An Autarky System for Cities

This is a concept paper I’m writing (currently in draft state and looking for feedback :wink:). The long-term goal is to show this to daring and innovative mayors of small to medium sized cities with severe infrastructure challenges. I’d then assist / consult the cities who decide to implement autarkic infrastructure systems, like those proposed below. While it would be amazing (and very very solarpunk! :sun_with_face: ) to see fully autarkic cities, it’s ok to start small, one autarky solution at a time.

Content

1. Introduction

2. Design Principles for Small Autarkic Societies

3. Autarky Technology for Cities

4. How to Transform Your City


1. Introduction

1.1. Cities and their challenges

While some of the world’s cities are clean and green, many others face enormous challenges from national and international migration, mismanagement by past administrations, corruption, air pollution, waste management, unemployment, healthcare, noise, stress and crime. City administrations look for solutions that fit for constrained budgets.

On the other hand, even the world’s developed cities share enormous challenges in the near future: the world’s economy has to fully decarbonize by 2050 to avoid a serious climate breakdown, and so far, not one city is that clean and green. The 100 cities with the highest carbon emission footprint create about 20% of worldwide carbon emissions,1 and the highest-footprint cities that together host one billion people create about 63% of worldwide carbon emissions.2 This combination of a low number of entities with a high carbon footprint makes such cities the prime actors to avert a climate breakdown.

Now what if there were a way to solve the infrastructure, pollution, carbon emission and social challenges of a city in a matter of 5-10 years, within the limits of the city’s budget, and in such a way that the solution can survive the lack of national support and even a global economic crisis.

That is what this article is about: city-level economic autarky as a solution. In essence, it’s about cities dropping out of the globalized world economy to solve all their challenges locally, while keeping connected to the world at large by exchanging knowledge, data and people.

This autarky applies foremost to cities with low to medium standard of living and serious infrastructure challenges, as the net increase in comfort will make citizens love autarky. But even in cities with a high standard of living, most proposals are possible if citizens are ecologically conscious. And most of the proposed solutions can also be adapted to local networks of villages and towns with a combined population of at least 50,000 people.

1.2. The unexplored potential of informed autarky

Autarky, or self-sufficiency, has a reputation of being backwards. Especially in fast developing areas, people go to cities to escape the self-sufficient but “primitive” life in villages with its hard work and inadequate supply of everything from household appliances to consumer goods and healthcare.

However, the emergence of the Internet and scientific and technological progress in the last two decades has made a new form of autarky possible – just, it has yet to be tried in practice. Let’s call it “informed autarky” or maybe “solarpunk autarky”. It differs from straight-forward, village-style “primitive” autarky in that it relies heavily on globalized knowledge, freely shared over the Internet. The mantra is “globalize knowledge, localize everything else”.

A frequent argument against autarky is “But how would you make your own microprocessors.” But autarky comes in degrees: a community that can supply for itself with all consumable goods is already autarkic as far as everyday life is concerned. The 80/20 rule applied to autarky means: with 20% of effort you get 80% of the benefits of autarky. And in this paper, we focus on these low-hanging fruits – an obvious choice given that the whole area is unexplored so far.

An autarkic city is more similar to a large, well-functioning, worker-owned company than to a loose collection of households and businesses.

1.3. Problems that just vanish

To give a first glimpse of how an autarkic system can cut through the complex mess of problems that affect cities today, it is enlightening to consider what issues simply disappear as side effects of going autarkic:

  • When external trade is not a major part of a city’s economy (let’s say ≤5% of GDP), the danger of economic turmoil due to conditions that can’t be influenced or controlled by the city vanishes. Likewise, the necessity to attract foreign investment and industries with “favourable” conditions with respect to tax and workforce vanishes.

  • When you solve sanitation with a household-level technology like urine-separating dry toilets, the need for central wastewater processing plants vanishes. For cities without proper wastewater treatment, river pollution is greatly reduced. Also, domestic freshwater demand goes down a lot. The need to manufacture or import nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer is nearly eliminated because urine is perfect for both. It is utterly amazing how a technology as wasteful and damaging as the flush toilet is still in use.

  • In an autarkic economy, full recycling is obligatory and necessarily local because no trash can be exported. Single-use plastics cannot be efficiently recycled, esp. not with small-scale local technology, so they will simply fall out of use. The same applies to single-use paper such as cardboard packaging and newspapers. All associated problems of freshwater pollution, ocean pollution, air pollution through incinerators etc. also vanish. With single-use plastics and paper gone and household composting in place, household trash collection becomes a simple affair. Volume will be so low that citizens can simply drop off a bucket at the neighbourhood recycling site every four weeks, or request the pickup of bulky items on demand.

  • Because a local autarkic economy can’t manufacture combustion engine vehicles, most air pollution vanishes. Electric bicycles and light electric vehicles can however be easily manufactured locally.

  • With solar cells on every roof and demand management technology in every house, the need for central electricity plants and overland transmission lines vanishes.

  • When streets are only for (free) public transportation, electric bicycles and a few licensed delivery vehicles, street congestion vanishes.

  • When all products have to be manufactured within city limits to be sellable in the city, unemployment vanishes.

  • When global trade supplies very little of what is consumed in a city, all the issues of how to manage transportation of products half around the world in a sustainable way simply disappear.

