TEDGlobal 2011

Alex Steffen: The shareable future of cities

Filmed:

How can cities help save the future? Alex Steffen shows some cool neighborhood-based green projects that expand our access to things we want and need -- while reducing the time we spend in cars.

- Planetary futurist
Alex Steffen explores our planet's future, telling powerful, inspiring stories about the hard choices facing humanity ... and our opportunity to create a much better tomorrow. Full bio

Climate change is already a heavy topic,
00:15
and it's getting heavier
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because we're understanding
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that we need to do more than we are.
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We're understanding, in fact,
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that those of us who live in the developed world
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need to be really pushing towards eliminating our emissions.
00:27
That's, to put it mildly, not what's on the table now.
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And it tends to feel a little overwhelming
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when we look at what is there in reality today
00:35
and the magnitude of the problem that we face.
00:38
And when we have overwhelming problems in front of us,
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we tend to seek simple answers.
00:44
And I think this is what we've done with climate change.
00:47
We look at where the emissions are coming from --
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they're coming out of our tailpipes and smokestacks and so forth,
00:52
and we say, okay, well the problem is
00:55
that they're coming out of fossil fuels that we're burning,
00:57
so therefore, the answer must be
00:59
to replace those fossil fuels with clean sources of energy.
01:02
And while, of course, we do need clean energy,
01:05
I would put to you that it's possible
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that by looking at climate change
01:10
as a clean energy generation problem,
01:12
we're in fact setting ourselves up
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not to solve it.
01:16
And the reason why
01:18
is that we live on a planet
01:20
that is rapidly urbanizing.
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That shouldn't be news to any of us.
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However, it's hard sometimes
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to remember the extent of that urbanization.
01:28
By mid-century,
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we're going to have about eight billion -- perhaps more -- people
01:33
living in cities or within a day's travel of one.
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We will be an overwhelmingly urban species.
01:39
In order to provide
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the kind of energy that it would take
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for eight billion people living in cities
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that are even somewhat like the cities
01:48
that those of us in the global North live in today,
01:50
we would have to generate
01:52
an absolutely astonishing amount of energy.
01:54
It may be possible
01:56
that we are not even able
01:58
to build that much clean energy.
02:00
So if we're seriously talking about tackling climate change
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on an urbanizing planet,
02:06
we need to look somewhere else for the solution.
02:08
The solution, in fact, may be closer to hand than we think,
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because all of those cities we're building
02:14
are opportunities.
02:16
Every city determines to a very large extent
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the amount of energy used by its inhabitants.
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We tend to think of energy use as a behavioral thing --
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I choose to turn this light switch on --
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but really, enormous amounts of our energy use
02:29
are predestined
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by the kinds of communities and cities that we live in.
02:34
I won't show you very many graphs today,
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but if I can just focus on this one for a moment,
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it really tells us a lot of what we need to know --
02:42
which is, quite simply,
02:44
that if you look, for example, at transportation,
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a major category of climate emissions,
02:48
there is a direct relationship
02:50
between how dense a city is
02:52
and the amount of climate emissions
02:54
that its residents spew out into the air.
02:56
And the correlation, of course,
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is that denser places tend to have lower emissions --
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which isn't really all that difficult to figure out, if you think about it.
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Basically,
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we substitute, in our lives,
03:09
access to the things we want.
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We go out there and we hop in our cars
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and we drive from place to place.
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And we're basically using mobility to get the access we need.
03:18
But when we live in a denser community,
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suddenly what we find, of course,
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is that the things we need are close by.
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And since the most sustainable trip
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is the one that you never had to make in the first place,
03:29
suddenly our lives become instantly more sustainable.
03:32
And it is possible, of course,
03:35
to increase the density of the communities around us.
03:37
Some places are doing this with new eco districts,
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developing whole new sustainable neighborhoods,
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which is nice work if you can get it,
03:44
but most of the time, what we're talking about is, in fact,
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reweaving the urban fabric that we already have.
03:49
So we're talking about things like infill development:
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really sharp little changes
