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Can Technology Make Green, Sustainable Cities?

RP Siegel | Monday September 2nd, 2013 | 2 Comments

NIght skyline BangkokWhat is at the heart of a sustainable city?

If you look at this ranking, which considers Vancouver, San Francisco, Oslo, Curitiba, and Copenhagen, as the most sustainable cities in the world, it appears that lots of green technology is key. Vancouver is heavy with renewable energy including lots of hydropower and it has the lowest per capita carbon footprint on the continent.

San Francisco has great air quality, waste management and commuting options.

Oslo is literally green, with two-thirds of its area covered with trees. They also have great bike and car-sharing options and its city-wide district heating system uses 80 percent renewable fuels. Curitiba is famous for its mass-transit system. They have also substantial green space, and have a very successful recycling program. Copenhagen is great for biking, wind power, green roofs, and have pledged to be the first carbon-neutral capital by 2025.

Of course, this begs the question of whether a green city is a smart city and whether either of these is a great city.

I had a conversation about just these very things last week with Mike Calise, Director, Electric Vehicles, Partner Business at Schneider Electric. Mike believes that electric vehicles will bring numerous synergies that will accelerate the development and adaption of smart cities. He’s excited about cities, where he says, “the battle for our future will be won or lost,” because by the year 2050, close to 70 percent of the world’s population will be living there, and generating roughly 90 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Schneider and other technology vendors, such as Cisco Systems are developing portfolios of smart city projects that are beginning to color in the picture of what a smart city might really look like.

Ironically, top-ranked Vancouver was conspicuously light in EVs, something city planners hope to address with more charging stations. They anticipate 15 percent EV penetration by 2020. San Francisco, on the other hand, is considered the EV capital of the world, while Oslo already has a hugely successful EV sharing fleet with more than 400 charging stations installed downtown.

The journey to EV adoption, explains Calise, is neither short nor straightforward because of the infrastructure required for its success. He divides it up into three phases which require intense collaboration among stakeholders that include: governments, private investors, planners, developers, utilities, residents and industry suppliers.

He calls these three stages EV-ready, EV-willing and EV-able.

In the EV-ready stage, both vehicles and charging stations appear, but large infrastructure investments are needed to address range-anxiety issues on the part of consumers. Those investing will not see immediate returns. In the next phase, EV-willing, more consumers are willing to consider electric vehicles, but utilities, municipalities, and retailers will likely have concerns over whether the new business models will pass them by. Finally, in the EV-able stage, everything is in place and, Calise predicts, “one in five cars on the road will be an EV.” This is a nine-year process, or as Calise calls it, “a nine-inning ballgame” that started last year. So we are only in the bottom of the second inning.

Some examples include Caesar’s Palace in Reno, Nevada, a collaboration of Schneider Electric, Caesar’s Entertainment, and the State of Nevada, and the American Red Cross in San Jose, California, both of which installed charging systems for use by both customers and employees, with numerous benefits that spread throughout the community.

The Hacienda Business Park  in Pleasanton, California incorporates an electric vehicle car-sharing service. It features proximity to public transportation, an electric car-sharing service and cloud-based onsite charging infrastructure. Broad IT interconnections allow the car to talk to the charger, which talks to the grid, which talks to the customer, who talks to the car, which can even talk to the building’s energy management system for V2G-type operations. This ensures that when a car is requested for a specific purpose, the car provided will have sufficient charge. This system is smart, efficient, flexible and clean. It reduces traffic congestion with its associated stress, wasted fuel and pollution. It also eliminates the hassles associated with parking.

Other examples of projects in the smart cities/mobility space include: a 511 traffic information system in Baltimore that helps reduce congestion, and an integrated traffic management system in Madrid, which can allow buses to run on autopilot.

This, of course, is only one facet of the smart cities space, which, as Calise says, addresses the “complex system of systems” that describes a modern city. Tech vendors like Schneider are working across a broad array of sectors including: energy (renewable integration, demand response, distribution management), water (desalination, resource management, wastewater treatment), buildings (efficiency, productivity, enhanced comfort and security), and public services(video surveillance, electronic administrative tools, efficient hospitals), in addition to mobility.

These capabilities clearly reach into and enhance many facets of city life. Of course there are other intangibles. McKinsey, for example, says what makes a city great is smart growth, doing more with less, and winning support for change through great leadership.

Great City, an urban advocacy group that is pressing for improved cities through empowerment and engagement on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, focuses on Streets for People, Leadership for Great Neighborhoods, and Green Infrastructure.

And H.V. Savitch writes in Planetizen, that the 4C’s of a great city are: Currency, Cosmopolitanism, Concentration and Charisma.

Many of these concerns will benefit from the application of technology, but it seems to me that there is an opportunity here to develop perhaps a new field of study that looks at how our best understanding of the human dynamics of cities can be leveraged and extended by these technologies that make a city smarter. Just as one example, I look at the way that a book like Arrival City by Doug Sanders understands the dynamics of urban immigrant communities across the globe that can either become entrepreneurial incubators or degenerate into slums, based solely on the kinds of policies applied and support given.

Can making a city smarter, for example, reduce poverty, hunger and inequality? And if it can, how can we ensure that it will, and not just enrich those few who have their hands on the controls? These are questions that I believe will loom large in the years and decades to come.

[Image credit: Javier D : Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Kevin McGinnis

    As mentioned in the article, the things that made these city sustainable is the use of green technology. In the near future, multiple cities will be caught up to these in terms of sustainability because of a recent push for both old and new buildings to be equipped with green technology.

    Regarding the last few questions of the article, I do not believe these smarter cities will have much of an effect on poverty and inequality, because these cities aren’t smart due to a change in the people, but a change in the tech.

  • Asko Kauppi

    Good write, thanks

    I like the way you target a “great city” and not just one that is efficient etc. That is exactly how we should aim at the future.

    One other notion is the tremendous burden and complexity you are describing with regard to moving from gasoline vehicles to electric ones. It still blows my understanding that things are this complicated. I don’t think they need to be – I have a personal project at this, suggesting a wholly self-sufficient, above-road level transportation network (a light PRT if you are familiar with the term). It’s interesting to note that these often get shrugged away because of “infrastructure” issues, whereas your description of current path to EV cities sounds way harder, to my ears.

    I believe, as the cars were not “faster horses”, the future of electric mobility will not be just electric cars.