Regional Sustainability at the District Level

By Rimas Gulbinas

Rimas Gulbinas, PhD, is the Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of Maalka, an open platform for managing public and private data-driven sustainability initiatives.

Oct 11, 2017 | Governance, Technology | 1 comment

For millennia, philosophers have been debating the ideal size and structure of a political entity to ensure effective governance. In Plato’s Laws, the ideal size of a ‘Polis’ was set at 5,040 households. City-states of the time were much larger, but Plato recognized that a smaller entity fosters active participation in politics by citizens. Perhaps more importantly, the reason for such a Polis was defined ‘not to promote life, but good life’ (Politics 1252b29-30). Over 2000 years later, cities and communities are revisiting this concept in a rapidly urbanizing world where megacities are hosting ever larger, more diverse populations.

In this new paradigm, district-level governance stands to improve the sustainability, resiliency, and livability of diverse communities through a manageable scale of policy administration. Smart districts take on many colors and roles, but at their heart are organizations that interact with constituents to shape and carry out policy.  It is essential that district-level organizations learn to leverage modern technologies and frameworks to reduce costs and administer more effective data-driven programs designed to improve their communities.

At the recent Global Cities Team Challenge Expo, Acquanetta Warren, the Mayor of Fontana California, expressed that ‘Technology makes government more accessible.’ Similar to cities, however, district-level organizations face constant challenges associated with financial and human resource constraints. In an environment of competing priorities and limited resources, strategies that depend on upfront investment and long-term returns are difficult to adopt at any level of governance.

Sustainability programs often require such long-term visions and upfront investment. In order for smart districts to become sustainable districts, it is imperative to develop strategies that leverage administrative frameworks, external resources, and novel technologies to minimize costs and facilitate continuous progress.

Administrative Frameworks

As resource constrained entities, smart districts must approach sustainability programs with strategies that leverage pre-existing frameworks and processes. The Sustainability Spiral below represents a structured way of initializing sustainability programs to ensure that stakeholders are aligned, district resources are optimally leveraged, and goals align with broader initiatives.The spiral is based on a repeated pattern observed after several years of working with cities, districts, and organizations across the United States to implement scalable data-driven sustainability programs. Too often, districts explore and purchase new technologies without understanding how these solutions will impact specific services, processes, and programs. Architect Charles Kelley of ZGF, was responsible for helping design the award-winning Pearl District in Portland and Japan’s Kashiwa-no-ha Smart City a District outside of Tokyo, and is quick to point out that “Smart districts are not smart unless they are meaningful and purposeful”. By following the progression around the Sustainability Spiral, sustainability leaders can identify how technologies and processes can help achieve district goals and introduce meaning into their programs.

The steps around the Sustainability Spiral can be summarized as follows:


Program managers must initially identify all entities that will be impacted by the sustainability program and engage them to understand their capacity and structure prior to implementation to ensure participation and success. Entities may include district residents, local business and property owners, schools, and others.

Goal Setting

Initial goals, milestones, and timelines must be defined for each stakeholder. A search for aligned local, regional, national, or global initiatives can help define goals and administrative frameworks.

Data Reporting

Methods for collecting data and tracking metrics to assess program impacts must be clearly articulated. A list of required data for each stakeholder enables effective data collection and tracking.


Initial data collection should not be rushed. Before program deployment, data should be collected to set business-as-usual benchmarks against which goals should be measured.

Targeted Field Analysis

Benchmarking data should be analyzed to determine if goals are realistic and to set initial priorities for reaching them.

Plan Development

Based on the analysis, a plan of action for each stakeholder to reach individual and collective goals should be developed. Engagement methods, milestones and timelines should be refined based on the analysis.


Relevant district-level organizations should be leveraged to engage stakeholders during the implementation phase of the program.

On-going Monitoring

Critical to program success is the need to continuously monitor and communicate program impacts relative to goals. Stakeholders must be motivated to continue participation by translating long-term goals to incremental achievements. Metrics should be creatively defined to enable program gamification, engagement, and participation.

By following flexible administrative frameworks like the Sustainability Spiral, districts aiming to improve their sustainability can incrementally deploy cost-effective sustainability strategies and technologies.

External Resources

To further reduce the administrative overhead associated with sustainability programs, districts should identify aligned initiatives with available resources for deploying programs and sharing best practices. These initiatives often provide established frameworks that include specific sustainability goals and data management methods. Adopting these frameworks and resources can streamline program planning and reduce overhead costs.

Local Resources

New York City is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse cities in the world, with foreign-born individuals constituting over 37% of its 9 million residents and running nearly 50% of the its 200,000 small businesses. The complexities of designing policies that positively impact and engage such a diverse constituency are significant and increasingly common in a rapidly urbanizing world.

Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) represent well-established channels for engaging diverse groups of constituents and local businesses around community-based goals. In 2017, NYC held its inaugural Smart Districts Summit and Neighborhood Challenge Program that uniquely paired resource-constrained BIDs with local companies to address challenges through the application of novel technologies. The city provided financial assistance to teams to develop solutions that were cost-effective and scalable to other districts. Several innovative solutions were proposed and selected to improve district-level sustainability, mobility, and safety.

Awareness of overlapping needs and strategies enables cities, states, and districts to co-develop and administer impactful sustainability programs. With over 70 BIDs in NYC, and over 1000 across the United States, BIDs represent one of several types of established channels between cities and districts. It is important that organizations identify such relevant channels when initializing district sustainability programs in order to align goals, resources, funding, and strategies.