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to where we have buildings, where we're developing.
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Urban retrofitting:
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creating different sorts of spaces and uses
04:00
out of places that are already there.
04:02
Increasingly, we're realizing
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that we don't even need to densify an entire city.
04:06
What we need instead is an average density
04:09
that rises to a level
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where we don't drive as much and so on.
04:14
And that can be done
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by raising the density in very specific spots a whole lot.
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So you can think of it as tent poles
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that actually raise the density of the entire city.
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And we find that when we do that,
04:27
we can, in fact, have a few places that are really hyper-dense
04:29
within a wider fabric of places
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that are perhaps a little more comfortable
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and achieve the same results.
04:35
Now we may find that there are places that are really, really dense
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and still hold onto their cars,
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but the reality is that, by and large,
04:42
what we see when we get a lot of people together with the right conditions
04:45
is a threshold effect,
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where people simply stop driving as much,
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and increasingly, more and more people,
04:52
if they're surrounded by places that make them feel at home,
04:54
give up their cars altogether.
04:56
And this is a huge, huge energy savings,
04:58
because what comes out of our tailpipe
05:01
is really just the beginning of the story
05:03
with climate emissions from cars.
05:05
We have the manufacture of the car, the disposal of the car,
05:07
all of the parking and freeways and so on.
05:09
When you can get rid of all of those
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because somebody doesn't use any of them really,
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you find that you can actually cut transportation emissions
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as much as 90 percent.
05:18
And people are embracing this.
05:20
All around the world, we're seeing more and more people embrace this walkshed life.
05:22
People are saying that it's moving from the idea of the dream home
05:25
to the dream neighborhood.
05:28
And when you layer that over
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with the kind of ubiquitous communications that we're starting to see,
05:32
what you find is, in fact,
05:35
even more access suffused into spaces.
05:37
Some of it's transportation access.
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This is a Mapnificent map that shows me, in this case,
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how far I can get from my home in 30 minutes
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using public transportation.
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Some of it is about walking. It's not all perfect yet.
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This is Google Walking Maps.
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I asked how to do the greater Ridgeway,
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and it told me to go via Guernsey.
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It did tell me that this route
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maybe missing sidewalks or pedestrian paths, though.
05:59
(Laughter)
06:01
But the technologies are getting better,
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and we're starting to really kind of crowdsource this navigation.
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And as we just heard earlier,
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of course, we're also learning how to put information on dumb objects.
06:09
Things that don't have any wiring in them at all,
06:12
we're learning how to include
06:14
in these systems of notation and navigation.
06:16
Part of what we're finding with this
06:19
is that what we thought
06:21
was the major point
06:23
of manufacturing and consumption,
06:25
which is to get a bunch of stuff,
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is not, in fact,
06:30
how we really live best in dense environments.
06:32
What we're finding is that what we want
06:34
is access to the capacities of things.
06:36
My favorite example is a drill. Who here owns a drill, a home power drill?
06:38
Okay. I do too.
06:41
The average home power drill is used somewhere between six and 20 minutes
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in its entire lifetime,
06:45
depending on who you ask.
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And so what we do is we buy these drills
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that have a potential capacity of thousands of hours of drill time,
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use them once or twice to put a hole in the wall and let them sit.
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Our cities, I would put to you,
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are stockpiles of these surplus capacities.
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And while we could try and figure out
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new ways to use those capacities --
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such as cooking or making ice sculptures
07:07
or even a mafia hit --
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what we probably will find
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is that, in fact, turning those products into services
07:13
that we have access to when we want them,
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is a far smarter way to go.
07:17
And in fact, even space itself is turning into a service.
07:20
We're finding that people can share the same spaces,
07:23
do stuff with vacant space.
07:25
Buildings are becoming bundles of services.
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So we have new designs
07:30
that are helping us take mechanical things that we used to spend energy on --
07:32
like heating, cooling etc. --
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and turn them into things that we avoid spending energy on.
07:37
