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.
Urban Innovator of the Week: Angela Glover Blackwell
What is equity?
According to the Equity Manifesto developed by PolicyLink, equity is “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Unlocking the promise of the nation by unleashing the promise in us all.”
It’s a word we hear a lot now, with tensions running high in the heat of the current presidential campaign and the seemingly never-ending news cycle of Black lives being extinguished.
What is equity? And what does it mean for our everyday lives? And how do we achieve it?
These are all questions PolicyLink has been asking since 1999.
“In January 1999 the word ‘equity’ was not being used to talk about social justice in the context of the United States,” says Angela Glover Blackwell, President and CEO of PolicyLink. “We really pushed hard to lift up the term ‘equity.’ We pulled everything together under one umbrella and sharpened for researchers and others how to think about advocacy in this country.”
PolicyLink is dedicated to advancing economic and social advocacy, being responsive to organizing on the ground, and using data and communication for advocacy. “You don’t get good policy without good advocacy,” Blackwell states.
The organization is based in Oakland, California, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. It is a national research and action institute that advances economic and social equity through policy work and by connecting people already doing such work on the ground.
“We understand that being responsible to people doing work on the ground is the most responsible way to do policy work,” says Blackwell. “Advocacy needs to be founded in community, and understanding the power of place and how place impacts lives. At the time we started PolicyLink, place was not a policy idea.”
The tagline of PolicyLink is “Lifting Up What Works,” a way of focusing attention on how people are working successfully to use local, state, and federal policy to create conditions that benefit everyone, especially people in low-income communities and communities of color.
“We think in this quest to achieve a fully inclusive society that includes a focus on racial equity, there are examples of what works all over this country and we need to shine a light on these things to insure victory,” Blackwell explains.
PolicyLink shares their findings and analysis through print and web-based publishing, convenings, national summits, and briefings with local and national policymakers. 3,000 people attended their Equity Summit 2015, where they shared the “Our Moment” video, in which they champion the idea that a movement is not a flash of light but a torch that gets passed from one generation to the next.
Movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street are the kinds of movements PolicyLink looks towards not as a flash-in-the-pan moment, but a cultural shift still very much in progress.
“Occupy was a tremendous moment that brought inequality front and center, then Black Lives Matter and [all those who were killed]. Gross, toxic inequality is not sustainable. PolicyLink is the antidote to inequality. All those things created a moment where people and civic leaders were looking for a different way, and all of a sudden all of the work PolicyLink has been working on is important to everyone and is of interest to everyone. We went through 10 years where no one cared what we were doing. Now this is a moment that is so ripe for social change.”
PolicyLink looks at issues such as affordable housing, jobs and equitable economic prosperity (which also includes reliable transportation systems and equitable education systems), and community investment agreements that might include hiring locally, making sure apprenticeship programs are available, and making affordable housing a part of the development deal when a new convention center or stadium is built.
“Our goal is to embed equity concerns into government frameworks,” says Blackwell. “Inclusion will always be a moral imperative, but it has also become an economic and financial imperative. By 2044 the majority will be people of color. If people of color don’t become the middle class or entrepreneurs, there will be no middle class.”
She adds that we can’t talk about equity without talking about race. “Achieving equity requires racial analysis and targeted racial strategies. It is embedded in racial equity. Certainly 17 years ago no one wanted to talk about that. Now it’s everywhere.”
Despite the fact that the social climate in the United States feels dire, Blackwell says, “There is no question that we are moving in the right direction. We are moving in a direction that says, ‘To be a world nation with its extraordinary diversity is a huge asset in a changing world.’ If we can have a vibrant democracy in the context of all of this difference, that is a democracy worth standing on a global stage and being proud of.”
While current social tumult is causing a lot of angst and fear and insecurity, and, Blackwell says, “that last gasp can be dangerous, shrill, and prolonged,” she still feels that the moment for it is here.
“Given the shifting demographics and how the fate of the nation is tied to what happens to people of color going forward, equity is the superior growth model for the nation, not just in a moral agenda of what people ‘ought’ to do. I have faith it’s going to work out well.”
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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.