  • When a city’s citizens consume only products from local manufacturing, the city does no longer contribute to wealth and income inequality. Because the local companies will not be multinational businesses owned by billionaires.

  • If a city does not allow the sale of goods or services by non-local companies, all advertisements by these have zero effect and are worth nothing. This will prevent future issues with data abuse, privacy breaches, AI ethics, excessive visual pollution etc…

  • As infrastructure challenges are solved on the household and neighbourhood level, and as traffic is optimized down very seriously, a city becomes easily scalable: adding inhabitants will largely not strain central resources, because the city does not have these any more.

  • By abolishing the consumption of outside resources, a city stops contributing to a multitude of outside environmental problems, such as deforestation due to palm oil plantations, environmental pollution through mining and oil spills etc…

  • Since an autarkic economy is limited to the resources within city limits, internal market prices will be seriously affected, even to the point where recycling decades old trash from landfills becomes “profitable”. Solving issues of long-term environmental pollution through landfill leaching. (Perhaps, collecting trash from the surrounding environment and oceans should be an exception from the resource autarky principle, since it is a net benefit to the cleaned-up environment.)

  • Since an autarkic city has to self-limit its population size via immigration and birth rates, it automatically respects the carrying capacity. If applied the same way globally, it would obviously solve population and consumption overshoot.

  • When autarky is implemented on the city scale, there is no need to wait for the much slower legislative process at the national scale to fix pressing global issues like climate change, species extinction and ecosystem degradation. Political deadlock vanishes. And if not for any other reason, all cities are compelled to switch as fast as possible to full autarky, because the dramatic ecological damage caused by the current economic system already puts the survival of the current human civilization at risk. Obviously, all national governments and individuals are likewise compelled to contribute their part to the solution, but fail short by far. In the current political deadlock, it even seems appropriate if city governments intentionally stretch and expand their assigned roles and responsibilities in order to transition to a sustainable economy in city borders. This would be considered a form of civil disobedience, which is already discussed as a necessary strategy by others to counter the ecological crisis.3

  • Autarkic cities are well positioned to weather many kinds of natural and man-made disasters, since changes in outside conditions like supply shortages, economic crises, inflation etc. affect them very little.

2. Design Principles for Small Autarkic Societies

  1. Reduce, reuse, recycle. An estimated 80-90% of the progress towards autarky can be made by simply reducing household consumption, of everything from freshwater to electricity, clothing and other stuff. Reusable items for packaging etc. are a major way to reduce consumption. And finally, where consumption occurs, the scraps have to be fully recycled because an autarkic economy cannot produce (most) raw materials. It will have to cope with the raw materials available within city limits. Fortunately, glass, aluminium, copper, steel, plastics, synthetic fibres, gravel, sand, meltable stones and some natural materials like wood, bamboo etc. are readily available in cities and can be recycled permanently with city-scale technology.

  2. Design for well-being, not for commerce. Autarky provides a different economic system: instead of competitive accumulation of capital, the goal is the well-being of all city inhabitants (humans, animals, plants). Commercial activity is a tool for that, not an end in itself.

  3. Keep it personal. A city is still small enough for personal reputation, personal relationships and a craftsmanship relation to ones product to flourish. So for example, there should be a system by which producers place their “tag” on the parts they make – for example a self-selected unique word, similar to how graffiti artists do it. From that, lots of interesting conversations and proud craftsmanship will flourish when people come across their own products later at shops, at their friends houses etc… This reverses the estrangement of people from the fruits of their labour, as defined by Marx.

  4. Mix and stir. Over the long term, people will like a city where they know a diverse group of people and can easily meet new people. The autarky centres in each neighbourhoods and community work in its various forms, funded by the coupon based parallel economy, are great social mixers. Other ways include randomization of home locations by circular home swaps (with participants’ approval of course).

  5. Make sure everyone’s basic needs are cared for. In other words, make sure nobody is punished for being poor – social cohesion benefits from high equality. An autarkic city can afford this for sure: it can receive community work via city taxes paid in-kind, and in an autarkic economy this community work can be turned into everything else, including homes for the homeless, food for the needy etc…

  6. Support the movement of people, but not of stuff. This is the opposite of globalization, which promotes global trade but restricts the movement of people through visas etc… An autarky is not a prison: the Autarkic City should look and feel inviting to everyone, esp. because it is a model to learn from. And people are free to come and go, move in and move out as they please. They should stay because they like the place, not because they can’t escape. And certainly, if some people leave there will be enough others who move in to take their place.

  7. Keep the population within limits. It is important to keep the city’s population size from growing beyond the carrying capacity of the city’s environment (esp. sunshine, water, wind) because an autarkic settlement cannot expand constructions to new areas: that would be appropriation of natural resources. It is equally important that the population does not fall below the level needed for the specializations and workforce for maintaining the autarky. Within these limits, the number does not matter because autarkic societies don’t deteriorate the planet. Replacement by immigration is better than by birth though, because frankly, the planet is too full, and “consuming” immigrants helps to solve that.4

    Practically, this means people might have to apply for becoming a resident of the city: just finding a place to live would not be enough, as landlords might cramp too many people into a house. They might even have to apply for having children, but a multitude of graceful ways is possible to compensate for unplanned pregnancy. For example, adjusting allowed immigration, or an insurance system that compensates those who can’t have their application for children granted.

