Size really does matter
By Leila Dougan
Nuclear, the benefits of coal, and renewable power are going to continue to grab headlines as our politicians continue to make decisions on our increasing energy needs. Lauren Hermanus is an expert on the political economy of energy and a sustainable development specialist and regular TJ contributor. We ask her about the various issues at play when it comes to energy sustainability, the real power of community led initiatives and global collectives that are leading creative solutions.
TJ: Tell me about the work you do
LH: I am interested in the way that technology, investment, and policy shifts are interacting to create opportunities for all people, especially in our cities. Smaller, decentralised interventions (like rooftop solar panels) are slowly transforming our urban areas and in all this, what we are seeing is that size really does matter!
TJ: What is small-scale urban development?
LH: One of the easiest ways of defining small-scale urbanism is to say what it is not: big. For the past few decades, development in cities has been dominated by large, top-down interventions, from massive housing projects, to centralized energy systems. The idea was: big project equals big impact. But when we look at our cities and towns, we do not see sustainable livelihoods, thriving community, equitable access to resources, and healthy living environments for all their inhabitants. Essentially, bigness has let us down.
TJ: So you have a new collective, called the Massive Small Collective, what do you guys do?
LH: We are challenging the idea that ‘bigness’ is the solution to all society’s problems. The Massive Small Collective works with practitioners, academics and governments to support smaller, citizen-led development to unlock sustainable solutions that makes sense for local needs, from the ground up. We connect this local work to global expertise, learning and resources.
We are most excited about linking in to very exciting conversations in Sweden, South Africa, the USA, Hungary, India and Brazil, to understand how this scale of development can contribute to resilience for households, neighborhoods, communities of all forms, and towns and cities.
TJ: How does all this fancy talk around resilience in Sweden relate to a city like Cape Town?
LH: Like all cities around the world, Cape Town, its government, and its residents are living in times of rapid change and unpredictability. We understand resilience as the ability to ensure respond and adapt to change, to survive, and more than that, to thrive.
To achieve this, we need to start doing development differently. Connecting to global thought leaders and entrepreneurial citizens on the ground, we can accelerate our learning, access new technologies, and learn from the failures and success of others. We can make small-scale have massive impact.
TJ: Tell me about some of the case studies you’ve been working with.
LH: Some of the most interesting case studies we are working with are the Langrug Genius of SPACE project here in SA, and the Cloud Factory in Hungary. In Langrug, we are looking at a community-centred off-grid, green sanitation system, in an informal settlement context. And in Hungary, we are looking at the use of social design to create integrated public spaces and social cohesion, in the context of a severely ethnically and economically divided town.
TJ: So how does all of this fit into how the ordinary person is going to access services in the next 50 years?
LH: I believe that the future of service delivery will hold many more opportunities for localized, locally owned infrastructure. Big utilities will be a thing of the past. Service delivery will benefit everyone (not just those that can afford it) and contribute to local wealth generation. This will give communities the opportunity to be much more powerful in determining how their natural and built environment works for them.