The technology mirage: building a future based on eco-sufficiency

Philippe Bihouix, who recently joined AREP, a multidisciplinary architectural consultancy, as Deputy General Manager, was interviewed as part of the “New technologies and sustainable growth: an outdated model?” event organised by Leonard.

Philippe Bihouix - Leonard

Philippe Bihouix’s works include Le Bonheur était pour demain (Happiness was for yesterday), published in 2019, and 2014’s L’Âge des low-tech : Vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable (The low-tech era: Towards a technically sustainable civilisation). In these books, the author explains the dangers of a technological response to the ecological crisis. As his Manifeste pour une frugalité heureuse & créative (Manifesto for happy, creative frugality) was one of the high points in the construction and sustainable urban planning sectors in 2019, it seemed like a good moment to interview one of the figureheads of the eco-sufficiency movement. Philippe Bihouix, who recently joined AREP, a multidisciplinary architectural consultancy, as Deputy General Manager, was interviewed as part of the “New technologies and sustainable growth: an outdated model?” event organised by Leonard.

Why take an eco-sufficiency stance?

At the moment, different technological solutions are heavily leaned on as a way of fighting climate change. From the use of new digital tools in energy efficiency to carbon sequestration, the idea is “to do more with less” by focusing on increasingly innovative technical means. Personally, I’m sceptical about such means having a positive impact on the climate (and even more so on biodiversity), because these so-called “green” technologies demand non-renewable resources that are often scarcer than more low-tech technologies or approaches.

Also, to me, the concept of green growth seems both dangerous and absurd over the long term. Maintaining a growth rate of 2% on a global scale implies doubling GDP every 37 years – or multiplying it 390 million times every 1,000 years. Economists are banking on decoupling, which involves increasing GDP while simultaneously reducing polluting emissions, waste and resource consumption. That can undoubtedly work partially or for a certain length of time, but it’s impossible to believe that, a thousand years from now, we will have been able to create technologies that are 390 million times more efficient or less impacting than now. Frankly, I don’t know any engineers or scientists who would be willing to bet on that.

For you, what are the limiting factors of technological innovation?

To my mind, the first issue is resources. As the technical content of our objects, buildings and cities grows, we are tapping into the stock of mineral resources increasingly quickly. The shift towards service industries is not dematerialising our economy. Our technological tools require that we extract ever more raw materials and that is even truer of green technologies.

Next comes the systemic problem of this future being presented as “greener”. The positive effects that may emerge could be offset by negative effects. Let’s take the example of the electric car: depending on where the batteries are manufactured or the carbon content of the electricity used, the results can differ. On the city-scale, smart cities or autonomous cars might enable optimal resource management as well as energy and people flows, etc. But doing so will need the deployment of a 5G telecom network – which uses three to four times more electricity than existing networks. Above all, all the devices will generate masses of data that will require more storage in data centres. But the environmental impact of digital technology is already very high – it uses 10% of electricity worldwide, making it a source of CO2 emissions that is higher than air transport and its impact is growing even faster. So cities might become more efficient, but other of their problems will shift elsewhere.

Then there’s the rebound effect. Historically speaking, technical efficiency has gone hand in hand with economic efficiency and has always led to an overall increase in consumption, even if taken separately, each behaviour, object or service can indeed be more efficient. Retrofitting buildings does not result in all the energy savings planned for in the calculations of thermal experts; opening a high-speed rail line does not empty airports, just like long-distance car-pooling does not empty roads. Instead, what happens is that different ways of travelling increase. In the air transport sector, the reduced need for kerosene of newer engines has above all led to more low-cost airlines. And in digital technology, data centres are more and more efficient and optimised, so the resulting storage cost has fallen and the volume of data doubles every 12 to 18 months!

Where do you think this runaway effect will lead?

If we’re going to capture the efficiency gains from technology, we first have to question our needs and work towards an approach of frugality or sufficiency. We have to work towards deciding what is the right level of need and the right size between our needs and the responses supplied. The most striking example is that of the car. Their engines are becoming less and less polluting and yet average emissions per vehicle are not coming down. Why’s that? Because they’re heavier, more sophisticated, more powerful and provide better performance. Couldn’t they be designed differently? Is it absolutely essential to have a 1.5 tonne car for daily use? We could easily halve consumption in this sector if we introduced tax incentives based on the weight and engine power of the vehicle.

In the construction sector, the future is in renovation, retrofitting and in best use of the existing. Every seven years, a surface area the equivalent size of a French administrative department is concreted over due to urban expansion. This trend cannot go on. At this rate, all of France will be covered in concrete or asphalt in seven to eight centuries, which is obviously impossible to keep up. As far as objects are concerned, we have to think about how long they last, how they can be reused, repaired or recycled. For buildings, we have to think about how their use can be changed and about their resilience: during their life cycle, how can they be adapted to a different use, how can equipment be used differently, how can modularity be changed, and so on.

Isn’t it idealistic to push for a change that goes against today’s dominant system?

Maybe, but we no longer have the choice. We have to change this economic system where “machines” always take precedence over people when we think in terms of innovation.

At the moment, fiscal choices, the social welfare system and the non-consideration of “negative externalities” (on ecosystems and the climate) are resulting in resources and energy that are much less costly than human labour. That has a whole set of consequences and decisions for companies, administrations and consumers: it’s always easier to throw something away rather than repair it and always more efficient to replace human labour by machines, robots, drones or software…

So innovation must not be exclusively technical or technological. It has to take into account uses and be above all social, organisational and cultural. The return of a deposit system for glass containers, for example, is above all a systemic innovation; technically speaking, we’ve known how to wash and transport bottles for a long time. To enable longer-lasting solutions to emerge and be perpetuated, it’s important to develop ambitious public action. Regulations need to change, but we also have to encourage this kind of sober innovation through public-sector orders of every scale, while involving the inhabitants of towns, cities and regions. And of course, at the same time, awareness has to continue to grow and the consequences for the greatest number must be positive (local jobs, a less stressful life, etc.).

Earlier in this interview, you talked about the city; how can that be illustrated?

We have to be careful about one-off solutions; the responses should be adaptable to different scales. I think that one of the first courses of action would be to put the brakes on excessive city expansion. We have sung the praises of urban consolidation, such as using less space and the possibility of promoting public transport. But this high-density way of life also consumes external space and leads to many different types of need, especially to feed its metabolism (logistics flows, materials, etc.). Beyond a certain scale, consolidation also has harmful effects.

It would therefore be wiser to work towards more decentralisation and revitalising smaller cities and towns. The existing built environment should be rehabilitated, made the most of and enhanced by working on less restricted spaces than those in high-density areas and in a less costly manner.

What do we do?

The VINCI Group created Leonard to tackle the challenges posed by the transformation of regions and lifestyles. Our goal is to unite a community of key stakeholders in order to build the city of the future together.