  8. Design a system, not just its parts.

  9. Solve problems as local as possible. If a problem can be solved at the household level, don’t solve it at the neighbourhood or city level, and especially not on the regional, national or global level.

  10. Waste no wind, sunshine or water. Wind and sun provide energy, while water has to be replenished since it evaporates from plants. A city area received enough of all these (with the exception of water for some cities), so the quest is capturing every last bit of them and putting it to productive use.

  11. Let nothing escape. For an autarkic city, there is no waste: only when reusing everything, the city can permanently exist without importing new raw materials. The simplest way is to not let anything escape the city except for gases: water vapour and carbon dioxide. At the same time, this solves all issues with pollution of the surrounding environment.

  12. Embrace physical mess and digital order. Ordering things in the physical world is always expensive, but not so in the digital world. When transforming to an autarky setup, change and order things in the digital world to change how physical things work together. There is less of a need to change the physical things themselves. For example, there is no need to change houses or streets if houses have no proper addresses: simply use a system like “What Three Words”.

  13. Open source everything. This also means that everything will be properly documented online, allowing owners to do maintenance and repair themselves. Obviously, by providing all knowledge for free to the outside world, it does not influence the trade-to-GDP ratio, which keeps being a proper measure for autarky then.

  14. Standardize everything. Without the competition of a capitalist market economy, there is no incentive to create proprietary, incompatible products. Instead, develop standard product designs that are then produced by workshops across the city (and maybe across the world, as all designs will be shared in open source manner). It is fine to have various versions of products if they don’t change too often – say, once in 5-10 years, so that the cost-saving effects of standard spare parts and repair procedures can be harvested. It is ok to have more frequent minor product releases if products can be physically “updated”. Standardization is a huge cost saving opportunity, largely unexplored in consumer products in a capitalist society.

  15. Time-intensive work is fine if done once. Most products will take much longer to produce in an autarky setting, but that does not have to be a net disadvantage compared to big industry: since self-sufficiency is not a capitalist market economy, products are made only when needed and then are made to last and not to break. Using highly automated industrial production to create consumer products with a material efficiency of 1% after six months (fraction of products in use vs. total waste)5 is just a perverse waste of resources.

  16. Don’t stretch it too far. There is no need to have a 100% autarky: a trade-to-GDP ratio of ≤5% is good enough, as both China and the Soviet union did not do much better than this even when they were pursuing autarky by state policy.6 If a higher degree of autarky in a certain area requires extreme investments into infrastructure, such as “two dozen nuclear plants for heating [and] lighting”7 for growing all food indoors in New York City – that’s not the way to go. In such a case, accept that your city was not built with autarky in mind and focus on other areas where higher autarky can be achieved easily. For the difficult areas, use long-term urban planning to transform the city appropriately over time, for example by not constructing buildings in place of those that had to be torn down.

3. Autarky Technology for Cities

The following is just an outline and lists only a few of many options. The intention is to demonstrate that in all areas of human well-being, affordable technology is available to create and maintain local autarky.

3.1. Information system

A city-wide participatory management portal for the city, including all of its autarkic economy, is a suitable backbone of an autarky system. The evolution of this software can provide huge efficiency gains over time without physical changes to anything else. Such an information system would comprise at least the following features:

  • City trade and logistics marketplace. Facilitating reuse and recycling is a major way to avoid waste – means, the city will have fewer issues dealing with waste removal.

  • Non-monetary payment system. The scarcity of money limits economic exchange and is the cause of unemployment in economic downturns. In an autarkic economy however, we need the contributions of everyone wanting to work. To solve this, set up a money-independent system for economic exchange. Use it for all affairs of the city administration (incl. payment of city taxes), and encourage citizens to use it themselves.

    The system can be a complementary currency (“trade dollars”), but to take away any trust issues that citizens may have with how a currency is managed, better use a coupon based system. For example, there is PayCoupons,8 a system we are developing since 2012 for this purpose.

  • Community task management system. This is like a municipal gig economy system, with payment in coupons and not in money. Note how this immediately solves unemployment, as the city government can provide as many tasks for the transformation of the city as they can think of, and pay for that with taxes raised in coupons from its citizens. Of course, citizens can also create tasks, so the system doubles as a citizen collaboration platform similar to FixMyStreet.9

    Since there will always be enough tasks to do, citizens stop worrying about losing their job, as they know they will find something to do if they need something. Of course, such a task management system can be used to organize community work on a massive scale: with proper documentation, lots of people can take part in road construction for a day, for example. Being physically involved in the construction and maintenance of their own city will give citizens a sense of ownership and belonging, with a multitude of positive social consequences flowing from that.

  • Trust and reputation system. Cities are necessarily mostly anonymous since people can’t know everyone there (limited by Dunbar’s Number). But an information system can help with a standard way of managing trust and reputation, and that in turn allows unprecedented ways of collaboration. For example, citizens would get automatic access to various semi-public spaces and resources based on their user profile in the information system, for example machines from a tool library or a lock code for a podless shared bicycle. The information also makes it simple to evaluate whom to trust with jobs that require high trust (childcare, access to ones home or computer, medical and social care at home etc.).

