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RP Siegel headshot

Futurist Alex Steffen: Bright, Clean Cities are the Key to a Sustainable Future

By RP Siegel

Editor’s Note: This post is part of TriplePundit’s coverage of BASF Creator Space: New York, held May 26 through May 31 in NYC. Click here for more coverage.

Speaking at the BASF CreatorSpace Summit in NYC last week, futurist Alex Steffen described a compelling vision of the role that cities will necessarily play on the path to a sustainable future.

“Sustainability and building,” Steffen said, “are the same thing.”

While it might seem intuitive to think that sustainability means building less, according to Steffen that’s not true at all. What it means, is building differently, building smarter. With population on the road to 11 billion, the capacity of cities will need to double by 2050. At the same time, we’re poised to run through our carbon budget of 1,000 gigatons (that's billions of tons), by 2034. If we overshoot, we could end up with an 8-degree increase, a scenario that no one wants to think about. "The last time carbon atmospheric levels were that high," Steffen said, “there were alligators in the Arctic.”

Switching to renewables won’t happen fast enough. We’ve got to massively reduce demand, and Steffen just might have a way to do that. It has to do with convincing people to stop driving. How do you do that? Change the world -- or, more specifically, change cities, which is where most of the people will be anyway -- so that people won’t need to drive.

Steffen breaks drivers into five groups: car-lover, car dependent, mixed modes (people who sometimes use alternatives), casual user and car-free. Car-free used to mean poor, but that is no longer the case. Many young people are not that interested in cars. In a recent survey, 30 percent of young people did not plan to buy a car. Why the lack of interest? For one thing, noted Steffen, “You can’t surf the Web while driving.”

Take a look at two cities: Barcelona and Atlanta. Though populations are similar, Atlanta extends across more than 1,650 square miles, while Barcelona's metro is only around 63 miles. As you might expect, this results in significantly less energy consumption. Carbon emissions, which are 7.5 tons per person in Atlanta, are 0.70 tons in Barcelona. That’s over a factor of 10.

Raising density helps a lot, though it doesn’t have to be by a lot. Says Steffen, “We’re not talking about Blade Runner type mega-structures.”

Throughout the talk, Steffen showed a progression of bar graphs depicting the percentage of drivers in each of the five categories of drivers. At the beginning, the bulk of ownership falls under the first categories: car-lover, car dependent, etc. He takes us through a number of scenarios, starting with today’s world, and going through what he calls “walksheds,” only to end up at high tech. Not only does this include walkability, and extensive sharing, but also making the errand a lot more efficient. He compared cities just a few years ago with the Internet before Google:“You had to spend a lot of time wandering around in order to find what you were looking for.” Today, we search online, and we either have the thing efficiently delivered to us, or we go straight there. The result of all this digital enhancement: A projected two-thirds of all drivers will become either casual users or entirely car-free. This kind of change will massively reduce carbon emissions.

It will be disruptive innovation in the way that cities are built and how they work that will usher in this kind of change. And, said Steffen, once people recognize the size of the potential market, it will happen more quickly than you might expect.

I had a few moments to chat with Alex after his talk and asked him what he would be looking into next.

“The far future,” he said.

“How far?” I asked.

“Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years,” was his answer. “It’s entirely possible that humans could stick around that long.”

For once, I was at a loss for words. All I could think to say was, “It’s good that someone is thinking about that.”

Image credit: RP Siegel

RP Siegel headshot

RP Siegel (1952-2021), was an author and inventor who shined a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work appeared in TriplePundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He was the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP was a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. RP passed away on September 30, 2021. We here at TriplePundit will always be grateful for his insight, wit and hard work.


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