Ecosystems Enable Urban Evolution

By Jennifer James

Jennifer James is Smart Cities Solution Lead for global engineering company, Black & Veatch in their Smart Integrated Infrastructure business. She works with internal teams, clients and industry partners to develop smart and integrated infrastructure solutions that enable more effective and holistic management of city systems.


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This is the first post in a 5-part series on Smart Cities from our partners at Black and Veatch. For more, visit the series archive.

The ecosystem concept, once confined to its biological origins, has found new life in the smart city.

When natural systems begin to evolve, there is at first low diversity and complexity. Over time, diversity expands, system interactions get more complex, and cooperation is necessary to ensure the success of the community.

Similarly, early smart city programs consisted of a limited number of participants and technologies. Many were top-down efforts that emphasized using technology to help city systems operate more efficiently. Over time, communications networks and the Internet of Things (“IOT”) expanded connectivity across sectors, assets and citizens. Accordingly, the range of smart solutions and participants has skyrocketed, and smart city silos are giving way to collaborative arrangements across sectors, solution providers, stakeholder groups and infrastructure assets.

Partnering for Progress

Why is this collaboration happening? Just like ecosystems in nature, the challenges smart cities seek to solve are too complex to be left to a few players and too interdependent to be addressed in a piecemeal fashion. There are no well-defined, cookie cutter answers in this constantly-changing landscape. It’s a time of massive innovation and experimentation, favoring creativity over structure. As evolution suggests, cooperation among diverse participants is an advantageous strategy in this type of situation.

This is all playing out in the urban field right now. City leaders from many departments, citizens and NGO’s, technology companies and consultants, academic institutions and industry groups, and private and government financiers – all of us, in different combinations, are figuring it out, together.

There is no single model for how these groups come together or how they get organized for action, but one successful approach is having a coordinating non-profit entity act as orchestrator, matchmaker and advocate for results-driven smart city collaborations. Cleantech San Diego and Envision Charlotte are great examples. As noted by my colleague recently, it is truly inspiring to be part of a public, quasi-public, private, academic and non-profit group that pushes politics to the side and innovates together to build more sustainable, resilient cities.

Innovation Beyond Technology

Repeatedly, we see these ecosystems of partners redefine the old standards in business as innovation extends beyond technology. Financing options and business models are morphing to better support the cash-strapped smart evolution. According to Black & Veatch’s Strategic Directions Smart City/Smart Utility Report (2016), Public Private Partnerships (P3) was surveyed as the #1 most promising model for financing smart city initiatives, and for good reason. We are seeing exciting P3 models emerge such as ad-funded smart street kiosks that are owned and managed by private sector groups while serving city goals for public safety, citizen engagement, traffic management, and digital equity. We’re even seeing an evolution in city Request for Proposals (RFPs), with some RFPs now asking for financing options as well as technology solutions. The Smart Cities Council, another leading group of collaborators, publishes Smart Cities Financing and Smart Cities Readiness Guides that outline many additional funding and business model options for successful smart city programs.

With the financing hurdle cleared, cities can dream big. To boost progress, ecosystem partners are coming together to develop smart city roadmaps that define how to deliver on the smart vision.  Analytics-based planning tools can help cities compare the costs, benefits and risks of many project options against multiple scenarios and stakeholder objectives. This results in a prioritization of capital projects and programs that can be shared and adjusted with different stakeholder groups and ecosystem partners. We are seeing in cities, just like in nature, that richer information supports more diverse and more effective strategies and behaviors.

Connecting the Dots for Smart Results

This systems perspective is needed to identify synergies and evaluate potential impacts. Through information sharing and collaboration, industry stakeholders better understand innovative and sometimes disruptive technologies, how to enable their complex integration, and how to manage for optimal outcomes.  In some cases, smart cities can suffer from “innovation frustration” where new technology is both beneficial and problematic. Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) such as rooftop solar and electric vehicles (EV) are great examples. DERs can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put sustainability within reach of cities, but they can destabilize the grid if left unplanned and unmanaged.

As we have seen in integrated planning programs with utilities in California and Hawaii, connecting the dots between technologies and approaches yields smart results. Utilities can get in front of DER impacts by using data-driven planning to understand the potential combined impact of a broad set of DERs on the grid in order to drive system upgrades and modify rates, customer engagement programs and operations. As my colleague, Scott Stallard, discussed at Meeting of the Minds 2016, an integrated analysis of DER potential, load growth, customer adoption rates, hosting capacity, bulk load impacts and the associated technical, financial and rate impacts is required to stay ahead of DER technology impacts.

On-The-Ground Deployment and Operation

Just as important as strategic planning is on-the-ground deployment. Innovative pilot projects are being stimulated by academic institution-city ecosystem partnerships, such as the MetroLab Network, that attempt to bridge the gap between R&D and commercial-scale solutions. Initiatives such as NIST’s Global Cities Team Challenge are bringing together teams of ecosystem partners to design and implement smart city projects in the field. Both organizations emphasize experiential over theoretical approaches as well as the sharing of solutions and lessons across teams.

Beyond the pilot stage, city plans have to scale to meet real-world deployment and operation. Ecosystem partners answer this call by creatively merging innovative technologies and programs with experience in large-scale distributed infrastructure deployment and a scalable data management and analytics infrastructure. This is where private sector program management and integrator skills are invaluable.  Traditional project management does not suffice. What’s needed is a much more creative approach that strikes the right balance between project control and program adaptability, between individual project ROI and integrated program optimization.  A “live” system management approach is needed in which there is an on-going digital dialogue between projects, programs, stakeholders and circumstances.

Ecosystems Enable Smart Cities

To enable successful smart city programs, the ecosystem of smart city players has evolved into a collaborative community of leaders that blends top-down vision and community-led innovation. Through cooperation and innovation in technology, financing, and strategic integration of all the moving parts and players, cities are scaling towards true sustainability.  Just as natural systems adapt and refine functions to stay dynamic, so too must city-systems, which requires the insight of a multi-dimensional partner ecosystem.

This blog post is part of a series. Read the next post: Money Matters: Who Pays for the Smart City?

Discussion

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent opinion!

    I have been advocating ecosystems design techniques inspired from biological models for years as a way to anticipate and influence city public transport services for 20 years and rarely ran into such accurate views.

    Hopefully enough smart Cities stakeholders will be inspired by your post and drive their actions from an ecosystem design method’s perspective. I am confident that this is THE way forward.

    Well done!

    Reply
  2. Thanks Christian — and sorry I am just seeing your response now! I’d be interested in hearing more about your ecosystems design techniques for public transit. I’ll connect with you on LI. Best, Jennifer

    Reply
    • You are most welcome

      Reply
  3. Do you have any suggestions for who is leading the way in research and conceptualising whole city approaches to population health? I would like to develop a special issues of ‘Cities & Health’ in this topic area.

    Reply

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