  • Participatory budgeting system. Let your citizens decide together how to modify the city.

  • Geoinformation system. Every place-related information about the city would be available here to the public, from shop addresses to individual trees and the locations of cables and tubes.

3.2. Food

Grow food on all flat surfaces: rooftops, front yards, backyards, public spaces, balconies. Even on the window sills indoors (a good place for kitchen greens). Grow food over all streets by having trees left, right, between lanes and on traffic islands. Grow climbing and hanging edible plants10 on all vertical surfaces: building walls, separation walls, fences, tree guards, tree stems etc… Mandate that every house either has the roof covered with edible plants or solar panels. Also encourage bee keeping and mushroom production, which is possible in underground spaces without light.

Have a policy that allows everyone to eat everything growing on public ground. Manage harvesting with the city’s task management system, on busy streets as a night-time activity. Keep enough water reserves to water all of these plants in a multi-year drought.

Mandate that restaurants and markets must not throw away anything, and deploy the city’s community workforce and small businesses to rescue, sort, distribute and preserve this food. Under autarky, the incentives for this stack up: the effort to utilize this food may be more than its world market price, but such a market price is irrelevant in a city that does not import food.

There will be very few livestock animals, but backyard chickens, goats as “lawn mowers” that come to people’s yards and some pigs to eat kitchen scraps are all possible. Still, people’s diet will be low on meat, and that’s a good thing as far as human health, food production efficiency and climate change is concerned.

3.3. Job and income guarantee

This is not an unconditional basic income but rather a job guarantee: all companies in a city would have to agree to list all low and medium skill tasks in a task portal and to accept everyone who applies with the right skills and reputation. Both skills and reputation would be managed in the city’s information system, which see.

An income guarantee is important because it completely de-stresses people’s lives: they can stop worrying that they may lose their job. They can also work in a flexible way (every day at another location depending on what work is available) if they prefer, with the freedom to not work if they don’t need the additional income.

There would be a city-imposed minimum income and price limits for basic items so that a well-defined amount of work (ca. 16 hours per week) is enough for all basic needs. People would work more to supply for children, to work for “luxury” goods or experiences etc., but that’s fully optional.

A major way how a city can execute public works is to have a “community workforce”, paid in people’s coupons that the city gets directly or indirectly from city taxes. Such a workforce can do all kinds of unskilled and semi-skilled work, and people would only work there for a few days at a time. Organization would be semi-militarily so that every worker can navigate the organization easily when joining again, as it is clear and does not change much how it works internally. Possible work includes harvesting of fruit and nut trees in public space (and unused ones on private space), demolition of buildings, collecting trash, landscape gardening, street repair and maintenance, street cleaning for dust control, gardening in public space etc…

3.4. Electricity

All buildings have locally owned, locally managed electricity generation by solar panels and biogas driven combustion motors (as backup), and also (optional) local battery storage. Together, they form a micro-grid. Batteries are of the lead-acid type with exchangeable plates and in standard sizes, as these can be fully recycled in a closed-loop local economy.

Generation and supply happens at 240 V DC – not a problem since the city is not connected to the national grid. This avoids the need for inverters, and both the existing cabling and most electrical devices will either work right away (resistive loads) or can be easily converted from 240 V AC.

Another option is to use 240 V square wave AC, which allows much simpler and cheaper inverters than traditional sinus-wave AC. Most loads will work with this without changes, but some electronics will have to be fitted with filters to avoid long-term damage. These filters have to be adjusted to the power draw and can take the shape of a plug adapter. The advantage is that people can keep using their devices on 240 V AC while travelling, without any changes.

3.5. Cooking and heating

For cooking, biogas is an attractive fuel. For its distribution, a low pressure network made from flexible plastic piping on poles would be a suitable option. Since the biogas would be generated at the house or block level, this piping is enough as it only occasionally has to transport gas between houses / blocks, namely where the local production is not enough. An interesting addition is to mix hydrogen into the biogas, made by electrolysis from excess photovoltaic electricity. This is possible up to 50% of hydrogen by volume without increased flammability, leakage and embrittlement risks.11

Fuel combustion is currently the way heating is done. But with no fossil fuel and little burnable biomass available in an autarkic city, this becomes a problem in climates with a cold winter. Autarky is still possible by combining various unconventional and extreme solutions, such as:

  • Compost heating. Build the house around a central 3x3 m column filled with compost.
  • Solar heating. Vacuum tube type thermal solar collectors work even in the winter if there is clear sky.
  • Seasonal heat storage. Using solar heat and storing it underground during the summer.
  • Heated clothing. Together with highly insulating clothing of course, allowing to cope with lower environmental temperatures. Clothing can be heated electrically or with a small ethanol or gas flame.
  • Sleeping in dorms. This means less space has to be heated during the night, and when properly insulated it may even heat itself given that each person emits about 100 W.
  • Smaller living quarters. By preparing buildings to go without damage if not heating a part of them, a lot of fuel can be saved. It is even better to disuse some buildings completely and move to larger, more compact buildings for the winter, as these are more efficient to heat.
  • Stored biomass for biogas. Biogas is difficult to store, but by drying and storing the biomass to make it from, seasonal energy storage is easily possible.
  • Extreme insulation. Use extremely thick (1 m or more) locally made insulation to retrofit existing buildings. Options are plentiful, depending on the local situation: stone wool, waste plastic wool, plastic honeycomb sheets, straw bales etc…
  • Underground housing.
  • House inside a greenhouse.
  • Deadwood collection. As a slight departure from autarky within city limits, deadwood collection from surrounding forests and its conversion to biochar for soil amendment in the city is possible because carbon removal is a net benefit to the environment. However, it is important to not take all dead biomass, leaving enough that will return nutrients to the soil and provide habitat for animals. Charring via constant volume flash carbonization or wood distillation creates carbon monoxide and methane as by-products, and these would be used for heating in the city.

