Can IT really lead to a sustainable city?

Posted on September 29, 2010


Here’s nine words – random to some, but describing a very big chunk of what I’ve been doing for the last few years: Augmented Reality; Sustainability; Heritage; Innovation; Education; Computing; Dunedin; Election.

And it all comes together in one post!

This week the DCC announced the successful Industry Development Fund projects:  augmented reality of Dunedin’s heritage; a farm information system; and sports coaching.  My students and I have worked with all these groups and  I think the projects are great.  (ODT story focussing on Renee Lee and the augmented reality initiative)

“Growtago” responded differently: (comment on the ODT for the full text)

How is it that this council continues to dump cash into utterly unsustainable projects, meanwhile ignoring pressing issues that will be confronting us (and the rest of the world) in the next few years? Anyone thinking that this will “raise the public perception of Dunedin as a city at the forefront of technology” is sadly mistaken…

I can’t believe that our city so firmly ignores confirmed and legitimate threats to our very ways of life, such as the depletion of oil and other natural resources, climate change, sea level rise, etc…

Being able to look at pictures of old buildings on your iPhone (which is made using extremely resource-intensive processes) might be fun and nice and interesting but it’s doing nothing to address issues like how are we going to feed and transport ourselves in the coming age of scarce and expensive energy.

Here’s my reply:

Thank you Growtago for raising the issues of the apparent conflict of sustainability and computing.  I have researched and maintained a blog on this very subject for some years.   I do not believe that these projects are “utterly unsustainable”, rather the reverse – I think they show much understanding of sustainability.

I am standing for City Council  with a vision of creating an attractive and resilient city our children will want to live in.  To do that we need to find ways of developing a thriving local economy.  In addition to the local food systems you rightly describe, we need to find ways of developing an economy that doesn’t rely on exporting heavy goods.  Instead we need a thriving economy that makes use of the intelligence and skills of our greatest resource – our people – and exports dematerialised goods (ie software, media, design) via a cable.

The development of our software development, media and design industries are critical to the survival of Dunedin.  These funded projects will enhance and expand these industries in a pragmatic way that meets many requirements of a sustainable city.   Yes, there are technology hubs elsewhere.  Dunedin is already a world-leading hub in the presentation of high quality factual information – with initiatives such as these, we can continue to be world class.

I agree that many current IT business models are unsustainable (the ipod has been described as a “deliberately unsustainable act”).  The “sell more gadgets” philosophy that underpins many IT business models needs to change.  Every one of the companies and projects funded here has taken that step.

Dunedin tourism will face significant challenges in the next few years.   With peak oil and climate change, the age of low cost long haul travel is coming to an end.   Travel will change to a slower   experience instead of a flying visit.  The augmented project adds value to the experience of being in Dunedin.   The presentation of historic information adds to the sense of place and helps people to see themselves as part of the longer story.  If you can see that decisions people made a hundred years ago influence what you are doing now, then you are more likely to consider how your actions might influence how people will live in a hundred years.   I was pleased to write a strong letter of support for the augmented reality project.

I have previously worked with the companies involved in the farm information project.    You could not hope to find a group of people more attuned with the need for sustainable farming systems.

I agree that the link to sustainability is weaker for the sports project.  It is though a perfect example of the city pulling together multiple strands of what we are good at to create something special.  Despite your assertion that you don’t need a computer to play sport – you do (in the 90s I spent a great deal of time helping Duncan Laing with the newfangled internet to help a certain swimmer to the world dais), and as Dunedin well knows, high performance sport is big business.  This project will see weightless exports which are Dunedin’s future.

Recently I was asked to suggest companies that exemplify sustainability in computing.  I am proud to say that the people described in this article topped that list.   Well done all.

Growtago, like you, I see pressing needs in localising food production, changing our mobility patterns and ensuring social justice.   I hope that together we can create a long term vision of an attractive and resilient city.