Energy as the new value system for redesigning daily life

It’s time we shift to a comprehensive energy index as the primary value framework


R Swaminathan | April 20, 2018

#Urbanisation   #Urban Life   #Quantum Urbanisation   #Urban India   #Rethinking Cities   #Energy  
GN Photo
GN Photo

Remember Kardashev scale? For the uninitiated, it’s a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement, based on the amount of energy it is able to use for communication. We will get to its unconventional relevance to the big urban questions at the end, but just keep it at the back of your mind and dig it out when we get to it.

All serious urban questions that aspire to stay the course will somewhere along the way encounter four facts that are not acknowledged enough. This lack of acknowledgement is not because its far-reaching implications are not understood enough or there isn’t enough material or empirical evidence to support them. In fact, the implications are crystal clear and the evidence overwhelming. In this scenario, one can offer a cogent argument that such wilful disregard is because the implications point to an impending disaster that cannot be averted unless we abandon our current ways of doing things and start afresh. No one wants to stop. This lack of gumption may well turn out to be our generation’s ostrich moment: I don’t want to see it. Hence I don’t see it.

Since I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. It can also be the modern era’s equivalent of Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burnt or thereabouts. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, passing judgements in a rough and ready manner without getting into the complex dynamics of an emerging new world order that’s urban and dystopian in equal measure. So, without much ado, here are the four facts and its nuances.

Facts as numbers and facts as nuances

The first fact: if all the cities of the world are put together they would only cover only 2 percent of the global landmass. Some perspective is needed to add the necessary dimensions to this otherwise antiseptic number. The largest country in the world is Russia. It is spread across 11 percent of the world’s land. That’s roughly six times more land than what the cities occupy. Indians know that our country is not of insignificant proportions. Yet it occupies exactly 2 percent of our earth’s landmass. Precisely the same amount of space occupied by all the earth’s cities. Put simply, all the cities of the world can be accommodated within India.

The second fact: Though cities occupy only 2 percent of the landmass they house over 4 billion people today. In short, all the world’s cities accommodate over three times India’s population in exactly the same space. Simply put, our cities are very dense and expected to get denser. It is estimated that in less than 30 years, another two billion, over and above the current four billion, would be crammed into our cities like the proverbial sardines in a can.

The third fact: Cities consume over 80 percent of all energy and generate a substantial 70 percent of all human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. In short, cities have a massive appetite – gluttonous if you want to pass another rough and ready judgement – for all forms of resources from human, material, natural to synthetic and produce large quantities of waste and emissions. The key point here is that while cities are no doubt engines of growth and development, they are also being so by means and methods that are rapacious and unsustainable.

The fourth fact: Over 65 percent of the people in developing countries would be living in urban areas by 2050: a not so distant future that would be upon us in just 32 years. Ninety percent of these people would be Indians and Chinese. To give a relevant backdrop to these figures, 35 percent of Indians and just over 55 percent of Chinese live in urban areas currently. The number of people who are going to live in urban areas in developed countries during the same period is estimated to be over 85 percent. Yet the global built area is estimated to increase only three fold. In short, for the first time in human history the world is going to be predominantly urban, congested and face unprecedented challenges that is going to require a fundamental recalibration of life as we know it today.

Facts as the overarching narrative and the big story

In normal course, the story would come first and the narrative later. But we will have to make an exception here and get to the narrative first. It’s with good reason. The four facts have an archaeological quality to them, since they are often discovered from different sites and landscapes. By themselves the facts only make limited sense. Yet when they are pieced together as a matter of first priority they end up creating an overarching narrative that leads us to the big story. The overarching narrative is composed of three realities that are unfolding right now. One, there is no turning back or stopping the urbanisation of the world. What this means is that the urban era can neither be wished away nor can one get lost in the nostalgia of an earlier age. The bottom line is that we need to be prepared for this change and be predictive about it rather than reactive.

Two, India and China are facing a massive internal migration of the scale not ever seen in the history of humanity. It is fundamentally changing both nations and the pace of such change will only increase in scale and scope. What this means is that the primary responsibility and onus for making this change work for the environment and ecology in general and people in particular falls firmly on the shoulders of decision makers who occupy the corridors of power in New Delhi and Beijing.

Three, the pace of change is such that everyone is being caught flatfooted, and the pace is only going to increase going forward. There is already compelling evidence to show that we are not thinking deeply enough about our urban existence. Every time London or Berlin gets flooded, Delhi gets choked out or Bangalore runs bone dry, our politicians, bureaucrats, decision makers and urban experts appear like deer caught in headlights. They just don’t know what hit them and why. In short, there is a desperate need to step back and look at every single aspect of our urban existence through a new framework and a new worldview.