3.6. Internet

Provide a 2 Mbit·s-1 Internet flat rate to every flat free of charge, and the same as a wifi connection in all streets and public spaces. Wifi coverage in streets can simply be done by letting everyone provide a guest wifi with the antenna behind a window.

The low speed encourages data efficient websites and avoids excessive data consumption in spite of a flat rate tariff. People who want a faster connection have to pay (for 2 hours, 8 hours, a full day, or any multiples of days).

To manage the network infrastructure, use the Guifi software. Connections will be a mix of Ethernet cabling, P2P VDSL cabling over cheap two-wire lines, and wireless connections over directional wifi. The network device hardware can be chosen to run open source software (already commercially available, see OpenWrt etc.) and in a later stage be locally developed open hardware made with standardized microcontrollers, FPGA chips and the like.

3.7. Water supply

Separate between potable and non-potable water. Allow people to harvest rainwater from all their premises for free. Also allow them to draw the non-potable water from on-site wells for free, but only to a certain limit per year (with a water meter on the pump). This encourages frugal use of the water. Adjust the limit as needed to prevent the groundwater table from dropping.

Provide potable water in 20 l jars through the logistics system. Some people may also opt to purify their own water on-site from the well.

3.8. Wastewater

Prohibit the sale of any not fully biodegradable household detergent within city limits. The largest source of wastewater is removed by replacing all flush toilets with separating dry toilets. All remaining wastewater is biodegradable graywater or contaminated water (with chemicals, pharmaceuticals or oil). Let every house install a graywater treatment plant and use the residue for watering the part of the garden grown in closed containers to prevent groundwater contact. Collect contaminated wastewater to be evaporated at a neighbourhood facility, with the remains burned in high temperatures.

Then, remove household connections to the city’s wastewater plumbing system. It is no longer needed (or you could re-purpose it for robots that provide automatic delivery of small packages …).

3.9. Solid waste

Mandate that items can only be sold without or in re-usable packaging. Standardize various types of re-usable packaging that circulate freely and without payments, esp. glass jars for food and boxes for parcel shipments. People may stockpile and use some at home, but that is no long-term issue as everyone has only a limited amount of space at home and will return unused containers to circulation if they are sure they can also get them again when they want them.

All designs for locally manufactured open source products will try hard to cope with a limited amount of raw materials according to a local standard: various thermoplastics, aluminium, cast iron, steel, stainless steel, titanium, copper, glass, and biodegradable materials. Because all of these can either be recycled with minimal losses, or regrown in nature.

3.10. Traffic

Mandate a speed limit of 25 km·h-1 in city limits. It won’t slow down delivery workers since driving is not what they do most of the time, it won’t slow down e-bicycles by much, it won’t slow down the occasional heavy vehicles on a busy street, and all other traffic is discouraged anyway. It will however severely limit injuries in accidents, as both braking distance and kinetic energy is a quarter of that of a 50 km·h-1 vehicle. Also, cyclists will feel safer.

Let bicycles, cargocycles and velomobiles, with and without electric assist, take over the street by discouraging all other forms of transportation. (You could also allow electric scooters, but e-bicycles at least allow to pedal, which is certainly a health benefit.) Full-body velomobiles are also great – mostly for protection in rain and snow, not for speed reasons, as distances in the city are quite short anyway. A semi-podless sharing system for electrical and non-electrical bicycles and scooters seems the most DIY and most energy efficient option. Each would be GPS tracked so its position is visible on a map to the next users. Pods would be the preferred positions for the electrical bicycles because it allows to charge them. Usage fees would be by time – in coupons of course.

For elderly and disabled users, there would be various specialized electric light vehicles: with three or four wheels, incl. purely electric versions, those with a full cover, and those that can be used with a wheelchair.

Everyone has a right to work from home if this is reasonably possible. It is possible for all office workers for sure, but even for a good amount of assembly workers who can get parts and tools delivered to their home. This reduces traffic and the need for other services like child daycare. Similarly, school children would only go to school a few days a week and otherwise learn at home, or with their peers in the local neighborhood.

For cargo transportation, there would likewise be electrically assisted cargo cycles in various shapes and sizes, available for everyone to rent. Only for the most heavy loads (containers), there would be traditional trucks with combustion engines. They would only be allowed to drive at night, at low speeds, and on locally manufactured biogas. Converting petrol and diesel engines to biogas is possible with local means; in the case of diesel the biogas will be used as a co-fuel while still requiring 10% of the original amount of Diesel for ignition. That 10% can however be fully covered by locally produced biodiesel, given that heavy load transportation will be an exceptional case.

