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What it Takes to Become a Smart City

A significant part of FutureStructure involves the evolution of cities into smart cities. Everything in a city is connected and by exposing how things are – or can be – connected, more intelligent decisions can be made that will create communities that are better for the people who live in them.

On March 12 sustainable cities conference organizer Meeting of the Minds held a webinar titled Smart Cities: Turning Information Into Action. The webinar featured input from Jesse Berst, Chairman of the Smart Cities Council; Russ Vanos, Senior Vice President at utility technology services provider Itron; and Jason Zogg, an urban planner with Detroit’s DTE Energy.

Over the course of the webinar the three participants laid out a number of strategies and solutions to help cities along the path of becoming a “smart city.” A significant part of what we call FutureStructure involves the evolution of cities into smart cities. It’s part of our effort to help city and regional leaders understand that cities are not a collection of independent silos. Rather, cities in reality are large-scale, interconnected systems. Everything in a city/region is connected. By exposing how things are – or can be – connected, we believe more intelligent decisions can be made that will create communities that are better for the people who live in them.

At FutureStructure we look at cities and regions through three lenses.  

·         Soft Infrastructure – these are the intangible things like regulations, education, laws, policies, human capital, research…these are the places new ideas start.

·         Hard Infrastructure – this is the built environment, the roads, utilities, energy, water, buildings, bridges, and rail…the things we’ve built or plan to build.

·         Technology – technology bridges the gap between our ideas and our infrastructure. Today and in the future, technology will allow us to build in new and better ways that make not just our buildings smarter but our communities as a whole.

Becoming a smart city requires doing a lot of thing differently. Fundamentally it means identifying and incorporating interconnectedness. At FutureStructure we describe this as getting city leadership to think more like systems engineers.

Why is it so critical that city leaders begin thinking more like a systems engineer? Consider these facts. In 1950, there were 83 cities with populations exceeding one million; by 2007, this number had risen to 468. And by 2050 the World Health Organization estimates 70 percent of the global population will live in cities. This marks an unprecedented shift in human history. The vast majority of the world will soon live and work in these mammoth, manufactured ecosystems we call cities. In that context, it becomes clear why a much more holistic understanding of cities is vital to the well-being of the planet’s inhabitants.

“Cities are our hope for the future,” Berst said. “If you’re in the U.S. or Europe 80 percent of us live in cities already. We can’t solve the planet’s problems unless we solve them in cities.”

Organizations like FutureStructure, Meeting of the Minds, the Smart Cities Council and others see smart cities as the way to solve 21st century challenges.

“We really are at the cusp of a new age,” Berst said. “Not just where cities will be more livable but also much more sustainable. And not just more sustainable but also much more prosperous – cities that will give citizens the tools they need to succeed and prosper. And that’s all possible thanks to smart technologies.”

According to Berst, cities are facing many challenges, such as aging infrastructure, growing populations, congestion, and climate change. “To solve the problems we have to turn to smart technology,” he said. “It’s the only way we can get there.”

Berst argued that cities are the ideal place to solve these problems because, unlike the federal government, cities are big enough to have some clout but small enough to get things done.

He also believes that smart cities represent the planet’s next big growth sector because a smarter city makes every business in that city more competitive.

An obvious question, then, is what is a smart city? Berst described is thusly: [A smart city] uses computing power to enhance its livability and its workability and its sustainability. It achieves all three of those goals. It’s not an isolated project here or there in one department or another. It is something that uses platforms and services that cross departments; where they share infrastructure, they share costs and they share data. And it’s that data sharing that is opening up some of the most exciting applications. It’s also a city where the infrastructure talks and listens. So the streets tell you if they’re congested. The buildings tell you if they’re occupied and how much energy they’re using.

There are many examples of these technologies already at work. Envision Charlotte, which is tasked with reducing energy consumption in the downtown core by 20 percent over 5 years, was one of the first stories FutureStructure covered. And recently the U.S. Department of Transportation authorized a go-ahead to start mandating auto manufacturers to incorporate connected vehicle technology.  

