The future looks smart

At Telekom Innovation Laboratories – ‘T-Labs’ for short – researchers are investigating what kind of world awaits us in the future. The concept of ‘Smart Cities’ is leading the way

Joachim Schonowski © Andreas Lander

The day had arrived. It was the 2nd of August 2017. Earlier than many experts had predicted. It was the day we human beings had used everything up, so to speak, for that year. The day we depleted our resource bank account. In other words, after only seven months, we humans had already consumed and polluted all of the natural resources available to us in 2017. Of course, this means humanity has been living on credit since early August. Experts call this date “Earth Overshoot Day”, the day we start to consume more than the earth can actually provide. It doesn’t take a genius to realise this approach is not going to work in the long term. When you take on a lot of debt, at some point you’re going to have to pay it back. In the case of human beings vs. earth, this debt comes with an entire array of side effects, including climate change, droughts, floods, rural exodus and a dramatic loss of resources.

Joachim Schonowski is sitting on the top floor of the former Telefunken high-rise building on Ernst Reuter Platz. From his window, he looks down onto Bismarckstraße, a boulevard that leads straight out of the city. Today, the building is the site of innovative R&D, with much of the space occupied by Berlin’s Technische Universität (TU) and the affiliated institute known as Telekom Innovation Laboratories (T-Labs). For many years now, Schonowski has been exploring the subject of Smart Cities, focusing on the development of holistic concepts that enable urban areas to be designed in ways that are more efficient, technologically advanced, socially inclusive and – most importantly– environmentally friendly. It’s all about people, society and the economy. But this is easier said than done, notes Schonowski: “You have to take an overarching approach to the concept, and you have to think in sustainable terms. This means tangibly incorporating nature into the concept of the Smart City”. And, as far as he’s concerned, this idea has been neglected in many approaches so far.

Fostering nature and environmental protection is something we all like to talk about. In practice, however, it often requires tremendous effort and financial output. “We end up revealing how much effort we’re actually willing to put into sustainability”, says Schonowski. For him, the issue of Smart Cities should not be reduced to individual metropolitan areas. His approach involves a more meaningful form of networking on a global scale.

Today, R&D is underway at the T-Labs on Ernst Reuter Platz. Some of the issues researchers are exploring take them “very far into the future”, says Schonowski. In other words, it’s not just about performing research; it’s also about issues that are relevant now as well as in the future. Some issues disappear, while others become reality. “The Smart City idea itself is the ultimate concept of the future”, argues Schonowski.

Research into the networked, environmentally friendly and resource-efficient cities of the future has been underway since last December in Hamburg. Together with Nantes and Helsinki, Hamburg was awarded the contract for a EU lighthouse project known as “mySMARTLife”. In the coming five years, this project will implement measures designed to foster “the transformation to a Smart City”. In concrete terms, this means greater use of renewable energies, carbon-neutral living, environmentally friendly mobility, intermodal driving, smart grid control, more efficient data use and measurability via indicators. On the Telekom side, the project is being led by researchers at T-Labs. Other countries are also pursuing ambitious projects; for example, Stockholm is aiming to become a carbon-neutral city by 2020.

Who knows, next year’s Earth Overshoot Day just might come a month later on 2nd September. And perhaps we’ll actually stop depleting our resource bank account one day – and maybe even start topping it off again.

 

Kluge Köpfe 2017