3.11. Logistics

A reliable and fast logistics system is the most important solution for congested streets: it must be simpler, faster and cheaper to order something shipped through the logistics system than to pick it up. The city would have standardized, re-usable packaging for this logistics system, locally manufactured from recycled plastic. Houses would have street-side parcel boxes where the delivery service drops off and picks up the parcels. Addressing will be done with a digital record connected to a QR code that identifies a packaging container.

Logistics does not have to be centralized, but coordinated: people register to serve a certain area at a certain time, take the vehicle for that, and do the pickup and delivery drive. All houses should be served four times a day (early morning, noon, end of business, late evening). A software would guarantee that this happens, where necessary by activating “emergency reserve” workers, for a higher fee obviously.

The logistics system is the backbone of the city’s collaborative economy and of its supply and waste management system. For example, human excrements from the urine separating dry toilet are also transported via this logistics system. Likewise, potable water, biogas bottles etc… Companies would send parts for assembly to people’s home, and semi-finished products as raw materials to other companies. Companies and households would get rented tools delivered from a central magazine, and send them back after use. Even trash collection would be done by this logistics system, given that household trash volumes will be very low (no plastic packaging, local composting, widespread renting and resale of products).

If the company has a connection to the train network, it is advisable to remove all motorable roads going into and out of the city. This way, others simply can’t come with their combustion engine vehicles to pester the city’s air.

3.12. Industry

Local industries have to produce all physical products needed in the city, and also contribute their share to the global development of immaterial products (content, databases, software). All of these will be open source, and no product can be sold without having its design files published in open source manner on a collaborative development portal. Manufacturers of competing designs have to work out a common design over time to not duplicate efforts.

Most manufacturing will be in small batches to refill stocks, or made-to-order for rarely needed products. All designs have to be adapted for complete recycling and re-usability of as many components as possible (means, products must use as few custom parts as possible). For example, there might be a standard that electronically controlled products either have to use an Arduino or Raspberry Pi board for control.

Manufacturing should mostly rely on computer-controlled machines (3D printers, CNC mills etc.) because that brings in the efficiency of automation even for small-batch and single piece manufacturing. It also reduces the need for worker skills, and is less drudgery.

Multiple specialized workshops have to work together to create the individual parts of a product and then to assemble it. This can be nicely organized with a distributed manufacturing platform: when a new products is ordered, the system splits it into orders for the individual workshops automatically.

Users can (and are expected) to provide feedback and bug reports to products they use, via an issue tracker in the product development portal. Product development is not a local affair, though, as designs are shared and replicated globally to save efforts. Each city may only care for a few products.

3.13. Sharing Systems

The household level is not always the most efficient solution in terms of material use, energy use, system complexity and maintenance effort. In spite of this, household solutions are currently still used where people can’t afford to pay somebody else for the work. This changes in a city economy with a coupon based no-deadlock economy where everyone is guaranteed work at all times. It allows neighbourhood level or city level services for example for:

  • clothing pickup, washing and delivery
  • communal kitchen, with dining out or home delivery
  • tool magazine, with home delivery and pickup
  • clothing lending (it’s ok to have a different outfit every weekend if it’s not yours – because then it’s not consumption)
  • furniture lending (no need to own furniture you only need for a party, for guests etc.)
  • cold storage as a service, with pickup and delivery
  • processing of home-grown food (pickling, juicing, drying, smoking etc.)
  • flexible flat sharing (a cheap option to live for those with just a suitcase of stuff; they join others to occupy flats that are temporarily unused because their regular users might be out of town)

3.14. Education

As far as public schools are obligatory, there will be little way around them, but cities may be able to influence them to various degrees through teacher selection, provision of buildings and facilities, and collaboration on projects for the students. It may also be able to reverse some of the damage dome in public schools by offering voluntary, enjoyable after-school activities of all sorts.

However, after the obligatory schooling (around 9 years in most countries), students are free to continue their education in a different way, and the city can support that. As a rough proposal, students would be encouraged to take part in on-the-job education in all kinds of roles and tasks in the autarkic economy, while getting further background knowledge from open source study materials to read and watch in self-study. Learning something by heart is only needed in exceptional cases, as online knowledge is always at hand. Students should however prove (mostly to themselves but also for the reputation system) that they understood what they study by taking short online tests after each chapter. Students would proceed in this way until finding what they want to specialize in more deeply, and after committing to a field would then be assigned a mentor to guide their studies alongside working on real-world projects in this field.

3.15. Healthcare

To be on the safe side, take the healthcare system as it is and only improve it with open source, locally made solutions. If the city has no hospital, that implies building a hospital. Another way, so far unexplored, are the potential health and cost benefits of collecting, sharing and evaluating local health-related data. For example, it may reveal the locally prevalent stems of bacteria in infections, allowing better targeting with antibiotics than by following general advice for first-line treatment. Additionally, patient quarantine is an underused way to limit disease load: when people are not forced to work due to urgent financial needs and the quarantine place is nice and relaxing, they can enjoy it as a voluntary vacation time. Software may track contact between people and, depending on the disease, quarantine them or inform them to self-quarantine at the onset of any symptoms.