The big story is that urban life as it exists today cannot be the urban life of tomorrow. It cannot be because if the current way of developing our cities and providing for people continues we will end up destroying our planet. Every single aspect of what we intuitively define as urban life from work, leisure, food, mobility to homes, governance and technology needs to be redefined, rethought and redesigned. But that’s easier said than done since it requires us to collectively step back and do things differently. Stepping back is tough because it is like trying to change the wheels of a rapidly moving car.

I have written at length about how our thought processes about every single aspect of modern life is influenced by a 19th century mental model that is collectively referred to as systems thinking (Please see ‘Quantum urbanism: Step one, dismantle systems thinking once and for all’ in Governance Now issue dated July 16-31, 2017). Such modular and standalone thinking has a direct impact on how we conceptualise and design our urban spaces, often in a manner that not only amplifies and solidifies existing social inequities and power structures but also creates new ones that are hard to discern or contest. The disproportionate budgetary allocation to road networks and associated infrastructure in Indian cities in comparison to public transportation is a good case in point. This in turn has an impact on how people access and navigate such spaces. The nuts and bolts of such daily navigation determine every single emotion and characteristic that we end up ascribing to a city. We often end up philosophically referring to it as ‘our daily grind’ or ‘our daily life’. But there is something fundamental that powers our city and contributes directly to our emotions and we don’t even realise it.

Energy as urban life and energy as a measuring tape

Every single activity or aspect of urban life is dependent on one and only thing: energy. Yet we don’t typically look at urban life as an energy balance sheet or a network of energy systems that integrate with each other for specific transactions. But two questions immediately come up: why not and why shouldn’t we? Let’s for a moment forget academic boundaries and disciplinary domains that parcel off knowledge and practice into subjects and sectors. We know the usual arguments that come from people invested in maintaining such boundaries. Let’s also for a moment not forget that we are today in an absolute state of urban crisis. One can reasonably put forth an argument that one among several factors that has contributed to our sorry state of affairs is the manner in which knowledge and practice has been segmented resulting an ecosystem where disciplines and subjects, academics and practitioners, policy makers and communities don’t talk to each other or even exchange notes.

The practical implications of this lack of cohesiveness manifest themselves in many ways on a daily basis across a wide variety of spectrums. The telephone department using resources (and energy) to dig up a stretch of road to lay cables and cover it up with the sewage and water departments digging up the same stretch a week later to lay drainage and water pipes is one ‘nuts and bolts’ illustration. Those with power to do something about affordable housing not accounting for latest technological advancements in materials and construction methods that allow whole housing blocks and its associated infrastructure to be put up in less than three months is another ‘conceptual and policy’ illustration. In both the cases, if one were to use the energy balance sheet framework, with energy as the key ingredient, then energy is being wasted in the first case and in the second not given the opportunity to be used efficiently. The bottom line is that total energy is not only a good indicator of efficiency, effectiveness and cohesion of a system, but also a micro-level indicator of quantum urbanism that can allow an individual to understand and define his role in an urban context in particular and other contexts in general.
But how?

Quantum urbanism, energy and the Kardashev scale

Quantum urbanism earmarks uncertainty as its core principle. The nature of uncertainty is such that it will always lead to a set of probabilities and emergent possibilities. In short, uncertainty will never allow any fixed boundaries to be drawn, always silently gravitating towards lines drawn in sand that can be drawn and redrawn depending on what is being observed and who is observing it. This is true for individuals too and particularly in complex urban circumstances where they acquire different identities depending on who is observing them or who they are interacting with: a customer for a vegetable vendor, an employee for a company, an acquaintance for a network and so on, all being the same individual. (Please see ‘Quantum urbanism: Step three, don’t reinvent the wheel, learn from masters’, in Governance Now issue dated August 16-31, 2017).

Keeping quantum urbanism as the background, let’s now unpack the ‘how’ with a concrete example. At the end of every day we are an amalgamation of all activities and transactions that we were a part of during that particular day. The daily activities and transactions of a majority of us can be broken down into six categories: eating, travelling, working, entertainment, financial activities and, of course, shelter and sleeping. All the six involve us performing tasks and transactions. Let’s take eating as an example. One can either cook or go out and eat. In both cases, specific ingredients are needed to cook food. If one were to use a conventional energy audit framework, the cost of the fuel used to cook the food and possibly the travel required by the customer to reach a restaurant would be taken into account. But then conventional ways haven’t really worked, as we know and understand.

