These days Sweden is better known for its design exports than its blonde bombshells. IKEA, the world’s largest furniture retailer, has developed a brand using a business philosophy that incorporates economics, society and the environment. Through mass production, delivering disassembled products in flatpacks, eliminating the middleman, locating stores in industrial areas with low overhead costs; IKEA can pass their savings on to consumers. Using recycled and renewable products makes IKEA an eco-friendly company. With the focus of providing its customers with affordable, stylish, and sustainable furniture, IKEA has developed a successful business model.
IKEA also has a home building partnership in Europe using the same business philosophy. In 1996, IKEA began a joint venture with construction company Skanska called BoKlok, Swedish for smart living, using modular, pre-fabricated components which reduce construction waste. More recently IKEA ventured into the hotel business, where sustainability is of high priority. This business philosophy is part of the slow movement. For example, slow food advocates using local, healthy foods and shopping at farmer’s markets.
By 2050, demographers project that 80 percent of the world’s population, estimated to be over nine billion, in contrast to 60 percent and seven billion today, will live in urban areas. Combined with increased energy demands and a need for stewardship of the planet, it is imperative that city planners are proactive in preparing cities for the future. At least that is one vision for the future.
HammarbySjostad is a new urbanism or smart-growth community in Stockholm using slow design concepts. The Swedish government purchased private land in order to efficiently coordinate transportation and land-use. It is a transit-oriented, high-density development with reduced dependence on automobiles and designed for light-rail public transportation and walking to shops and open spaces. In addition to reducing emissions from electricity and automobiles, the community recycles nutrients from waste to farmland, and extracts biogas and biosolids from waste and converts them into heating and electricity.
Sweden, a socialist democracy, relies on centralized planning, providing a stark contrast to the United States which is decentralized and values privatization. So, will this concept work in the United States? Our socio-economic system is based on hard work and the hope for upward social mobility. After World War II, prosperity led to more homes in the suburbs with station wagons. Prosperity also changed food consumption patterns with the proliferation of fast food restaurants and high-end kitchen appliances. This lifestyle soon became known as the American Dream, the envy around the world.
Since WorldWar II, American household size has decreased while home size has increased. More successful baby boomers have replaced station wagons with gas guzzling mini-vans and SUVs, and built McMansions. Low-density, large lot suburbs designed for automobiles and commuting have led to traffic congestion and energy dependence with more pollution. These lifestyle changes have led to urban sprawl.
The progressive community of Portland, Oregon has experimented with smart growth. But, according to Jane Shaw of PERC and Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation, the Portland project has not achieved what it meant to do. Land-use planning through zoning affects the supply of single family homes and artificially drove up prices and actually prevents homeowners from realizing the American dream. Consequently, zoning practices played a role in the recent housing bubble.
Infrastructure requires large upfront costs and municipalities cannot always provide adequate maintenance through user fees. Randal O’Toole of the American Dream Coalition points out that tens of millions of dollars in government subsidies, through grants and tax breaks, were necessary to finance Portland’s rail transit. In this case, light rail did not significantly decrease the usage of automobiles.
To address the housing sustainability issue, architects throughout the United States have offered prefabricated modular housing similar to IKEA’s European venture, but with much less success. IKEA has established a pilot program in Portland, Oregon with the architectural design firm IdeaBox. However, in the United States banks are not eager to finance prefabricated housing and some people still perceive prefab as mobile homes. Even with financing and educated consumers, prefab housing needs to comply with local building codes.
Variations in building codes create problems and customizations offset any savings to consumers. Harvey Sachs of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy points out that advances in IT and industrial production now enable manufacturers to provide cost savings and customization. Mass customization using computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) borrowed from the boat building industry can mix and match modular components in various colors, sizes, and materials, similar to Dell computers and Herman Miller furniture.
The American Dream depends on ingenuity. However, with all the advancements in renewable energy, there is no clear evidence that they will provide a solution to our increasing energy demands. The necessity to reduce emissions from transportation and electricity is based on the assumption that fossil fuels are the primary source of energy. This does not take into account changes on the supply-side through novel energy sources. Schumpeterian revolutions such as synthetic biology, which reprograms microbes to produce environmentally friendly fuels, can potentially lead to an infinite supply of energy. With a transition from finite natural resources to unlimited synthetic resources, society can then focus on how to best determine pricing with infinite supply and increasing demand.
While new urbanists believe suburbanites spend too much time in their own private spaces and in their automobiles, Steve Greenhut of the Pacific Research Institute argues that smart growth is social engineering. The American dream also values individuality and the ability to make lifestyle choices. While some may prefer an urban or rural lifestyle, young adults married with kids may prefer cars and the suburbs. With a novel, clean source of energy, American citizens can then choose a rural, suburban, or urban lifestyle without the fear of participating in a culture war.
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