Advanced medical treatments and pharmaceuticals are still out of the reach of autarkic production for some time. So, the city can provide a health insurance system mostly relying on its own hospital, but in cases where outside treatment is required, the insurance would cover that in legal tender currency. Still, contributions to the health insurance would be possible to be paid in coupons, and only optionally in money.

3.16. Art and Aesthetics

There is a surprisingly important role for artists and designers to make an autarkic city a success story. For a success, citizens have to like their city, which includes its aesthetics. Now with limited local manufacturing abilities and the requirement of a circular economy, all products will have a rougher finish and be made from a more restricted choice of materials. To still have pleasing aesthetics, it needs the input of gifted artists and designers. They will certainly explore how to utilize the unique additional abilities of an autarkic economy: unique designs for each item due to digital manufacturing, participatory design processes, shared design elements and even color schemes between all products etc…

3.17. Research

Research can be funded from city taxes and voluntary donations, both in coupons. But, funded research will be strictly utilitarian, given that autarkic cities will have urgent practical issues to resolve for the next decades. This is ensured by letting funders vote on research proposals made by the researchers. Delegate voting can be employed.

3.18. Tourism

All hotels are phased out and converted to apartment flats. Private individuals are obliged to offer excess rooms and encouraged to offer temporary beds in their flats to tourists and travellers. This prevents the conversion of whole flats for accommodating guests, and also removes the extreme inefficiency of hotels.

3.19. Ecosystem Restoration

The closer a city is to a self-sustaining wilderness ecosystem, the better. At least the following elements should be restored over time:

  • soil: you can’t have enough soil, ever; compost all biomass within city limits, mix it with biochar, sand and crushed stones to make soil, and supply that as planting soil for cheap to households and farms for their gardening purposes; keep all soil under plant cover to prevent wind and water erosion
  • carbon capture: creating biochar from biomass that is then used as a 10% soil amendment
  • soil detoxification: many heavy metals and organic compounds can be extracted with “hyperaccumulator” plants
  • water table: use groundwater infiltration and extreme water saving and water reuse in order to restore the groundwater table to 1-2 m below the surface, providing a valuable backup in times of drought
  • native plants and trees: mix them thoroughly with all the planting of edible plants
  • insects: don’t let anyone use chemical pesticides in city limits; provide a wealth of flowering plants for bees and insects; where necessary breed and release certain insects in greenhouses; mandate that no artificial lighting is used outdoors after sundown, as it attracts insects who then get trapped and die – rather, people should simply use flashlights and headlights
  • other animals: provide habitats, esp. large quiet parks

4. How to Transform Your City

  1. Join the alliance of autarkic cities. Sharing knowledge is the key to low-cost and effective autarky solutions, so joining forces is the first step.

  2. Soft-launch autarky as a non-monetary economy. It is essential that citizens understand and support the autarkic transformation of their city. The most attractive way to explain it to them is by launching a parallel economy based on a coupon system where everyone can find compensated work and all work contributes to the common good. We already provide such a system with PayCoupons12 that you can then deploy in your city while developing the city’s full information system alongside.

  3. Start a membership system for early adopters of autarky solutions. Tell your citizens that each autarky solution will become mandatory only once it is mature, which can be after anything from 1-15 years after starting its development. Tell them that they can enjoy the benefits faster and contribute as test users to the development when they sign up for the membership. In the ideal case, people will all sign up voluntarily due to word of mouth about cost savings, job guarantee etc., and there will be no need to force anyone when the time for general deployment of a solution comes.

  4. Let each neighbourhood found an autarky centre. Because a lot of autarky is best managed at the neighbourhood level. In addition, people getting to know their neighbours has many positive social consequences. The autarky centre must be a physical building in that neighbourhood.

  5. Solve the city’s worst infrastructure issue. Acceptance by citizens will be best if you replace what is worst working with an autarkic solution first.

  6. Get your schools and universities to work on autarky technology. In their exercise projects, they can all contribute, and if only by improving documentation of systems that already exist. You need all the workforce you can get because most autarky solutions are not yet developed, so start with those who currently waste their time with useless assignments.

  7. Ban advertising. Long-term exposure to advertising degrades people’s happiness and promotes excessive consumption. All products available in a small autarkic economy are from local manufacturing, and these companies will have neither a reason nor the money to advertise beyond the business’s name over their entrance. There is zero reason to advertise, since all local services and products will be listed in an online directory. Eliminating exposure to advertising from the surrounding national and global economy will be a bit more difficult, but: make people hate ads by demonstrating their adverse effects, and then provide them with free ad-removal service. That means somebody comes to their home and installs ad-blockers in their browser and TV (the latter replacing ads with filler material according to timing information obtained live from the Internet).

  8. Set up a city-wide automatic insurance to fix risk anxiety. Everyone moving to the city will have to sign a contract that they agree that all claims are covered by a payout from that insurance.

  9. Deal with existing industries. This is one of the more difficult decisions: what to do with heavily export dependent industries that already are in the city? Certainly, some of them have to be closed down by all means, esp. fossil fuel extraction businesses, factory animal farms and non-organic agriculture. Others could be upgraded to be a net benefit to the environment, such as well-managed recycling businesses. They would be allowed to operate, but without mixing its material flows with the autarkic economy: whatever raw materials they bring in they have to ship out in products and waste materials.

