Crowded planet: desperately seeking sustainability

November 8th, 2011 by

microtask_crowded_planetAccording to the latest UN figures, there are now over 7 billion people living on planet earth. In response, the world’s media has exploded with dire predictions of famine, war and climate disaster (and some great info-graphics). Of course, in Finland over-population is hardly a major problem (except for reindeer and right-wing politicians). But we’re probably as guilty as any Western nation when it comes to over-consuming resources.

As well as rapidly reproducing, humans are fast becoming an “overwhelmingly urban species”. By 2050 there will be over 8 billion people living in cities. Can we find a way (other than by crowd funding a moon colony) to live sustainably on such a crowded planet? According to some experts (and kindergarten teachers everywhere) the answer is simple: learn to share.

Shared visions
Imagine the perfect eco-city. What do you see? Green spaces? Low-rise housing? Hippies meditating on roof gardens? Not according to futurologist Alex Steffen. True eco-cities, Steffen argues, are hyper-dense and hyper-connected. Denser urban environments mean fewer cars and therefore less pollution. Increased connectivity also allows people to share and access city services. Steffen highlights apps like Mapnificent – which crowdsources public transport routes – as examples. He argues that technology-enabled “crowd sharing” could eventually see communities pooling everything from surplus space and energy, to food and power drills.

Steffen’s ideas might sound ambitious (he does want Americans to stop driving cars, after all), but many of his “predictions” are already a crowdsourced reality. In her latest publication The Enabling City, Chiara Camponeschi (another sustainability guru), lists an incredible variety of collaborative city projects – global and local. There’s Neglected Spaces a London-based scheme to share and repair disused buildings. In the USA Bright Neighbor combines community involvement with online social tools to “increase livability, sustainability and improve local economies”. There’s even a Tool Lending Library service based in Berkeley, California.

The Enabling City is designed as a toolkit to engage and motivate urban citizens. In Chiara Camponeschi’s own words “there are vast amounts of untapped knowledge and creativity out there that we need to unleash to make our cities more open and sustainable”. Inspiring stuff.

The West vs the rest?
Despite their grand vision, both Steffen and Camponeschi only really tackle sustainability in the developed world. All the crowdsourced projects listed in The Enabling City (and it’s a pretty long list) are based in Europe or North America. Plus I wonder how Alex Steffen’s “denser, greener future” applies to already chronically overcrowded cities like Manila and Lagos.

While growing populations are a worldwide issue, developing countries face the toughest, most urgent challenges. In the next 40 years, African cities alone are set to triple in size. Previously on the blog, we’ve discussed how developing countries have embraced crowdsourcing. Imagine if the creative, innovative developing-world crowd also had experts like Steffen and Camponeschi fighting their corner. Could be a powerful, sustainable, combination.