Sabine Zillmer is a specialist in socio-economic analysis at different scales and regional and territorial policies with a particular focus on cross-border challenges and solutions. We talk to the speaker at the Urban Regeneration Congress in Lodz about the spatial dimension of memory and the role of artificial intelligence in sustainable energy management.
Ania Diduch:We are living in an interesting moment: the 20th-century understanding of the city as a place of social advancement is fading in favor of the city as a machine that can negatively impact the well-being of its inhabitants. As cities sprawl and the climate and energy crises take hold, it is increasingly difficult to optimize cities for the good life. Do you agree that cities are facing a kind of "identity" crisis?
Cities have historically been places of the most intense human exchanges; with the development of AI, managing these exchanges, including at the sustainable energy level, will become more and more effective
Sabine Zillmer:No, I disagree. This question makes me a little uneasy. Maybe this is the perspective of New York and the United States. I would disagree about the identity crisis, and I don't necessarily see the city as a machine-like entity. Cities have traditionally been places of social interaction. Of course, there are cities that don't work as well as they should, and many residents complain about their unattractiveness, but they still have new jobs to offer. I could pose a counter-question: why do people still love to visit so many cities if they are just machines without identity?
Ania:I was thinking of identity as a place to live well, a shift from the time of the pandemic, when so many people tried to get out of the city and eventually decided to move out for good.
Sabine: You're right: a lot of people moved out or found second homes outside the cities, which led to a spillover of agglomerations. But if we look closely at this phenomenon, in many cases its sources are more diverse and individual. This includes the aspect of not needing to travel to work every day. But my impression is that the abandonment of cities was a short-term phenomenon.
Ania: COVID changed the concept of proximity because it changed the way we think about distance. I wonder how this has begun to translate into changes in urban planning and city planning?
Sabine: I think that remains to be seen, the changes have not yet solidified. Of course, it immediately creates new challenges for mobility and transportation. I wonder when and how far this can be used in the future to change certain trends in cities to make them more attractive. This raises specific questions, for example, do we really need new and larger shopping centers? They keep springing up, and one wonders why. Depending on how decentralization trends develop further, if urban expansion stabilizes over time, how will this actually affect social structures in the city? Because so far, despite this decentralization trend, we are still facing rising urban real estate prices. The surge to 2020 has slowed slightly, but so what?
European urban planning has not yet responded to the pandemic shift in thinking about distances and workplace affiliation - a new approach will clarify from stabilizing urban population dynamics, over the next few years
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Ania: It has slowed down, but it is not declining.
Sabine: Yes, and in the meantime people are flowing into cities again. So I think there could be some very interesting questions about urban planning in the context of social structures and cities. What might this mean in practice? On the one hand, we have this decentralization, which is supported by households with better incomes. This is about people who can afford a second home and work remotely. At the same time, especially for low-income households, living in the city is not becoming less accessible. So we have a two-way migration, and yet it is very difficult to find housing in the city center. Therefore, I believe that these trends must first become apparent and stabilize before we can really see how this will affect urban planning.
Decentralization, the dispersion of functions among smaller cities, is one way to develop spatial organization - this is a big challenge because of historical conditions in Europe; examples of well-managed decentralization are German cities
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Ania: So first comes the social structure. Then we have an economy that supports certain groups that are in the city. And from that comes a certain spatial structure design. Now I see that we're not really dealing with a crisis but with a stream of events.
Sabine:Historically, cities are the places that have always been the most flexible. Not in the sense that they immediately respond to novelties, but they have always been subject to change because, as I mentioned, they are places of intense exchange.
Ania: In Europe, how does the importance of the city as a unit of spatial and social organization vary geographically?
Sabine: I think the development of European historical societies and national political and administrative structures are of great importance here. On top of this we have the intensive development of recent decades. To simplify: we have countries with a centralized and decentralized structure, which usually manifests itself in different sizes of cities. We see various accumulations of functions in European countries. Poland may not be a typical example of a rather centrally organized country with its variety of rather sprawling large cities. My thesis is better illustrated by the marked difference between the French and German city systems. There are different ways of accumulating functions there and the distribution of city sizes is different. This also leads to differences in territorial distribution and different spatial concentration of social groups within cities. And then, of course, it also affects the way the city and its hinterland are organized. In fact, it is more the whole configuration of functional structures that I think should be taken into account, rather than administrative structures. If we want to talk about cities, we should not consider them without their hinterlands in the context of functional cities. France is implementing reforms to develop more decentralized structures, to overcome some of the development barriers rooted in centralized structures. Germany has shifted functions to smaller cities to support this decentralization, and after reunification has done so especially in eastern Germany. In both cases, we see how difficult this change is. I think this illustrates the importance of historical context.
