The concept of Smart Cities offers the promise of urban hubs leveraging connected technologies to become increasingly prosperous, safe, healthy, resilient, and clean. What may not be obvious in achieving these objectives is that many already-existing utility assets can serve as the foundation for a Smart City transition. The following is a broad discussion on the areas of overlap between utilities and smart cities, highlighting working knowledge from experience at PG&E.
Finding Fresh: How Smart Farming is Impacting Smart Cities
Statistically, less than two percent of Californians feed the other 98%. In addition, those same Californians, those feeding the 98%, are also providing specialty items such as delicious strawberries, tasty almonds, and enchanting wines to a good chunk of consumers of those items around country and the world. One reason they are able to provide so much for so many is that California farmers have embraced technology to increase yields and conserve precious and expensive resources like water, energy and land. Yields have been increasing for decades due to the ingenuity of the growers and their partners in both industry and research institutions, who have helped make American farms, ranches and vineyards some of the most efficient and effective staple and luxury crop producers in the world. Today, as cities and their inhabitants become “smarter”, they will increasingly be fed by “smarter” farms.
California is currently seeing a spillover of the newest technological innovations from Silicon Valley, into the Central, San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys; adding to the existing base of advancements in precision irrigation, spectral imaging, genomics, environmental, animal and plant sciences, and dozens of other areas of practice. Many of the applications in use in today’s cities will likely find their place on the farm or vineyard, especially when it comes to IoT (Internet of Things) technologies.
The smart city is meeting the smart farm, but the nature of technology necessitates this relationship will be symbiotic not unidirectional. Increasingly, the smart farm will be impacting the smart city. What could be a more significant impact than solving the problem of getting food to ever-growing urban centers which are increasingly dependent on transportation and logistics to feed their millions? Perhaps history can be instructive.
Downtowns Used to be Farmlands
If one drives out of any metropolitan area, it doesn’t take too long to get past suburban sprawl to fields, and eventually working farms. This is true of even a short drive from Manhattan in New York City. If you go back a few decades, the farms that fed New York City were right across the Hudson in the “Garden State” of New Jersey. A couple of centuries prior to that, they were right on the island itself! The area around what is 80th street today was still farms and fields in the 1830s according to archival maps.
There are many benefits to having farms so close to downtown: fresh food is more available, reduced transportation demands, greater opportunities for recycling water and waste, and better use of open space. The biggest payoff we see today is the ability for cities to sustain themselves in the event of disaster, reducing the dependence on having food trucked in. Some sources estimate as little as a three-day supply of fresh food exists in most urban centers. Can today’s smart farms build on these best practices from prior generations?
Bridging the Urban and Rural Smart Farms
Today, we see more and more farms taking up city skylines with rooftop gardens and greenhouses: Hydroponic and aeroponic farms are being built inside of old warehouses, LED lighting is filtered to emit only those portions of the light spectrum necessary to produce energy efficient photosynthesis, and climate controlled environments can sustain multiple growing seasons and eliminate the need for pesticides. It has been reported up to 10 times the amount of lettuce can be grown indoors as compared to traditional field farming. That’s a lot of salad for health-conscious urbanites. Nevertheless, despite some awesome projections, vertical farming is not going to be able to feed the world’s fast-growing urban populations. At least not today.
Fortunately, the IoT revolution on farms in traditional growing environments such as California’s Central Valley is contributing to higher productivity with greater resource efficiency. And as farms become more automated and connected, they will be virtually connected to urban centers. The more that happens, the more demand there will be for data about food and ways to ensure transparency in how it is grown, processed, and shipped. So as technology is enabling the urban farms, it is transforming the rural farms bring the two closer together than ever before.
The Future of Agtech IoT (Internet of Tomatoes) and Smart Farming
As technology makes producers more efficient, they will be able to do more with less resources, and may be able to move food growing operations closer to the consumer. Perhaps we will see smaller growing operations popping up in suburbs that are super-efficient and ag-tech intensive. Perhaps they will be linked to urban rooftop and greenhouse farms, as well as connected to refrigerators and pantries in homes and restaurants, growing on demand with zero waste. We may even get to the point where the whole cycle of production to consumption is a closed hyper-connected, hyper-efficient loop. Toilet to tomato to tabletop doesn’t sound that appetizing, but it could very well describe the most efficient cycle of food production and consumption since those farms in Upper Manhattan disappeared a couple of centuries ago.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
When the idea of smart cities was born, some ten to fifteen years ago, engineers, including me, saw it primarily as a control system problem with the goal of improving efficiency, specifically the sustainability of the city. Indeed, the source of much of the early technology was the process industry, which was a pioneer in applying intelligent control to chemical plants, oil refineries, and power stations. Such plants superficially resemble cities: spatial scales from meters to kilometers, temporal scales from seconds to days, similar scales of energy and material inputs, and thousands of sensing and control points.
So it seemed quite natural to extend such sophisticated control systems to the management of cities. The ability to collect vast amounts of data – even in those pre-smart phone days – about what goes on in cities and to apply analytics to past, present, and future states of the city seemed to offer significant opportunities for improving efficiency and resilience. Moreover, unlike tightly-integrated process plants, cities seemed to decompose naturally into relatively independent sub-systems: transportation, building management, water supply, electricity supply, waste management, and so forth. Smart meters for electricity, gas, and water were being installed. GPS devices were being imbedded in vehicles and mobile telephones. Building controls were gaining intelligence. Cities were a major source for Big Data. With all this information available, what could go wrong?
If you want a healthier community, you don’t just treat illness. You prevent it. And you don’t prevent it by telling people to quit smoking, eat right and exercise. You help them find jobs and places to live and engaging schools so they can pass all that good on, so they can build solid futures and healthy neighborhoods and communities filled with hope.