gaza is free of the antiseptic techno-solutionism that often populates architecture tomes. Such documents often claim that low-carbon buildings, made from nothing more than the trees and dirt on their plot of earth, will exist in an atmosphere of happy consumers sipping lattes poured by robots, munching on locally sourced avocado BLTs. Open Gaza tells us this scenario might be a fairy tale. The book’s prescriptions operate with found conditions and severe local constraints on materials; it suggests that your first shower warmed by solar power might happen in between air-raid sirens.
This reality is why buzzwords like “sustainability” or “resilience” don’t mean anything to the average Gazan, says Palestinian architect Salem Al Qudwa, who writes about the territory’s quotidian, everyday buildings. , recycling brick may be a way to save carbon and bestow new buildings with the patina of age. But in Gaza, there is no choice.
Al Qudwa has developed “incremental housing” templates, he says, that begin by setting foundations and structural columns, and letting Gazans fill in the gaps, creating a low-cost lattice for expandable housing units that feature shaded courtyards and roof decks. Homes often lack electricity, so cross-breezes are essential. Made from local materials, they offer climate-attunement Al Qudwa says non-local NGOs intent on building often miss. “My people need decent shelter,” he says. “A good house with proper insulation, with natural light, etc.”
There is no nostalgia for vernacular buildings or ways of living, says Sharif, but these practices are critical. “Gaza is looking at environmental practices out of necessity,” she says. “The only way forward is [through] traditional ways of living because there is no alternative.”
Rafi Segal and Chris Mackey’s “Solar Dome” – whose name riffs on – makes the convincing case that there are few places better suited to an entirely solar grid. Gazans uses less than 2% of the average American’s energy footprint, and Gaza’s sunny climate further reduces the need for expensive energy storage. And the concept of “energy independence” takes on new meaning when citizens acquire utilities from . As such, Segal and Mackey recommend a system of building-scaled photovoltaic panels augmented with solar water heaters, and a district-scaled system of concentrated solar power towers.
Similarly, a chapter by Denise Hoffman Brandt unveils a plan for pavilions that collect fresh rainwater and use sunlight to desalinate groundwater, and floating ocean desalination pods made from trash.
Sharif’s “Learning Room” plan, detailed in her chapter of Open Gaza written with Nasser Golzari, addresses the imposed mutability of Gaza’s built environment. A system of modular, mobile shelters made from, rammed earth, wire mesh, bamboo, and more, it’s a migrating community center for exchanging skills, made from rubble itself. “The idea of the was not to see it as a permanent structure that is going to shape the identity of the city,” says Sharif. “It was an experimental space [you] can keep modifying and changing. It’s not a new urban structure. It’s more of a lab to allow new structures to happen.” In this way, the Learning Room underscores the difficulty of long-term planning in Gaza.
It also distills the tactical flexibility Gazans must demonstrate to keep themselves housed. Western architects have made it a polemic to use only materials close at hand – to design their buildings as a bird builds a nest. Architect Jeanne Gang , but it’s unlikely Gazans need such a reminder.
The most visceral and imaginative collision of low-carbon aspiration with apocalyptic utility arrives in Helga Tawil-Souri’s chapter on the IPN: “The Internet Pigeon Network.” To surmount Israeli restrictions on electricity and bandwidth, the NYU media scholar proposes a decentralized network of pigeon roosts, trainers, and pick-up nodes. This avian internet would fly pigeons with flash disks tied to their necks from point to point, offering a faster and more secure way to share information. Reliant on local knowledge and labor, it’s another way of Gaza asserting infrastructural independence.
A Different Kind of Smart City
But it’s not as though the built environment of Gaza is untouched by technology. In some ways, the digital network that monitors the city and its residents represents a variation on the data-intensive “smart city” concept – another way Gaza looks ahead to the future.
Since 2014, Gaza’s reconstruction has been managed through an online database called the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM). , the GRM records all the building material that flows in through its border, along with what it’s to be used for and who will receive it. The mechanism, designed to ensure that resources aren’t being used for military purposes by Hamas, was agreed upon by Israel and Palestine, and was meant to be temporary. But Franceco Sebregondi of says it puts Israel in an “ultimate supervisory role”: His chapter in Open Gaza, called “Frontier Urbanization,” details how the GRM gives Israeli authorities a granular picture of Gaza’s built condition, and the ability to delay Gaza’s rebuilding.
Such omniscience is increasingly a goal of the design and building industry, where there’s a push to translate plans into data and ensure that what’s built closely aligns with digital models, to more efficiently manage construction and operational performance. But that’s not the only way it could be used. How much of this information, for example, might a refugee resettlement nonprofit at the U.S.-Mexico border want to share with immigration authorities? While the GRM is relatively primitive, its broad usage across Gaza still creates a map of its reconstruction that exists nowhere else.
For, who earned a PhD on the architecture of the Gaza blockade from Goldsmiths, University of London, this intrusion reveals that the problem of the smart city is not technical. It’s political. As with sunny visions of our eco-friendly future, design and urbanism themselves have no inherent autonomy to resist political agendas, and their calls for ease, efficiency, and low-impact living make ready Trojan Horses for power. “Who will be in charge of accessing certain data?,” says Sebregondi. “What levels of transparency and access [are] granted by using this infrastructure? I don’t think that the technologies behind smart urbanism cannot be re-engineered toward serving another idea of collective urban environments. But the ones that are currently marketed and very light-heartedly deployed across our cities tend to pursue the opposite.” This, he says, is a “dark horizon we need to avoid and fight against.”
The complex intimacy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has turned the region into something of a proving ground for purpose-built surveillance technology that could be plugged into a future smart city. Indeed, Israeli companies are selling cybersecurity technology all over the world, including the U.S., where it’s used in a new training center .
Sebregondi sees Gaza as further along a continuum of ricocheting colonial violence: As states become more fragile and defensive and climate change adds layers of stress, inequalities skyrocket and people divide into camps. Where these two groups are anywhere near each other, the market for surveillance and control technology booms. Debates over the on the streets of U.S. cities and the rise of privacy-eroding public safety technology have collapsed the distance between Palestine and Pittsburgh.
“There is an extent to which Palestine becomes a sort of crystal [ball] of this particular future, within a very compacted and dense territory, [featuring] some of the most striking aspects of this splintering urbanism,” says Sebregondi. He describes the “boomerang effect of colonization,” where techniques to wield control over restive populations in distant countries eventually come home, as with the NSA’s experiments using the.
It’s a cycle that’s eradicated distance, says Sharp, pulling Gazans and the rest of the world closer together, and bringing the front lines, already at their doorstep, into ours.
“These circulations of violence and containment,” he says, “come back to haunt us all.”
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