On the Verge: Key Topics and Trends at the 2013 VERGE Conference
A few weeks ago I was fortunate to attend VERGE, a conference hosted by GreenBiz.com in San Francisco exploring the convergence of buildings, transportation, energy, and the latest in technology. Technologists of any ilk, from corporations such as eBay and Dell, to up-and-comers such as Nest and SolarCity, were on hand to explore new business models, macro trends, and promising signs of success. As we often hear, buildings and transportation make up a majority of carbon emissions in most cities, owing to their use of energy, so the conference topics seemed particularly relevant to future cities.
Some themes that arose throughout the event:
- The sharing economy – As consumers and businesses are gradually being weaned away from product ownership to service-based models of value (eg. Software as a service, streaming video, and leasing solar panels), the next step in the progression is the sharing economy or collaborative consumption. As Airbnb, Zipcar, Uber, Liquidspace, and otheres explore networks of trust and maximizing value from fixed capital, new efficiencies will be possible but in the process also transform how people interact with property, often requiring city policies to catch up. For example, how should lodging and rented business space be taxed, or how to regulate transportation network companies as they compete with taxis? How cities interact with these new business models will have large impacts on sustainability as well as the viability of these businesses.
- The distributed future – It is clear that the proliferation of distributed renewable energy as well as electrified automobiles create more inputs and outputs on the electric grid, which will need to find new ways to handle these flows. Cities will be at the center of this, from the incentives they award, the permits they approve, and the utility services they operate. Furthermore, flows of goods are fundamentally changing, from the rise of mobile dining and food trucks to the advent of same-day package delivery provided by the likes of Amazon and Google. As the bricks-and-mortar retail model evolves toward brakes-and-motor, cities will be challenged to adapt short-term policies as well as long-term planning.
Stated another way, there seem to be three significant spheres at the center of this technology and sustainability convergence:
- Data, big and small – As pundits pontificate about whether machine to machine networks (M2M) and the internet of things will be realized, it is clear that significant, sustained growth in how and where data physically flows will affect how cities grow and change in the future. The data “air traffic controllers,” such as mobile telecom companies, WiFi providers (eg. municipal WiFi systems), and networks of Bluetooth and mesh-based devices will be key players in this space. One panelist remarked that AT&T’s mobile data volumes grew 30,000 percent in the course of five years. The smart devices that will populate our smart cities will clamor for the ability to communicate, whether they be electric vehicle charging centers, bike sharing stations, irrigation controllers, or smart electric meters. Not to mention the copious amounts of data then need to be distilled, interpreted, and actioned, which will demand a new breed of information & communications technology management. Currently some cities have created offices of civic innovation led by chief innovation officers, who may soon have to double as chief information officers. They will need to tackle challenging questions about data ownership and security which can prove to be potential barriers to nimble and scaleable progress in this field, particularly when it comes to accessing or sharing data between entities.
- Energy, grids, and virtual power plants – With more than half of last year’s U.S. energy development in renewables, utility companies are at a significant crossroads. They face several challenges, with one being the control of the orders of magnitude increase in energy inputs to the grid through renewables such as solar and wind along with distributed generation. Smart microgrids may become the new mini-utilities at the neighborhood level that balance inputs & outputs in the local grid. In some cases, companies that manage and aggregate demand reduction programs with end useres, like EnerNOC and Constellation, as well as solar energy providers such as SolarCity and Sungevity, will begin to scale and act like power plants themselves. Utility companies therefore must cope with the increased variability in their distribution systems, as well as the rapidly shifting competition from these new energy sources. One panelist noted that hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in new generation on the German power grid, yet none of that has been captured by the utilities.
- Mobility networks – Mobility in cities faces interesting changes both in how transport is powered to how it is managed and offered. In addition to new waves of electric vehicles requiring infrastructure for charging, which may look fundamentally different from the collection of gas stations we are used to, there are now new models of sharing, access, and availability. GPS-enabled smartphones now have a multitude of apps that add layers of information to commuting, such as Roadify which aggregates public transit data from the tangled systems that exist across cities and transit districts and also helps display it in public locations such as stadiums, shopping centers, and other high-traffic areas; the Waze app that crowdsources traffic and route information which could become a rich source of traffic flow data for regional planning purposes; a proliferation of ridesharing solutions in a multitude of flavors; and even Volkswagen is now seeking to manage mobility services in China. How about gamifying traffic flow? Sweden’s “speed camera lottery” has been incredibly effective at reducing average car speeds by 5 miles per hour by entering everyone who passes the camera at or under the speed limit into a lottery for the proceeds from the fines.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Social distancing is becoming the new normal, at least for those of us who are heeding the Center for Disease Control’s warnings and guidelines. But if you don’t have reliable, high-speed broadband, it is impossible to engage in what is now the world’s largest telecommunity. As many schools and universities around the world (including those of my kids) are shut down, these institutions are optimistically converting to online and digital learning. However, with our current broadband layout, this movement will certainly leave many Americans behind.
Accenture analysts recently released a report calling for cities to take the lead in creating coordinated, “orchestrated” mobility ecosystems. Limiting shared services to routes that connect people with mass transit would be one way to deploy human-driven services now and to prepare for driverless service in the future. Services and schedules can be linked at the backend, and operators can, for example, automatically send more shared vehicles to a train station when the train has more passengers than usual, or tell the shared vehicles to wait for a train that is running late.
Managing urban congestion and mobility comes down to the matter of managing space. Cities are characterized by defined and restricted residential, commercial, and transportation spaces. Private autos are the most inefficient use of transportation space, and mass transit represents the most efficient use of transportation space. Getting more people out of private cars, and into shared feeder routes to and from mass transit modes is the most promising way to reduce auto traffic. Computer models show that it can be done, and we don’t need autonomous vehicles to realize the benefits of shared mobility.
The role of government, and the planning community, is perhaps to facilitate these kinds of partnerships and make it easier for serendipity to occur. While many cities mandate a portion of the development budget toward art, this will not necessarily result in an ongoing benefit to the arts community as in most cases the budget is used for public art projects versus creating opportunities for cultural programming.
Rather than relying solely on this mandate, planners might want to consider educating developers with examples and case studies about the myriad ways that artists can participate in the development process. Likewise, outreach and education for the arts community about what role they can play in projects may stimulate a dialogue that can yield great results. In this sense, the planning community can be an invaluable translator in helping all parties to discover a richer, more inspiring, common language.