So we light our buildings with daylight.
07:40
We cool them with breezes. We heat them with sunshine.
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In fact, when we use all these things,
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what we've found is that, in some cases,
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energy use in a building can drop as much as 90 percent.
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Which brings on another threshold effect
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I like to call furnace dumping,
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which is, quite simply,
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if you have a building that doesn't need to be heated with a furnace,
07:57
you save a whole bunch of money up front.
07:59
These things actually become cheaper to build
08:01
than the alternatives.
08:03
Now when we look at being able
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to slash our product use, slash our transportation use,
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slash our building energy use,
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all of that is great, but it still leaves something behind.
08:13
And if we're going to really, truly become sustainable cities,
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we need to think a little differently.
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This is one way to do it.
08:20
This is Vancouver's propaganda about how green a city they are.
08:22
And certainly lots of people have taken to heart
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this idea that a sustainable city is covered in greenery.
08:26
So we have visions like this.
08:29
We have visions like this. We have visions like this.
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Now all of these are fine projects,
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but they really have missed an essential point,
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which is it's not about the leaves above,
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it's about the systems below.
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Do they, for instance, capture rainwater
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so that we can reduce water use?
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Water is energy intensive.
08:47
Do they, perhaps, include green infrastructure,
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so that we can take runoff
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and water that's going out of our houses
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and clean it and filter it
08:56
and grow urban street trees?
08:58
Do they connect us back to the ecosystems around us
09:00
by, for example, connecting us to rivers
09:03
and allowing for restoration?
09:05
Do they allow for pollination,
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pollinator pathways
09:09
that bees and butterflies and such can come back into our cities?
09:11
Do they even take the very waste matter
09:14
that we have from food and fiber and so forth,
09:16
and turn it back into soil
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and sequester carbon --
09:21
take carbon out of the air
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in the process of using our cities?
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I would submit to you that all of these things are not only possible,
09:27
they're being done right now,
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and that it's a darn good thing.
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Because right now, our economy by and large
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operates as Paul Hawken said,
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"by stealing the future, selling it in the present
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and calling it GDP."
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And if we have another eight billion
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or seven billion,
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or six billion, even, people,
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living on a planet where their cities also steal the future,
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we're going to run out of future really fast.
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But if we think differently,
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I think that, in fact, we can have cities
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that are not only zero emissions,
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but have unlimited possibilities as well.
10:00
Thank you very much.
10:02
(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Alex Steffen - Planetary futurist
Alex Steffen explores our planet's future, telling powerful, inspiring stories about the hard choices facing humanity ... and our opportunity to create a much better tomorrow.

Why you should listen

Do you ever wonder whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic about the future? If you want more reasons to think things may still turn out for the better, Alex Steffen's your man. He doesn't downplay the scope and scale of the problems we face. Instead, he shows that we have the tools within our grasp for meeting those massive challenges, if we have the will to use them.

This isn't just hopeful thinking, either. Steffen uses real-world examples and big-picture research to show us that a brighter, greener future is ours to choose, and his work has earned him the ear of leading cities, corporations and philanthropic foundations. As the New York Times said a recent profile, "Alex Steffen lays out the blueprint for a successful century."

After working as a journalist on four continents, Steffen co-founded and ran the online magazine Worldchanging.com from 2003-2010. In those seven years, he made Worldchanging one of the world's leading sustainability-related publications with an archive of almost 12,000 articles and a large global audience. He also edited an internationally best-selling book surveying innovative solutions to the planet's most pressing problems: Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century. 

His most recent work is Carbon Zero, a book describing cities that create prosperity not climate change, accelerating their economies while reducing their climate emissions to zero. He is now at work on a new book and a television project. "The big open secret about sustainability work," he recently told Design Observer magazine, 'is not how bad things are. It is how good things can get."

More profile about the speaker
Alex Steffen | Speaker | TED.com