District initiatives often represent local manifestations of national programs. Upon starting a pass around the Sustainability Spiral, districts should first identify aligned local initiatives and stakeholders and then look outward for additional program alignment. Aligning with national programs allows districts to adopt established best practices from setting goals to collecting data and measuring program impacts over time. These networks thereby create a member-based feedback loop that allows resources to be shared and best practices to continually evolve.

A few national and international sustainability networks and programs are listed in the following table, each with distinct resources and benefits.

Program Size Example Goals Benefits
2030 Districts 17 Established Districts, 4 Emerging Districts 50% Reduction in Energy, Water, Carbon by 2030 Tools, Benchmarking, Training, Collective Buying Power
US Dept. of Energy – Better Buildings Challenge 200 Cities, Corporations across the US 20% Energy-use Reduction in 5 Years Tools, Reporting, Analysis Framework, Data Sharing
Global Cities Team Challenge 6 Action Clusters (Cities and Firms Across US) Locally Established Monthly Calls, Webinars, Use Case Sharing, Introductions
EcoDistricts 11 Districts Net Zero Energy, Zero Waste Tools, Education, Forums
City Energy Project 20 Cities Locally Established Best Practice Sharing, Full Time Staff Support


As the CEO of Maalka, an award-winning technology company based in NYC, I truly believe in the promise of technology to improve the impacts of sustainability initiatives around the world. I also believe that programs without the necessary organizational and administrative structures have little chance of success.

The Sustainability Spiral represents a simple high-level framework that can help districts define all the necessary components required to systematically improve sustainability. Each step around the spiral also represents a point at which technology can be leveraged to streamline processes and improve efficiencies.

Engagement and Reporting

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Platforms are great ways to manage engagement and outreach for district sustainability initiatives. Established platforms such as Salesforce, MailChimp, and Microsoft CRM are being used to serve insights and reports to sustainability program stakeholders. Often times these technologies are available at discounted costs for non-profit organizations and smaller programs. To provide more flexibility to users and partners, these platforms also support integrations with complementary technologies – allowing personalized reports to reach specific stakeholders through email. When reports are designed for national initiatives, such as the below Department of Energy Better Buildings Challenge report that Maalka automated for the Retrofit Chicago program, they can be adopted by similar programs across the country at reduced cost.

Data Reporting and Monitoring

In order to track program impacts and continually refine strategies to reach sustainability goals, data needs to be current and complete. The most basic level of data collection for most sustainability programs is often conducted on the publicly available Energy Star Portfolio Manager (ESPM) platform, provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency. ESPM allows programs to track energy, water, waste, and carbon for buildings across a district and to output processed reports that help programs track progress. Open platforms like Maalka integrate with ESPM and powerful third party analytical tools, like the New Buildings Institute First View tool, to enable cities and districts to leverage advanced data-driven insights from industry leaders at significantly reduced costs.

For sustainability programs looking to leverage recent advancements in sensing technologies for live data tracking, LoRa represents a promising new approach. LoRaWAN is a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) that enables districts to track a variety of environmental factors across a wide area using low cost sensors and gateways. LoRaWAN enabled sensors can report data on Air Quality, Occupancy, Temperature, Sound, Motion, and more. Districts can leverage open communities such as The Things Network to simultaneously support local innovation as well as live data collection for sustainability programs.

Targeted Analysis and Plan Development

Critical to the success of any district sustainability program are well-defined strategies for reaching clearly articulated goals. A promising approach for districts to develop highly targeted strategies for improving energy efficiency and infrastructure resiliency lies in emerging cloud-based open modeling and simulation technologies.

For nearly a decade, the Department of Energy’s Open Studio platform was used by industry leaders to create virtual building models to assess the potential impact of specific measures on building performance. That technology was recently made available on the cloud, enabling rapid building energy model articulation, calibration, and simulation scenarios to be applied across thousands of buildings at a time. The automation of several processes in the cloud also decreases the cost of running these models by orders of magnitude when compared to traditional approaches.

New software technologies that leverage this powerful, open architecture enable districts to inexpensively run goal-specific scenarios in a virtual environment that output highly specific improvement strategies. Districts have been employing these approaches to assess the potential of micro-grids to reduce aggregate demand, empirically measure the impact of energy efficiency investments, and to develop cost-based investment strategies.

The Future

In a rapidly urbanizing world, districts play a vital role in administering programs that ensure the sustainability, resiliency, and livability of communities in cities everywhere. In the face of financial and human resource constraints, it is essential that districts develop, share, and adopt administrative frameworks to minimize costs and maximize the impacts of their sustainability initiatives. Emerging technologies stand to help districts overcome hurdles to deliver high impact programs, but districts must be cognizant of how specific technologies align with specific goals. Open technologies that integrate with one another and with third party service providers enable flexibility, lower costs, and program evolution and expansion. The future will see continued convergence of these open technologies and established frameworks, which will enable best practices to scale globally.  Most importantly, the future will offer communities healthier lifestyle choices and new forms of information as a basis to make wise decisions.

The work in this article is made possible by our collaborations with the following organizations: Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects LLP, Wells Fargo, Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, New Buildings Institute, and Eco Edge.


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1 Comment

  1. Right On, Rimas. It had been a pleasure to work with you and Maalka on realizing the benefits you present through the development of the NYC 2030 District. While this is an uphill battle I am certain it is not a Sysiphian quest with the continued participation of Maalka and Urban Future Lab.


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