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Jeremy Rifkin's The Third Industrial Revolution and The Very Hungry City

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Two new books on global energy dependency deal in anecdote, theory and ‘dreams come true’ writes Hattie Hartman

The strapline for the World Economic Forum in Davos, ‘The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models’, sounded upbeat, but it was mostly sombre messages that emerged. Among these was the downside of globalisation marked by the number of young people with limited prospects, the ever-increasing polarisation between rich and poor, and the limits of our dependency on technology made only too apparent at Fukushima. Not to mention the ongoing global inability to address resource depletion and climate change.

Alongside the politicians, financiers and economists, a large number of social entrepreneurs also gathered, including BioRegional’s Pooran Desai and Sue Riddlestone. ‘Our experience was not one of pessimism, but one of great hope. I have never been so hopeful about the potential for change in 20 years,’ says Riddlestone. According to Desai, Davos was different this year with ‘big corporates recognising for the first time that the system is broken. “We are at an inflection point” was the phrase heard everywhere.’

Their vision of the future chimes with the optimistic narrative presented by American economist and social thinker Jeremy Rifkin, in his latest book The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World. A confidant of Angela Merkel and frequenter of corporate boardrooms across the globe, Rifkin envisions a democratisation of energy that will revolutionise power provision the way the internet has transformed communications. To argue his case, he draws from the upheaval of the music industry precipitated by file sharing and internet success stories such as Etsy.com (an online marketplace for crafts) and Toms.com (where for every pair of shoes sold, one is given to a child in need) as collaborative business models of the future.

Rifkin’s five interconnected ‘pillars’ that will drive this transformation are renewable energy, conversion of all buildings to micro-powerplants, hydrogen storage technology, a smart grid, and clean transport. The second pillar of his ‘third industrial revolution’ – every building converted to a micropower plant as an exemplar of passive design packed with renewables – is a dream come true for any green architect. According to Rifkin, 40 per cent of roofs and 15 per cent of facades in the European Union are suitable for PVs. His description of the potential of a smart grid equipped with digital meters, sensors and new storage technologies, which respond to real-time demand to adjust peak energy use, is one of the best I’ve come across.

From his base at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Rifkin set out to learn from the European Union’s ambitious (by American standards) efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Seizing the moment of the 2008 financial crisis, he assembled a construction roundtable with experts in renewables, design, property, IT, utilities and transport to brainstorm ways towards a post-carbon world.

To date, Rifkin and his team – whose collaborators include Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture from Chicago, Milan’s Studio Boeri and Barcelona’s Cloud 9 – have prepared masterplans for cities as diverse as Rome, Utrecht, Monaco, and San Antonio, Texas. Particularly intriguing is Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill’s 3D virtual model of Utrecht, which classifies buildings according to their energy-saving potential along with estimated retrofit costs. This provides an online marketplace for properties to be clustered together under an umbrella retrofit contract.

Rifkin’s rundown of the first and second industrial revolutions is a bit lengthy. He then wades through a lot of economic theory – ‘retiring Adam Smith’ – to speculate that lateral power will create greater empathy between humans and the planet, resulting in ‘a biosphere envelope’ as a determinant of urban form. Though you might not buy into Rifkin’s vision or dismiss it as wishful thinking, he presents enough compelling nuggets in his vision of a greener future to make for a very worthwhile read.

Austin Troy of the University of Vermont, another American academic, covers much of the same ground from the vantage point of planning in The Very Hungry City: Urban Efficiency and the Economic Fate of Cities. This book is most useful in describing how urban energy consumption patterns developed. Troy starts by recapping the factors that shape the energy intensity of cities, which he refers to as ‘urban energy metabolism’, and provides some fascinating background on topics such as how the advent of air conditioning in the 1950s precipitated migration to the sunbelt cities and the dependency of Phoenix and Los Angeles on power to pump in their water supplies. Though he makes brief forays to Copenhagen and Stockholm’s Hammarby Sjöstad, his focus is primarily American.

Troy’s chapter on The Building Energy Diet surveys a wide sampling of current initiatives that aim to increase urban energy efficiency. Although this overview is somewhat rudimentary for a professional design audience, programmes such as the proactive, publically funded Efficiency Vermont (which has mapped areas of the state where electric demand approaches capacity during peak demand in order to avoid building expensive new transmission infrastructure) and Denver’s Living City Block model (which is working with multiple owners for an energy retrofit of an entire city block) are of interest.

Less prescriptive and more anecdotal than Rifkin, Troy fails to get beyond cataloguing these initiatives to suggest a convincing way forward for cities to reduce their energy metabolism. The concluding chapter presents Portland, Oregon’s regional governance model, as an exemplar with the proviso that any form of regional government in America is most likely a vision of a very distant future. Short primers on five fossil fuels, as well as nuclear, biofuels and renewables provide succinct and informative summaries of the respective limitations and challenges of these fuels.

Troy sets much less stock in renewables than Rifkin. He is cautious about the viability of hydrogen storage due to its high cost and the limited availability of rare minerals required for the manufacture of turbines and PVs. Both books put the spotlight on a theme long overlooked but by now familiar to AJ readers: the important role that the built environment and buildings play in addressing climate change.

How quickly will any of this come to pass? The volatile price of energy will be a determining factor. Rifkin argues irrefutably that peak oil is imminent if not past and that his five-pillar transformation could be a reality within three to four decades; Troy takes a more measured view, noting that new fuel sources such as tar sands and shale gas hint at a longer timeline. In either case, both authors outline the enormity of the task at hand with a forceful call for action.

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