Smart City, “High-tech” vs “Low-tech”

We discovered that human activity was harming the planet around forty years ago, and since then various movements and schools of thought have been coming up with ways of tackling climate change. Their solutions have mostly centred around the idea of progress, especially technological progress.

It is true that advances – mainly in the form of technology – have long helped humanity overcome its greatest challenges. Given its ability to remedy any number of problems, it is only natural that we have turned to technology in our efforts to save the environment.

The limits of technological progress

For decades, progress has been depicted as a driver of positive change. It is presented as the source of all happiness, the key to a better quality of life and the solution to all problems. But progress suffers from inherent shortcomings when it comes to tackling the environmental crisis since it simply displaces the problem:

  • Rebound effect: When a technology becomes more available, we tend to use it more. For example, planes have new, more powerful turbines that use less kerosene, optimising the use of seats and making air travel faster. However, as ticket prices continue to fall and become more affordable, so air traffic continues to rise. Technological progress has not lowered our overall environmental impact. Quite the opposite in fact, since it has increased air travel.
  • Systemic effect: Technology simply displaces the problem. Electric cars are considered energy-efficient – if we set aside how they are manufactured. Yet if we continue to normalise and encourage driving, we will only perpetuate current problems of road congestion, car dependency and urban sprawl due to longer commutes.
  • Paradoxical effect: The issue of externalities. Because high-tech systems are complex, they use up a significant amount of scarce resources, either directly through production, operation and consumption, or indirectly through obsolescence and the impracticality of recycling them.

Lowtech vs. Hightech

On the one hand, there are those who believe in progress. They argue that to confront climate change, technology will one day enable us to achieve more sustainable growth through increasingly advanced technological breakthroughs. On the other hand, there is the low-tech movement. Its proponents say that humanity has limited resources and the economy may collapse if production and consumption continue on their current course.

At its core, the low-tech movement mistrusts high-tech solutions. It encourages us to steer our decisions at all levels towards significantly and intelligently reducing our use of resources (circular economy). It explores sobriety and frugality, questioning the utility of technology in the context of human needs and capabilities. Fostering habits and behaviour that do not rely on technology will ensure a future that is adaptable, versatile and founded on public-private collaboration.

Applying low-tech solutions to cities

Nowadays, land is considered a non-renewable resource, like metals and fossil fuels. Given the need to optimise space and its use, opting for low-tech solutions means that spaces can serve multiple purposes. This approach brings to mind the “15-minute city“, which posits an intelligent use of spaces over the course of each day, week and season. A good illustration is the use of schools as spaces for relaxing or socialising at weekends.

In the end, the issue is not about choosing between “high” or “low” technology. It is about asking ourselves, what do we really need?