Berst cited as an example the city of Rio de Janeiro. Rio, of course, will host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. In preparation the city teamed up with IBM to build a state-of-the-art city operations center that leverages all the latest in IBM’s smarter cities research. You can read an in-depth report about this in the New York Times.

Berst said that in conversations with the Brookings Institute, they’ve found two things that are problematic as it pertains to becoming a truly smart city. Number one is that cities are still working in silos, doing isolated projects and duplicating efforts. Second is that a lot of cities don’t know what they want to become – they don’t know how to apply smart technology and innovation because they don’t know where they’re trying to go.

To solve those issues, Berst said cities need to figure out what are their strengths, what their major challenges are, and what their true aspirations are. “When those three things are identified, then it’s time to create a smart city task force with a visionary leader – ideally a city manager or a mayor. Finally, stakeholders have to be engaged regularly,” he said.   

Once a task force has been created, Berst advised that it develop a vision plan, noting that cities such as Hartford, Conn., Vancouver, New York and Amsterdam have already done so.  

“Once you’ve got that task force you go back to those three questions and you find the intersections,” Berst explained. “You address your strengths in ways that will move you toward your aspirations. From there, if you’re just getting started, continue to think big. Have that Vision 2020 as Vancouver does or Plan NYC as New York does or as Amsterdam does. Then with that big vision look for some quick wins.”

For his part, Russ Vanos of Itron approached the transition to a smart city from a resources and utilities perspective, particularly water and energy.

“The way we manage energy and water will define this century,” Vanos said. “It’s really never been more imperative when you consider the mass urbanization of the world’s cities and you think about the resulting strains that places on city services, in particularly electricity, gas and water.”

During the webinar Vanos shared two telling statistics. Noting that purifying and pumping water takes a tremendous amount of energy, he said that thirty-four percent of that treated water, globally, is lost in the distribution system. And in the U.S. alone some 500 billion liters of water are used every day for energy generation. Obviously that’s a tremendous amount of waste. But, he said, technology like acoustic leak detection software can reduce that waste. There’s even a company called ElectroScan, being helmed by Chuck Hansen of the former Hansen Information Technologies (which was acquired by Infor) that is using electric fields for leak detection.

Vanos said that the road to becoming a smart city will be paved by utilities and smart grids.  

“We’re seeing the emergence of all kinds of tools that can help cities large or small get more information about energy and water and their impact on each other,” he said. “We believe at the foundation of that is a modernized grid. We believe a smart city can’t exist without a smart utility.”

But to travel that road, it comes back to the idea of everything being connected. Not just technology, but people too – especially people, in many ways.

“We need more creative thinking and we need more collaboration than ever before,” Vanos said. “We believe that by bringing all the stakeholders together - the city leaders, government, business, non-profit, consumers – if we bring all these parties together we can really harness the power of collaboration. We believe that if we can couple collaboration, technology and innovation that really is the key to smarter cities. In fact, it’s the key to a sustainable future.”

That collaboration step is of utmost importance too. There’s no doubt Berst is correct in his assertion that becoming a smart city requires a smart city task force with a visionary leader. Going beyond that, Jason Zogg of DTE Energy suggested that city urban planners be recruited for smart city evangelism.

“If you really want to move smart cities forward in your city I really advocate using the urban planning community as champions,” Zogg said. “My profession is, I often say, one of the most multi-disciplinary out there. We’re trained to see at a very high level how all city systems work together simultaneously, to be able to simultaneously evaluate the impacts of something on one system and another system and the long-term impacts…We’re trained to literally see the interconnections and the patterns of interaction and how it’s developed in public policy.”

Zogg, as a utility representative, also echoed some of Vanos’ thoughts in a way that fits well into FutureStructure’s vision, especially the “city-as-a-system” philosophy.

“The future of utilities is that utilities are just one of many city systems,” Zogg explained. “We have to understand how these systems work together and how we can better integrate ourselves into the larger city framework. We’re not just an energy utility, we’re not just energy and gas, we’re a city system that needs to integrate with many other city systems.”