Footnotes

1 See: “New study estimates the carbon footprints of 13,000 cities”, https://phys.org/news/2018-05-carbon-footprints-cities.html

2 See: “Carbon footprints of 13,000 cities”, https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aac72a, figure 3.

3 See for one article of many that articulates this: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/31/law-breaker-save-planet-direct-action-civil-disobedience . Of course, there are often creative ways to avoid de jure overstepping a city government’s abilities. For example, if national laws requires a city to allow people driving fuel combusting cars on nationally administered streets through city boundaries, the city can still block each and every connection from there to its own roads. Logically, the street will no longer be part of the city’s traffic infrastructure.

4 The range between minimum and maximum capacity should be a factor of 2 or more. That allows two shrinking autarkies to merge, opening a way to slowly depopulate Earth to a reasonable human population size of 500 – 1,500 million.

5 See: Paul Hawken, Natural Capitalism, (1999) p. 81. For a full quote and explanation, see: Annie Leonard: “Story Of Stuff, Referenced and Annotated Script”, p. 9 footnote 44, https://storyofstuff.org/wp-content/uploads/movies/scripts/Story%20of%20Stuff.pdf

6 See: https://www.cfr.org/excerpt-failure-adjust

7 See: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-sorkin/a_b_7286840.html

8 See: https://pay.coupons/

9 See: https://www.fixmystreet.com/

10 For initial inspirations, see: https://www.bcliving.ca/20-climbing-edibles

11 See: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/HCNG#Gefahren

12 See: https://pay.coupons/

Has Likes

Very impressive, as always. There is a bit too much of a strong hand for my taste: this is banned, that is compulsory… but this might simply be a function of your engineering approach.

We are consultants at the the edge of things, and it is not of the question to try crazy stuff out. My question to you is related to this: what do you think is a MVP for this vision? To which extent can pieces of this solarpunk utopia stand alone? Which pieces?

A MVP, or rather a proper demonstration project, could be to deploy as many of these systems as possible in one city block or even just a large apartment block (so, for 2,000 - 10,000 people). A yet-to-be-built apartment block is attractive because, unlike with city blocks or informal settlements, it would need only the consent of one developer and not of government officials or “all the people”.

Alternatively, some elements of the system can also be used alone on city-scale. The most innovative ones that are also unlikely to meet much resistance from citizens would be the right candidates here: see “sharing systems”, “food”, “electricity”, “cooking and heating” and perhaps “traffic”. But there will be “NIMBY” type resistance to change anyway, so an apartment block as a demonstration project seems much more attractive to me.

After writing the paper above, I started some case studies to show the feasibility of the proposed components of my system. However I discovered a quite hilarious failure where dry toilets were used in a large apartment block of public housing in China, and that’s already the largest scale they were ever used in an urban area. I know what would have to be different, but cities won’t go near such alternative wastewater systems in the next years. The comfort of middle-class citizens is still much more valuable than environmental concerns. It will be similar with most of my other proposals above: too much “out there” to have a realistic chance of a city administration wanting to try them. I looked at conferences and forums of progressive mayors etc. but they seem to discuss mostly bullshit (“smart cities and the Internet of Things” etc.) and where not, are not nearly radical enough.

So yea. It won’t happen as there is little to no audience for such ideas. I hope to be proven wrong of course – maybe the right person will find this thread one day. But I’ll not actively pursue this much. Rather, I’ll focus on a remote village in Nepal. I’ll have an audience there, I guess :blush:

Has Likes

Looked around a bit more about “autarkic city blocks” and some interesting stuff came up:

In total, focusing on the renovation of an existing apartment complex or city block seems a much better way in for urban radical self-sufficiency systems than to approach cities directly. What sets the proposal above apart from all other self-sufficient city blocks is that it does not just care about energy, water and food but also integrates circular economic production of most items of day-to-day use.

I still don’t see a clear way to actually make such a project happen, but maybe somebody else has an idea. @hazem, maybe you find this interesting … esp. since you’re living in the same city as Mr. Guallart now …

Has Likes

Just found an interesting article that fits right in with the idea of autarkic cities. It complements the above vision with ideas about neighborhood self-governance etc.:

https://theconversation.com/the-simple-life-manifesto-and-how-it-could-save-us-33081

Mh. The article is unimpressive. The underlying assumption is that all problems are city-scale problems, which is false. Your 80-20 autonomy above is much better.

There is another piece of vague thinking in here, which is this. When the simple life guys say “city” they seem to think of, I don’t know, Antwerp. Or Parma. Or Dortmund. Or do they think of Beijing, or Cairo, or Mexico City? These are very different objects. Larger cities are (much) more efficient, because their material consumption increases sublinearly, and their knowledge production superlinearly, in city size.

Even your “oh, trade can be less than 5% of GDP, and then we do not need to attract foreign investment anymore” looks completely impossible for Antwerp, and much more realistic for Beijing. But then again, governing Beijing is no longer “local” governance: that city is as large as Belgium, and it has twice the number of inhabitants. So you will still have a more local governance layer, as well as a non-local, metropolis-scale one for metropolis-scale problems (which will be many).

But of course living in Mexico City does not appeal to radical open source digital nomads, who dream of high-tech countryside, so that plan is out the window, too.

Has Likes