Economic Development Through Innovation, Collaboration & Smart Grid Technology

By Russ Vanos

Russ Vanos, senior vice president, strategy and business development for Itron, is a utility industry visionary who played a major role in driving early smart grid technology adoption in North America. He is now guiding Itron’s corporate growth initiatives, specifically those focused on smart grid and smart cities.

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

How do cities create greater opportunity for their residents?  In two words, innovation and collaboration.  With the world’s population reaching 8 billion by 2025 and more than half of all people living in the world’s cities, the way we manage energy and water will define this century.  If you think about many cities in the U.S. today, the critical infrastructure, such as electric grids and water distribution systems, are over a hundred years old and are in need of modernization to support today’s economy and lifestyle.  Without power for extended periods of time, commerce comes to a halt.  Without power in homes, most of us don’t have lights, heat or air conditioning.  Without water, we cease to exist. Clearly, energy and water are the lifeblood of thriving businesses and communities, and we need reliable access to both.  To ensure that citizens like you and me have access to precious resources and new opportunities, innovation in technology and collaboration across groups and industries will be crucial to creating economic potential for us all.

Technology Innovation Will Drive Greater Opportunities

Innovative technology and new approaches for applying it will fuel smart cities of the future.  To do this, cities need a strong technology foundation on which to build new applications. For example, many cities are starting to use one network to serve multiple needs, creating new opportunities for efficiency and cost savings. Utility investments in smart meters and smart grids are essential to helping cities become more effective in delivering services to its citizens, as they provide the mechanism for two-way communications, as well as a source of real-time data for reducing energy and water waste. Creating efficiency, conserving resources and helping citizens make decisions that make their lives easier is what we’re striving for—bringing all of this together is where the real value lies. If done correctly, moving from smart grids to smart cities will create new opportunities for efficiencies, conservation and economic development.

The type of critical infrastructure transformation I’m describing is a big undertaking, but we have to start somewhere, so why not the grid?  Beginning with grid modernization, using open, interoperable networking capabilities, city leaders can use information captured from smart devices to:

  • Dynamically pump water at off peak times, and apply the savings to sponsor other city programs, like creating solar neighborhoods
  • Compare building-level information to lower energy footprint, reduce waste and create awareness to drive down city costs
  • Use key information to drive focused economic development, and utilize the savings to revitalize neighborhoods
  • Attract new businesses as the city’s reputation for innovation and sustainability grows


Did I mention that the smart grid technology will pay for itself through operational efficiency?  The underlying smart grid communications infrastructure can also be used for transportation and other services.  For example, sensors that communicate using this infrastructure can be embedded in parking meters, sending information about availability to smartphones. These sensors can also be applied to parking garages about space availability, alerting drivers to traffic jams and alternate routes.  Additionally, the same technology can be used with street lights, enabling the lights to be switched on and off only when needed.

The exciting thing about all of this is that the technology exists today. The ability to give people the information they need in the palm of their hands to make informed decisions about optimizing resources and how they coexist in our cities is here. We just have to be creative about how we apply it.   With smart devices collecting data and pushing it to the cloud, apps will be developed to access and deliver this information to consumers in new and innovative ways. If cities adopt technology to better their cities and the lives of their citizens, they will attract new businesses, creating new economic opportunities.

However, technology alone is not the answer.  We need greater collaboration between all stakeholders to bring the best ideas forward to create a more resourceful world.

Collaboration Will Contribute to New Possibilities

The best work gets done when people collaborate. This is particularly true as we collectively try to address energy, water, urbanization and transportation challenges.  These challenges can’t be met with single-focused solutions.  They need to be viewed holistically, and it can be done.  There’s a great example of innovative collaboration in the Charlotte, N.C.  Envision Charlotte is a unique public-private initiative that leverages sustainability for economic growth as a model for all communities. Envision Charlotte is developing first-of-their kind programs in energy, water, waste and air to conserve resources and reduce operating costs. The goal is for Charlotte to have the most sustainable urban core, connecting buildings for behavioral change to make smarter, sustainable choices.

Collaboration is at the center of Envision Charlotte’s success.  Technology companies, local businesses, utilities, city leaders and NGOs are coming together to determine how they can work to create a sustainable, thriving city core.

There are other examples of how this type of collaboration is really making a difference.  For example, DTE Energy in Detroit is kicking off its smart cities demonstration project with the goal of bridging the silos of smart technologies (sensors, distributed intelligence, communications) through analytics, behavioral science and innovative user applications for a cohesive engagement between citizen, corporation and community.  Detroit is in the process of revitalization, and with a focus on community and economic vitality, technology and collaboration are playing a vital role in its transformation.

In closing, through innovation and collaboration, we can create new economic opportunities for people around the world.  For me personally, I envision a future where reliable access to energy and water ensure communities around the world thrive.  We’ll modernize grids, build smarter cities, engage with citizens in new ways, and do everything we can to better manage precious water, gas and electric resources with technology and innovation.  Through it all, we’ll need more creative thinking than ever before to get there—and we will.

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