But if one were to define energy more broadly and understand it as something that’s part and parcel of every aspect of nature and human activity itself, then the energy balance sheet looks completely different. Let’s again take eating as an example. Each ingredient that goes into cooking a dish has embedded energy in it. To get a little mathematical, let’s call the embedded energy X. Of course, like everything else in mathematics the X will not make any sense if it’s not pegged to a standard. In our example, let’s call that standard Y. Let’s assign Y a numerical value of 0. What that number 0 indicates is how efficiently and effectively has energy been used to produce a particular ingredient or evolve a certain service. One can read 0 as the highest efficiency possible for energy utilisation. In short, the energy consumed in creating a product or a service produces or releases the same energy when it is used. What this would mean is that while the ideal would be 0 – energy consumed is equal to energy released – an energy index number that is closer to 0 would be a preferred option in terms of making a particular choice.

Coming back to eating and assuming the dish is Poha, the choice would ideally be between two varieties of rice. The embedded energy in each variety of rice would be calculated using a variety of factors from the amount of water it took to produce one kg of rice, whether the seeds are indigenous and local or genetically engineered or imported, the place at which it was cultivated, the distance it had to travel, the amount of time and where it had to be stored, the kind and amount of pesticides and herbicides that were used. All these inputs will be converted into energy and together would constitute the embedded energy of one single ingredient. Such an energy index would be equally applicable to every single ingredient used from salt to mustard.

In the first instance and at first glance, such an energy index might appear complicated and too detailed. But a deeper analysis will reveal that the index in itself is not complicated. What might be complicated is the change that would be needed to be brought into every single aspect of the value chain. This will create a fundamental change by reducing the current tight embrace of value to monetary value. It will define how value is created and what that value is and how that value which is created needs to be measured by focussing on energy used and energy embedded as the primary framework of assessment. Such a framework of assessment can be used to evaluate and establish the energy index of practically any set of activities and transactions. Not only that, it has the necessary logical framework to be converted into codes, software, artificial intelligence programmes and mobile applications.

This is where we need to remember low-profile Russian astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev and his scale, which is one among his numerous achievements. His scale is beyond a doubt an unconventional tool, more so when it is sought to be paired with urban questions. But it might be an efficient and effective framework to think about recasting our urban existence and life completely. After all, why spend time, effort and energy in reinventing the wheel if there’s a good specimen somewhere in the shed? It would be better to take the existing wheel, repurpose and use it as widely as possible.

Kardashev tackled the question of a civilisation’s level of technology based on the amount of energy a civilisation is able to generate using the parent star. Of course, he designed the scale in response to a question of cosmic scale that sought to provide a set of reference points on where we are collectively as humanity in terms of interplanetary and galactic travel.

Kardashev’s central thesis was that humanity first needs to master the science and art of harnessing the ‘parent star’s’ energy – which in case you are wondering what it is, is the sun – in such a manner that the total energy emitted from the sun and reaching the earth is completely captured and harnessed. He evolved a typology of three categories of civilisations based on energy capture, utilisation and transfer. He called them planetary (Type 1), stellar (Type 2) and galactic (Type 3) civilisations. Stellar civilisations are those which are able to directly harness the energy from the sun, while galactic civilisations are those which are able to do so at the level of galaxies and solar systems.

Several other scientists, physicists and astrophysicists over the years have contributed to and modified the scale and today there are seven types. But core premise of the typology hasn’t changed: the efficiency with which energy from the sun needs to be harnessed. Carl Sagan in reference to the scale and our own civilisational sophistication a few decades ago said that we are Type 0.7, which meant that our best technologies of that time were able to capture and harness only 70 percent of the energy that reached from the sun. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku said last year that it will take earth and its technology another 100 years or so get us to the Type 1 status. Of course, the Kardashev scale is important for those like Elon Musk researching and debating big questions of planetary travel and seeding human civilisation in other planets.

But the scale is also equally relevant to earthly questions of the urban kind, especially those about sustainability, resilience, energy sovereignty and increasing the control of individuals and community about energy harnessing, storage, production, distribution and consumption. By repurposing the Kardashev scale and using it as the main theoretical framework, the concept, practice and the execution of an energy index becomes practical and relevant. In using harnessed and embedded energy and transferred energy as the primary framework of creating and generating value, one can move away from the current system that places a premium on money and monetary systems.

What an energy indexed value system will do is allow ordinary people to control, own and direct the urban products, services, governance and technology ecosystem. In this process of ownership, they will literally force governments, companies, institutions, administrators, policy makers and the political economy to change the discourse of urbanisation and urban development. It will also allow us common folks to ask uncomfortable questions. One question could be if I can own and recharge a mobile data pack from anywhere and on any device and across service providers, why can’t I have electricity power packs that follow the same blueprint? Questions of such a nature will force the powers that be to confront the immense possibilities afforded by massive advancements in clean energy, battery storage technologies and several off-grid and on-grid solutions. It will also lead us to ask other similar and uncomfortable questions about food, mobility, work, leisure, technology and urban governance. And one needs to ask uncomfortable questions if the dire state of affairs has to change.



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