Unlocking the Potential of Smart Cities: Those Pesky Humans

By Ed Church

Edward Church is the Executive Director of the Institute for Environmental Entrepreneurship. He has a 30-year career in the nonprofit, for-profit and governmental sectors and a Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Berkeley.

Jan 28, 2013 | Smart Cities | 0 comments


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How do we unlock the potential of smart technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of cities?  The keys are not technological, but social.  One set of keys will be changes in finance, regulation and public expectations.  Another set has to do with better adapting the urban areas we have to the ways people live.  These are the non-technological, human or social contexts in which smart technologies are used. We can’t use smart building technologies without accounting for the social contexts in which they are implemented.

These were the kinds of conclusions we came to, in a recent 60-page report we did for global engineering and design firm Arup.  They asked us to prepare a “state-of-the-art” review of human interaction with the built environment, to keep them on the leading edge of urban design, for their clients, and for the work they are doing with the C40 Cities Climate and Leadership Group.

We at the Institute for Environmental Entrepreneurship conducted a broad examination of the human interactions with the built environment, toward the goal of creating low-carbon cities. Cities are more than physical urban areas.  They are composed of the interactions of buildings, spaces and people. Individual buildings or groups of buildings can be designed to be built with the latest in green technology.  But, what about the people involved?  Do investors want to pay for green tech, do elected officials want to update regulations to accommodate it, and do people want to embrace it?  And, what about existing cities – how can we improve the interactions of design, technology and the public to reduce our use of fossil fuels?

The basic answers: Yes to all of the above, elaborations below.

Our current, “high-carbon” cities are created from integrated systems of finance, policy, building and human behavior, which together are unsustainable.  We found real-world examples of changes in each of these elements, and showed how they can be integrated into new systems of sustainability and resilience.  We think that market forces alone will not get us there, nor will government fiat or individual action.  But together, they can work.

Climate Change and Urban Living

Climate change must be dealt with at multiple scales: global, national, regional, and local. Urban design and planning have the potential to mitigate and offer adaptive solutions most effectively at the local level.  Our research focused on the social, cultural, and psychological dimensions of human behavior in the urban context. We described ways that these dimensions work to promote or hinder the movement toward carbon neutrality, with a focus within the U.S. context. The U.S. context is important for the substantive reason that, per capita, Americans contribute more greenhouse gases than anyone else.

The proposed solutions to the climate change problem so far have been physical, infrastructural, and technical fixes, such as the promotion of more fuel-efficient vehicles, smart growth and “LEED-Neighborhood Development” planning and “green” buildings. However, the root of the problem remains an anthropogenic one. A gap remains in the study of human activity and behavior in relation to low-carbon development and sustainable consumption.  Our research starts to fill that gap.

Specific elements of urban design—such as transit, biking, walking, mixed-use development, density, and multi-functioning open spaces—are increasingly being used to promote carbon-neutral cities. Our research describes how basic processes of social psychology, as filtered through cultural background, socioeconomic status, and other demographic factors, affect how different groups engage with each of these elements of the built environment.

We reviewed over 130 publications, drawn from the fields of environmental psychology, environment and behavior studies, city planning, sociology and anthropology, to aid in this endeavor. The report also consolidates the insights of key experts in planning and design in both professional and academic fields, as well as including expertise from within the Institute.

A Sampling of Our Recommendations

We go into great depth in the full report on these topics, and others:

  • While individual smart technologies can be standardized across the globe, it doesn’t work to over-generalize about “people, because their cultures, motivations and capacities are so varied. Talking about “people” in general is no more productive in urban planning and smart design than talking about “buildings” or “infrastructure” in general.  Who are we designing for?  What are their ages, income, orientation to family, perception of density, physical capacities?  The literature suggests that what works for some doesn’t work for others.
  • Buildings and spaces intended for one set of functions can be appropriated for new uses. Existing infrastructure and amenities may be perceived as a “fixed” and single-use asset, but their original uses can creatively be re-thought. The built environment does not just structure human behavior; humans also “act back” on buildings and spaces, to repurpose them, or redefine them.  The typical lifespan of 40 years for many American buildings may not be determined so much by their physical capabilities as by a developer’s desire to tear them down and start fresh.  Environmental goals may be served better by capitalizing on the buildings’ embedded carbon, and repurposing them.  Money can be saved, as well as minimizing environmental impact and urban construction upheaval.  Governmental regulations, zoning and incentives could encourage this.
  • Flexible design for repurposing can be built in. Despite the ability of humans to “act back” on the built environment and re-appropriate it for new uses, the design limitations of the physical infrastructure remain in place.  New buildings can be designed with open plans that consists of more smaller components rather than fewer large components, and a durable outer shell that permits internal different uses as conditions change.
  • New roles for public and market-based incentives are emerging to make low-carbon cities feasible. The “public goods” of GHG reduction and livability will likely require more of a public role in providing incentives for builders, as well as new concepts for private return on investment, which will include all elements of the “triple bottom line:” financial, environmental and social.

Conventional real estate financing (which frequently involves expected returns on investment in the high teens, with a three-year payback) works against the kind of planning and innovation necessary to incorporate carbon reduction.  Fortunately, new investment models are emerging, new roles for government are evident in the work of the C40 Cities, and a new generation’s expectations for low-carbon lifestyles are being practiced as well as theorized.

We looked specifically at the case of the Bullitt Center, soon to open in Seattle. Its cutting edge design, integrating the latest in technology, building materials, siting, etc. will allow unprecedented energy and waste reduction, and longevity – the building is designed to last 250 years. The City of Seattle sees it as a definite feather in the City’s sustainability cap and it will contribute greatly to the livability of the neighborhood. It is important to note that construction financing could have been achieved only with a hefty contribution by the Bullitt Foundation. It is equally important that the Foundation intends to make back its investment by prorating the cost of office space and energy savings, over a longer time frame than is customary to many investors. Significantly, the role of engineering systems of all kinds has been at the forefront of making the Foundation’s desire come to pass.

As the reality of climate change more powerfully motivates the public and policy makers, this will be translated into the desire for more buildings, streets and public spaces to be built, or re-built, sustainably. But, how will it be financed? No doubt, public financing will be a factor, but private sector financing, through what is generally called “impact investing,” will play an increasing role, as a new breed of socially conscious investor steps up.

Consider these examples:

We believe that the increase in financial instruments that use market-based solutions to increase social and environmental impacts and the application of those instruments to sustainable cities will create an opportunity for engineering, design and planning innovators. By combining their technical expertise with a broad understanding of how people will interact with their buildings, they will be well-positioned to demonstrate to potential investors, developers, and policy makers that it is indeed possible to transition to low-carbon cities that can meet the needs of different groups of people now and in the future.

This blog post was adapted from the Cities and People Project, the full text of which is available here.

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