Auckland, a solar city in 2035

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  • Opinion
  • New Zealand

Futures speculator Dr Robert Hickson explores a scenario of a sprawling Auckland in 2035. Current trends have continued, creating a sprawling Auckland, with economic and environmental benefits, but some social disadvantages.

This scenario assumes current trends continue. Technological, demographic, political and environmental trends and decisions lead to a sprawling Auckland, with economic and environmental benefits, but some social disadvantages.

Some call it a “golden” age. It certainly looks like it at the start and end of the day as the sun reflects off all of Auckland’s solar surfaces. After a decade of, more or less, trying to contain the city both the council and government came to the conclusion that sprawl was good.

People continued to move to Auckland. In a world of megacities, it still feels quite small (for those who had lived overseas anyway), even with its lackluster public transport system.

Deals were made (and subsequently challenged, unsuccessfully, in the courts). Lower density was traded, initially, for smaller homes.

Construction manufacturing, and the associated automation of many construction processes, is helping meet housing demand. Smarter urban (re)design to better manage rainfall and wastewater flows has reduced pressure (so to speak) on underground infrastructure.

The “game-changer” for government though was the energy factor. With the continually rising costs associated with oil and gas, and the increasingly variable rainfall in the South Island the country has had frequent energy crises. But low costs combined with high efficiency for solar energy collection and storage finally made it feasible several years ago to harvest the energy of the sun at large scale.

What started as a proliferation of small independent solar installers matured into the Maui Solar NetZ consortium which both retrofitted old buildings and integrated panels into the new prefabs. This guaranteed consistency and efficiency, so the high performance standards set by government could be met. It’s largely engineering rather than trades now.

Auckland is becoming as much an energy facility as a city now every building is required to install solar skins. “Power from the people” and “City of Solar Sails” were typical hackneyed council slogans a few years ago. But there is no doubt that the bigger the city the better the energy balance.

It nearly didn’t happen though. The glare and reflected heat from some of the early skins created an environmental outcry as blind and dead birds kept being found. Better coatings helped solve that.

Still, the sameness of so many manufactured houses is a downside for many. To optimize production and keep costs low, as well as to ensure maximal surface area for solar collection, designs have been limited and construction is highly regulated to avoid further fails. “Little solar boxes” has been a common criticism.

The community hubs sometimes compensate for our smaller homes, but it can be hard for some communities to stimulate social interactions. What seems to becoming more effective in helping us “escape” in a sense from the limited structural diversity, and heavily regulated life, is the rise in social signaling.

There is a rise in the use of “smart” external panels and fences to signal cultural identity. In my neighbourhood in summer these virtual facades display the melting pot we are now in. Images from the Pacific, Asia, our own native flora and fauna, and even a few wintery European scenes. My neighbour likes to flash up images of what they are cooking, and it makes me hungry.

The Council’s had to regulate what is displayed, to help maintain public order and decency. Some people still just have no sense in what they display. Others seem to have created their own nice little income stream by renting out their surfaces to others. Of course we are only allowed to do this in summer, and other time, when there is sufficient excess energy that can be diverted to this.

Autumns and winters (somewhat arbitrary terms now), therefore, tend to be more muted, architecturally. However, that’s when personal style becomes more noticeable. We have always done that of course. But like the solar city we have taken that to a new level (or, to be honest, just catching up with the rest of the world). Social freedom statements and performances to counteract, in little ways, the tighter regulatory state. The middle of the year now seems like an endless series of local festivals and creative style shows. SO, not just power from the people, but to the people.

Robert Hickson

Dr Robert

Dr Robert Hickson is a futures speculator; that is, one who does not predict the future but examines trends, and history, to imagine what non-bleak futures may be possible. Author of the foresight blog Ariadne, he works with many New Zealand organisations to improve foresight thinking. He holds the view that in New Zealand, we don’t do enough looking forward.

The thoughts expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those held by the Industry Transformation Agenda.