[intro]Cities and towns are at the forefront of environmental and climate change risk and the challenge of creating sustainable and equitable societies. This means managing natural resources, the built environment, and social and economic organisations in a way that these all support human well-being, into the future, for all people of various income levels. Energy expert, Lauren Hermanus takes a look at what it will take to keep the lights on.[/intro]

The City of Cape Town’s recent announcement that there were only 100 days of drinking water left was a stark reminder that environmental and climate change risks are no longer hypothetical. Resources are scarce, and we need to respond accordingly, to build resilience in the face of change and potential disasters. City governments (our municipalities) have to facilitate responsible environmental management and resource use, so that we can continue to benefit from these resources over the short and long-term.

A range of technological innovations are presenting radically different opportunities to re-imagine the ways cities and towns work: water, waste, energy, other public infrastructure like roads and parks, public transport, economic opportunities and more. It is not only technology that is changing the way people are thinking about issues like water management. There are many new ways of working with affected neighbourhoods and vulnerable populations to solve these issues, from the ground up.

Top down solutions don’t always work

For a long time, we have come to believe that some of the biggest challenges that plague cities and towns can only be solved with solutions that are as big and centrally controlled with massive budgets, and a clear plan. Think Eskom. This idea of ‘bigger is better’ is not always sustainable.

Firstly, the big budgets for big solutions are not as readily available as they used to be. Secondly, when you plan your whole solution upfront, you pretend that you know every single risk and surprise that will crop up along the way. In this way you ignore the complexity of dealing with people, surprise elements and unpredictable natural systems. Thirdly, if you work at a large scale, your use of innovation is probably low. Innovation is new and so inherently risky.

Some interventions do need to be coordinated at a really high level. But others do not. Increasingly, we are seeing a case for working at a small scale, ideas and projects incrementally, and solutions that are embedded in the local context. Rather than focusing on predetermined solutions, there is space for problem-driven interventions that can adapt, grow and scale back, as needed. One area in which there is a lot of on-the-ground experimentation is in energy.

A global energy revolution, from the ground up

Historically, people in cities and towns buy our energy from a large utility that is either a public entity (like Eskom) or a private company. We do not choose if that energy is green or not, where it is generated and how much it costs. But all that is changing. The decreasing costs of small-scale solar power is driving kinds of energy solutions that are challenging business as usual. This small-scale energy can be a single panel on your roof, or a shared collection of energy sources called microgrids that don’t need to be connected to the local distribution grid.

The reason that micro-grids are interesting is not only because they are cost efficient. It is not only that they generate renewable energy. It is because they can be used to get the power to invest in energy infrastructure into the hands of ordinary people. Even without community ownership, microgrids and individual solar panels can still fundamentally change the way energy is distributed and purchased. A few examples of this innovative use of microgrids are:

Germany’s sustainable energy transition, for instance, has relied heavily on community investment in microgrids through energy cooperatives. Closer to home, Kenya’s proliferation of off-grid solar microgrid is delivering affordable power to unelectrified households in rural communities at unprecedented rates. In the USA, cities like Washington DC are using subsidised rooftop PV to ease financial pressure for low-income households, specifically those using social welfare. PV is also good news for working class and middle income families, as reported by the Centre for American Progress.

Projects like the Brooklyn Microgrid are working out financial models to make sure this is not technology for the elite only. They are making use of innovative cross-subsidisation, along with technologies to allow neighbourhood residents to trade the energy they generate with each other, without having to transact with a utility like Eskom.

Sharing ideas to spark creative thinking

Over the coming months, I will be looking for and profiling various massive small ideas that have transformative potential in urban contexts. These can be related to technology like microgrids, as we can see with the energy examples listed here. They can also refer to new ways of doing development by allowing for more citizen participation, for example, or through new kinds of partnerships and business models between different kinds of stakeholders.

Essentially, we are looking for new responses to old urban challenges, that demonstrate the power of small-scale interventions that support sustainability.