The Chlorophyll Effect

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
25 July, 2017
Editorial: 117
Fecha de publicación original: 28 abril, 1998

Pity those who are at home, for those in the field have the blanket

Does information technology also plant seeds and ease our conscience about energy waste?” This was one of the questions I received in reply to last week’s editorial in which I briefly attempted to imagine the future of Barcelona in 2020. I began by saying that, by then, houses with gardens and equipped with bioclimatic technology would predominate in the city. Likewise, the urban ecosystem would be quite efficient in its use of resources and, in particular, the use of energy, all thanks to decisions taken years before to stimulate the development of the information and knowledge industry. A number of friends, with plenty of experience in politics and in citizen’s associations in Barcelona and who have dedicated a lot of time and energy into trying to improve the quality of the environment in the city sent me comments on this futuristic exercise. Basically, they hoped that my “green dreams” would come true and that wonderful information technology would work miracles which they hoped to live to see and enjoy.

Jokes apart though, this is the crux of the matter: if there is a miracle there will be one only because we have made it come true, for, if we don’t work towards it beware … Information technology “on its own” hardly leads us in the right direction and even less so raises the dead and heals the sick. This might be an obvious thing to say, but many of the activities undertaken by businesses, organisations and public administrations as regards information technology seem to be based on the firm conviction that “if you have this technology you conquer the world”. But they soon discover that to attain this objective they have to be mentally and culturally equipped with something more, something which doesn’t come with the instruction manual of the computer they have just unpacked.

When I set out to describe the greening of Barcelona in twenty years’ time at the workshop on The Sustainable City, I was simply relying on the “resources” sitting around the table with me. Everyone was there, from the Director of Metropolitan Urban Planning for Barcelona (Generalitat de Catalunya), the President of the Metropolitan Authority for the Environment, authorities from the City Council and Diputación of Barcelona, officials from urban development and environmental organisations, representatives from water and electricity companies, mayors from municipal councils, researchers, economists, ecologists and green campaigners, architects and journalists, some of them publishing periodically on the Internet. Within this select group of the city’s “driving forces” there were condensed, without doubt, what we could call a part of the urban info-structure, those who give it its physical and virtual content. The only people missing were the suppliers of the infrastructure. Such notable absentees (the people responsible, no less, for laying down the virtual highways running from the heart of the city right out to its furthest suburbs: at a similar meeting at the start of the Industrial Revolution, the railway companies would have held pride of place), include representatives from Cable y Televisión de Catalunya (CTC), the company which, amongst other things, will be responsible for bringing high speed Internet into the majority of homes in Catalonia within four years’ time. In other words, 2003.

So who was sitting around the table and what will they contribute? There is the definite possibility they will lead activities in a very specific urban, administrative, social, political and economic context. The fulfilment of the mandate and proposals of Agenda 21 lies in their hands. They will need to boost activity and act on proposals from (civil) society at large, put into practice a form of government which is open to neighbourhood participation as regards urban ecological objectives and make sure, in short, that the concept of the “sustainable city” means something in concrete terms. Information technology not only offers them the opportunity to do this, but also involves the responsibility of responding to the challenges that the city of the future will entail. I chose a specific case, what we could call “the chlorophyll strategy”.

CREAF is a forestry research centre that has proposed, on various occasions, the planting of greenery on rooftops in the city with cultivation techniques that enable the creation of a green blanket for absorbing CO2 and, at the same time regulating housing bioclimatically. These proposals have, so far found their way into the media only every now and then, but, as so often happens in these cases, in an irregular and simplistic fashion. With the Internet coming into people’s homes via cable, either via computers or TV, CREAF has the chance to create a digital information system and bring its ideas into every home and even of being able to explain how to adapt their greening techniques to specific cases. This action, logically enough, would have to be supported by municipal policies which in turn would, to a certain extent, be informed by the activities of the Barcelona, Save Energy platform and the group Forum for a Sustainable Barcelona both of which are made up of a wide range and number of citizen’s organisations represented at the meeting on The Sustainable City.

These municipal policies would, thus, have to go beyond the phase of “efficient management” through information technology, and move on to a phase of “participative management”, which is not just an administrative leap but a political one, or, in other words a cultural one as Susana Finquelievitch explains so well in her excellent article “Between the capsule and the planet: the transformation of space in the telematic era”. Up to now we have seen how public bodies have viewed the Internet as a way of improving the running of their internal and external affairs which usually concludes in opening “windows for citizens in cyberspace”. On the other hand, faced with the potential for interaction via the Net, the administration (often) gives in to the temptation of replacing civil society and embarks on initiatives that do nothing but substitute what they already have in the real world. This last strategy (if we can call it that) is made easier, to a large extent, because the public authorities themselves -either explicitly or implicitly –do not provide the necessary means for interactivity with citizen’s organisations and therefore the seeds are sown for substituting them, even in cyberspace.

So, what I was saying was: CREAF, municipalities, regional government, urban planning offices, citizen’s groups, the Internet via cable, Agenda 21, growing concern about the effects of climate change (by the middle of the first decade of the next century both local and state government will have to take the measures we committed ourselves to during the turn of this century), the increase in the number of cars in the city and the multiplication of its disturbing effects, epidemiological responses to the increase in urban pollution and the incidence of respiratory problems, the reactions of health organisations, campaigns for the diversification of means of transport, the use of urban space and the rationalisation of energy flows, the increase of citizen information loops through information systems distributed by the Net, personalised information connected to telemedicine, tele-education, tele-research and tele-government centres, the densification of digital information services in the information and knowledge industrial sector, of companies developing and offering CREAF’s technological proposals for the greening of the city, of companies with bioclimatic technologies adapted to the urban layout of high buildings (combustion and photovoltaic cells, co-generation, metals with memory, etc.) and a long list of etceteras, will lead us, in the best of cases, to a Barcelona which gets greener, more efficient energy-wise, and better and better informed.

This was the conclusion reached in last week’s future projection. But I pointed out that to fulfil these objectives it was necessary to put into practice a series of reforms beforehand amongst which I emphasised those involving the institution of education. Regarding the things I mentioned in the previous paragraph, as well as this education strategy, information technology is subject to the policies developed by specific forces within the city. If these exist with a perspective such as that which I have described, the effects will have a depth, scope and degree of interactivity amongst the sectors involved which would have been unthinkable without information technology. And, it seems to me, that it is in this relationship between political action and the interactive means that transport it, that there is a definite possibility of attaining results based on information and knowledge which have been impossible up to now for the vast majority of citizens. However, I must insist that to reach this point, the necessary means have to be put at our disposal, the “info-structure” and the “infrastructure”. This has nothing to do at all with the “miraculous effects” of information technology, but a lot to do with the political determination of its users. If the opposite is the case, there will be no miracle effect, and no chlorophyll effect.

Translation: Bridget King.