IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

As Urban Tech Outgrows Smart City Labels, Climate Becomes a Focus

Numerous startups and other urban efforts are reorienting the smart city technology space toward one which more directly impacts the lives of residents and addresses the deepening climate crisis.

Workers deploy a floating solar panel installation.
Floating photovoltaic system being installed in Walden, Colo.
Submitted Photo: Dennnis Schroeder/NREL
Emissions reductions and meeting the needs of a changing climate are where urban tech is headed — guided not only by the urgent thrust of the crisis, but by government incentives, regulatory requirements, public officials and even capital markets.

Climate change and other challenges have helped cities “re-center the conversation of technology in the context of how can we solve actual problems,” said Johan Schwind, managing director at URBAN-X a climate tech and cities platform by MINI. URBAN-X is an accelerator for startups reimagining city life.

“It’s no longer a, 'hey, we can do all these really interesting things with technology. We don’t know what we’re going to do with it, but it’s cool technology,'” remarked Schwind. “And it’s really gone to, 'we have some hard problems that we need to solve, and we need to solve them quickly.'”

Schwind tends to play down the moniker of “smart cities,” an at-times vague and dismissive term, steeped in virtue signaling.

“I never really liked the term, ‘smart cities’ because it always seemed to imply that cities without technology are kind of ‘dumb cities,’” said Schwind.

“More recently we’ve seen that this original idea of the smart city has not really worked out, has not really been viable, at least in the Western Hemisphere, at least in western cities I would say,” he added. “And in other parts of the world it’s really become a synonym for a surveillance city, essentially.”

This perspective is shared by a number of watchers of the smart cities movement, now more than a decade in adoption and development. It has morphed from the sensor-loaded trash receptacle to systems tied to the job of mitigating the effects of human-caused climate change.

Removing fossil fuels from the energy system and replacing with renewables and grid management solutions is “creating a whole new, very dynamic technical system; and it’s incredibly complex,” said Doug Davenport, founder and executive director of clean tech nonprofit Prospect Silicon Valley. Davenport was moderating a panel at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in November.

“There’s a smart cities angle to managing the grid infrastructure locally, that’s needed to make this work,” he added.

Sure, large cities like San Jose, Calif., at the center of urban tech, are developing clean energy microgrids, aimed at increasing resiliency as well as reducing the use of fossil fuels. But small cities are also pioneering innovative approaches at energy production.

The small town of Cohoes, N.Y., is moving forward with a project to nearly cover a 10-acre humanmade reservoir with a system of floating solar panels, similar to an effort in Walden, Colo. The network — kept afloat by buoys — will generate more than 4.1 million megawatts of power in a year, according to city officials.

Government legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act is layered with incentives to grow clean technology. Regulatory steps like the Advanced Clean Fleets rule, enacted by the California Air Resources Board, will transform the state’s sizable ports industry — which supports more than 30,000 drayage trucks traveling more than a billion miles annually — away from diesel power toward electric mobility.

URBAN-X participant startups are introducing innovations in areas like curbside EV charging, secure bike storage and electric transit shuttles, all areas that either directly or peripherally can influence how environmentally impactful city systems are.

Urban X aims to show “there’s value to technology and bringing new technology into cities, but that this value can actually manifest itself in very practical applications that have a positive effect on how people live,” said Schwind.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.