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.
Towards a New Digital Deal
Communities around the world are accelerating their response to the current wave of digital innovations and they have good reason to. Digitalization can be considered a critical ingredient in the recipe of our sustainable communities of today and tomorrow – in the broadest sense of the word – economically, socially and environmentally. Digitalization carries the means and the organizational paradigm to not just do things slightly more efficiently, but differently and better. The design shift it affords can help us collectively tackle some of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced, such as climate change, the need for sustainable and affordable energy, fair and sufficient levels of water and food distribution, and education and healthcare for all in a world where the population continues to grow. And of course, it should help us arrive at solutions and services that will allow burgeoning cities to thrive.
Digitalization also provides us with the tools and designs that enable innovations that would never have been conceivable without digitalization itself in the first place. Digitalization represents a source for modern and innovative resolve as well as radically innovative designs, services, products and business architectures that are altering our world. Work that is place- and time-independent. Getting to a stage where we get to have healthcare as opposed to the current practice of obtaining sick-care. Abundant, affordable, green energy. Ubiquitous mobility. New modes of wealth creation. Platform revolutions. Individual growth and the collective, ubiquitous tools to propel exactly that. Such is the promise of digitalization. It is, however, not an automatic given that humanity will attain such a state of well-being. It is not even certain that even a select few will enter an era of such an elevated way of living. If we want to achieve even some of the above, we will need to come together, plan and act. We will need a New Digital Deal.
With the term ‘New Deal’ a reference is made to the programs initiated under President Roosevelt that were articulated in the 1930s in response to the social and economic havoc society faced at the time. Our era and the challenges we face today are different compared to what the USA faced in the 1930s, and the challenges we face today differ from one community to another. However, comparable to the original New Deal, facing those contemporary challenges will require a grand re-orchestration of societal resources, and society-wide collaboration. We need to urgently consider forging a New Deal of a modern kind that embodies and facilitates the mission at hand. We have the opportunity to do so with the modern means and tools available to us.
A New Digital Deal must articulate what constitutes the tools, resources, mechanisms and policies to have us collectively deliver on the promise digitalization affords. To be sure, we are unlikely to arrive at some Aristotle-type of Ideal State by means of digitalization. We will not enter a Valhalla of kinds. But a New Digital Deal can help frame and leverage digitalization so that our societies become more inclusive, increasingly focused on individual growth, helping to produce more sustainable communities and, in general, a higher level of well-being for all.
A New Digital Deal should also help mitigate the negatives that come with digitalization. Millions of jobs are being lost due to automation. New digital divides have emerged: urban versus rural, those that have the job skill sets of the future versus those that do not. Those that fear digitalization and the culture it produces, and those that do not. And so on. Many benefit from the digital innovations in a structural way, yet many more people find themselves on the edges of digitalization, remaining under the impression, mistakenly, that they are online. Creative destruction rules, an older order is on its way out, disruption is king. We need a New Digital Deal.
Now is the time to act. Now is the hour to arrive at a New Digital Deal. The absolute majority of well-informed citizenry around the world as well as their leaders appear to agree that no time is left to lose on climate change. We need to innovate ourselves out of the situation, and we need to do so now.
It is only relatively recently that digital tools have become part of the core fabric and functioning of society, and those same tools continue on their journey of becoming the next essential infrastructure without which society cannot function. But the policies, regulations, economic models and partnerships we have leveraged are by and large not ready to govern these tools effectively.
We respond to digital change in many ways, yet we generally fall short of preparing our current workforce and, worse, even our workforce of the future.
Cities are growing at an incredible rate globally, but there is no way we can provide all the right services by traditional means. For an average city in India, at current levels of growth, it would mean building a new additional hospital every few years, if not months. Again: we need a New Digital Deal, and we need it now.
Driverless vehicles represent an enormous potential and, if it’s up to Elon Musk, we’ll all be in one very soon. But none of our cities or highways are ready for this revolutionary change. Most communities are not ready on a technology level, or on a regulatory level to name just a few layers, and many city spatial planners are sound asleep. We need a New Digital Deal.
A vast array of smart city initiatives have seen the light of day, but many lack a mature convergence of public- and private-sector partners, many initiatives lack the DNA and resources to scale, and many started out without addressing the most elementary questions, such as regarding purpose and value. For such initiatives to succeed or do better, we need a New Digital Deal.
Technology choices are abundantly present, [i]and with that, complexity rules. To arrive at a better understanding of how we collectively prepare a future based on architectures that are leveraging standards, that are interoperable, seamless and secure, we too need a New Digital Deal, and we need it sooner rather than later.
“The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation.”
Those were the words spoken by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 before winning the Presidency of the United States, preparing his country for the New Deal he was to orchestrate. Today, too, we should demand – and get – bold and persistent experimentation. Too few political leaders are demanding as much, however.
We need a New Digital Deal.
[i] William E. Leuchtenburg, “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal”, p.5
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Read more from the Meeting of the Minds Blog
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.