Instead of building dehumanized structures of renewable energy farms, it is better to bet on distributed energy networks, transferring surplus production among themselves
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Ania: So should the meanings be distributed evenly among cities?
Sabine: It's more about the balance between too centralized and too decentralized functions of the city.
Ania: At the same time, we have another trend or direction growing in strength - the fifteen-minute city. This entails a more compact way of thinking, not only about spatial organization, but also about social structure. Are these two trends mutually exclusive or should they be combined?
Sabine: It's about the different effects of agglomeration. They are always positive and negative. I once had a sharp discussion with an American professor on this very topic at a conference in Shanghai. My interlocutor argued that we always need to focus more on larger agglomerations, because this is the only way to develop and build competitiveness. I countered by saying: yes, this has some competitive advantages, but we have good examples of decentralized organizations that also work and can be more attractive to citizens. Take southwest Germany, where all the small and medium-sized enterprises are spread over many small towns and partly even villages that export their often high-tech products. They have evolved from old craft traditions to meet the needs of global competitiveness.
The energetic regeneration of cities will take place not only by greening concrete deserts, but also through intelligently developed digital structures - including an infrastructure of renewable energy power plants controlled by artificial intelligence
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Ania: How do you understand the role of digitization in the topic of urban revitalization? The main focus of the environmental discussion is on energy and climate, but the development of the artificial intelligence sector has costs that are also worth talking about.
Sabine: Oh yes, I think we should not consider these issues separately. Because only when we have sufficient digitization available in all places can we use artificial intelligence for environmental purposes.
Ania: Efficient artificial intelligence is an additional energy cost. No one is yet saying exactly how much energy it costs to develop all these technologies. And how it fits into the goals of achieving zero emissions.
Sabine: Of course, using less energy is always important. But we need to consider all these issues together: energy, climate, digitization and artificial intelligence. If we want to work effectively to protect the climate and reduce energy consumption efficiently, we also need digitization and artificial intelligence to manage or even design these processes.
Ania: This is an inspiring look at the phenomenon of artificial intelligence.
Sabine: Let me give one example, starting with renewable energy. If we want to maximize the use of renewable energy, we will have to rely heavily on small installations. Of course, there are solar panel power plants, but they have limitations in using the energy generated. In the periphery, one or the other variation can be developed: there are several options depending on the location, combining solar panels, windmills, biogas plants and possibly hydropower. A village with such infrastructure does not need very much energy. In cities, such variety will not work, if only because of space constraints. In that case, it is better to have many smaller decentralized installations. They need to be managed intelligently to make the best use of them and make them attractive to install. For this you need artificial intelligence, digital solutions. Smart meters is the watchword here. Imagine a household producing solar energy on its roof. It can decide what it wants to do with the energy and when. It may want to use it first to run the house or charge the car, and then want to save the energy for nights or periods without production. Only when he has excess production can he want to send energy to the grid. This is where a smart system comes to the rescue, deciding what will be used first. This is what we need digitization and artificial intelligence for, and this is why we need to think together to develop these areas. Artificial intelligence can plan many things to optimize energy consumption.
If we want to work effectively towards climate protection and efficient reduction of energy consumption - we also need digitization and artificial intelligence to manage or even design these processes
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Ania: You are an extremely experienced researcher and practitioner. What was your last "a-ha" moment in your professional activities? Something that made you think: "This changes the character of things".
Sabine: This question is probably the most difficult for me. I think it's also related to the pandemic, because it unexpectedly brought back one of the things we never considered - that closed borders would return in Europe. On the one hand, I was saying to myself, "this is really awful. Are we still stuck in old ways of thinking?". On the other: "Oh, maybe this will bring a positive change. Because, for example, it will open the minds of younger generations to appreciate what we have accomplished over decades of European integration.
Ania: I wonder if anyone is doing research on the youngest generation: teenagers and 20-somethings, how it has changed their understanding of community, citizenship, being a cosmopolitan.
Sabine: Young people have never seen Europe with travel restrictions. This also indicates how difficult it is to maintain that status. And I see it as a big risk. It is so easy to forget how hard generations have worked to develop this status quo. Progress also depends on memory and the many things we build with the past in mind. Sometimes we tend to have the memory of a goldfish, and social media doesn't help form healthier habits in exercising mindfulness.
Ania: Thank you for the interview.
Perhaps one of the positives of the pandemic will be to restore awareness of what a great achievement it is to cross borders freely in Europe
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