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.
Social and Economic Bridges: Deploying Technology in New Ways
Technology is not a panacea to solve urban poverty but recent innovations are starting to offer real solutions. The potential for technology to bridge social and economic divisions in both cities and outlying areas is enormous. A few examples remind me that we are just on the cusp of developing and deploying technologies that can greatly improve the lives of the urban poor in both the United States and abroad.
Distributed energy generation
I recently visited Next Energy – a clean tech incubator – in Detroit. On my tour, I met one start-up building a stand-alone renewable energy generator that can be deployed in isolated areas with no energy grid. Imagine a big white box on military wheels with solar panels, wind turbines, a next-generation battery and electrical sockets to plug in various devices such as cell phones, computers, water sanitation systems, etc. The start-up company has a contract with the Department of Defense and the unit is being developed for remote military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. When I asked if they deployed the units during Superstorm Sandy, they said they did not, but that they will be ready in the event of another disaster. The next application for these units is in developing cities and countries where the grid is unreliable or non-existent.
The potential for distributed generation to change the livelihoods and lifespans of the urban poor in the developing world is not fully understood yet. Imagine this unit in the slums of Rio, Jakarta or New Delhi. Installing these units in neighborhoods to provide power for water sanitation and other uses could translate into more income, more time for school, and more opportunity to rise to the middle class.
Lyft is a car-sharing service that allows private car owners to work like independent taxis. Drivers and their vehicles are screened through a rigorous process. If they pass, they are given a pink moustache to attach to the front of their car to designate them as a Lyft driver. When a user needs a ride, they open their app on their smart phone, their location is found through GPS and they request a “Lyft.” The app tells the user how far away the nearest driver is. Lyft drivers work part-time, for the most part, and are paid to pick up passengers. Drivers can choose when to drive and how often.
When I brought up Lyft at a conference I recently attended, it immediately sparked a dozen questions and comments. Everyone wanted to know more. For some, it was controversial due to its encouragement of car use over transit and the pre-requisite of users needing a smart phone. Others wondered if it was adding or decreasing carbon emissions. But for most of the delegates, it was an exciting idea. One woman working on transit in Detroit was particularly excited about Lyft. She is working on solving the bus crisis in Detroit. Detroit has shrunk from 2 million residents to 7000,000. This poses a major problem for the transit agency which cannot maintain a stable revenue stream or continued service in the same way it did in the past. She is working to find a way to continue transit service in semi-abandoned neighborhoods where there are residents who still need public transit. Some of the residents are elderly and can’t drive. Others have cars and are under-employed or unemployed. She realized that Lyft could pair these unlikely neighbors and through the process, create jobs for many of the unemployed/underemployed residents in Detroit. The beauty of Lyft is that it’s part-time and the driver decides how much to participate. Perhaps the city could even subsidize these rides since it would enable them to decrease bus service and use their resources in new ways. The key would be finding a way to maintain the affordability of the service. We also brainstormed if the service could be offered through text messaging, rather than GPS-enabled smart phones, much of the digital divide could be solved among users.
Transit data and digital signage
Roadify is a software company that aggregates transit data and twitter feeds, provides a platform to organize it and then displays the information on large urban digital displays. Their service is now located in the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn. After the game, fans can look up at the massive screens to see exactly when the next trains are arriving.
The potential for Roadify to bridge the digital divide is a tantalizing prospect. For Lyft, the digital smart phone divide is one of the major social and economic access issues. Roadify is a technology platform that could solve just that problem. We are already surrounded by digital signage on the freeway, at the store, and even in our homes. If Roadify digital information were displayed on bus stops, on the screens at the supermarket, and the data were even broadcast on our local TV station, those without smart phones would not be left behind. It would make transit data pervasive. Moreover, it might take away the financial burden from transit agencies, which are already cash strapped and unable to upgrade their bus stops with state-of-the-art signage. Small neighborhood stores could generate some ad revenue by displaying the data.
These examples provide a glimpse into some of the innovative technology solutions that are already being developed and deployed and how they could be further applied to our cities and low-income communities. The next task is to apply them to solve urban poverty and access issues in new ways. Scaling these technologies beyond their current uses requires leadership and out of the box thinking by public sector agencies and entrepreneurs. When great minds come together and begin to connect the dots, unlikely applications of innovative solutions start to emerge. For more unlikely pairings, join us at Meeting of the Minds in Toronto in September. We plan to highlight how emerging innovations can be applied in cities and build the partnerships that are necessary to make them happen.
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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.