Can Slovenia create world’s first blockchain-based regenerative food system?

An even brighter green Ljubljana, Slovenia, and its connection to its surrounding countryside may be possible through the combination of Blockchain technology with regenerative food systems.

Slovenia already has the greatest national biodiversity in Europe. How can climate change-buffering resources be better understood, appreciated, valued and protected for the long-term? Highlighting the integrity of the country’s food system by harnessing the emergent capabilities of blockchain technology may be one answer.

Imagine having an app that showed the provenance of food, vouched for authenticity and highlighted regenerative impacts. Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia, provides an excellent candidate for a world-leading carbon sequestering and regenerative national food system, combined with gastronomic experiences that are whole-systems based (including circular economy impacts).

The Ljubljana (“Loo-blah-na”) historic city center is a pedestrian and cycling zone that restricted vehicles starting in 2007, at the behest of longtime Mayor Zoran Janković. That bold and resoundingly successful move and other green initiatives are paying off handsomely for the city, local businesses and increasing numbers of visitors.

Next Move for Slovenia?

Beyond its Green Capital status, Ljubljana–and indeed all Slovenia–has a rare opportunity to be part of an exciting new climate change solution. Blockchain and the Internet of Things could illuminate the Ljubljana food supply chain with transparency. Certifcations could report production methods’ precise carbon-sequestering calculations and biodiversity-supporting impacts at the place of origin, production and elsewhere along the supply chain.

Creating an app showing the provenance of regenerative Slovenian foods would provide competitive advantage for the declining sector of Slovenia’s economy devoted to small-scale grazing and agriculture while supporting Ljubljana’s and the nation’s growing tourism industry, which now adds about five percent to national GDP.

At Ljubljana Town Hall (circa 1484, photo above) I had a lively discussion in late June with city leaders and was in touch with national officials about opportunities for the city’s and nation’s regenerative future, including the use of new technologies such as Blockchain.

Besides discussing a planned green technology redevelopment zone, we explored how to provide more transparency for people interested in buying local food in the city’s restaurants and markets that support ecosystem regeneration. I gave the example of how the burger I had the night before at a café called Pop’s Place was much more than 100% pasture-raised and grass-fed, as advertised on the menu.

Pop’s helpful waiter took a moment amongst buzzing outdoor tables of summer hipsters to describe how the cattle are locally and selectively sourced by the owner through his knowledge of breeds and pastures. Animals that don’t meet the high standards are rejected. Pop’s Place even had its own butcher and, of course, dozens of local or regional beers on the menu.

Beyond Organic

Maybe it was just the setting on the chestnut-shaded banks of the Ljubljanica River, but Pop’s might have served me the best burger I’ve ever experienced. That burger’s unusual integrity could be better highlighted to customers though the services of the blockchain certifying the burger’s (& fries’, side salad’s and IPA’s):

  • silvo-pasture heritage with highly managed grazing
  • intercropping: crops interspersed among grazing areas
  • biodiversity habitat
  • surface water stewardship, etc.

Besides the sheer quantity of precipitation Slovenia receives, Ljubljana’s water maintains its purity because it is largely uncontaminated by agriculture. Most Slovenian farms co-inhabit existing forests without sacrificing environmental integrity, through careful and small-scale grazing combiend witrth selective logging.

Typical Slovenian agricultural practices are higher in carbon-sequestration when compared to industrial agriculture’s unmanaged intensive grazing, feedlots and row-crop production. Even worse is the burning of tropical rainforests for rapidly depleted cattle grazing land. Well-managed Slovenian croplands/pastures are able to hold and effectively filter precipitation, leading to less run-off, which means less pollution and erosion, while hydrating the drier southern parts of Slovenia.

Regenerative land uses such as rotational grazing (Photo right: Cattle grazing in Julian Alps. Photo Credit, Kmetijski inštitut, Slovenia) result in healthier forests, which cover about two-thirds of the nation. These mixed conifer and deciduous forests show little sign of logging, as farmers typically carefully select the abundant timber from their land while keeping forest function wholly intact.

Cattle feedlots are rare to non-existent in Slovenia (we saw no corn grown from the border of Hungary to the Ljubljana, about 140 miles). In the US, livestock is responsible overall for 15-18 percent of carbon emissions. Much of those emissions come from grain feedlots (growing and transporting the grain, using pesticides on grain) and industrial approaches that result in massive lagoons of manure.

Slovenia is a different world, indeed. Traveling two hours by bus (just over an hour by car) up the Sava River valley from Ljubljana to Triglav National Park, I found the region’s centuries-old grazing and food production (meat, milk, cheese, yogurt, meat, fruit and vegetables) cultures to be inspirational. Within Triglav National park are a number of cattle-raising and farming villages. Meanwhile Triglav is nested within the UNESCO Julian Alps Biosphere Reserve, which also includes more tourist-heavy regions (Lake Bled) along with agricultural areas. Just east of the Biosphere Reserve, Slovenia has one of Europe’s oldest full-time shepherd’s villages.

The country’s northwest Bohinj region is a pastiche of attractive grazing areas, with small-scale fruit and vegetable plots woven in semi-wilderness (above photo, potato plot intercropped in grazing pasture, Srdnja Vas, Triglav National Park).

Lake Bohinj, Triglav National Park

Even in the midst of a national park next to the nation’s largest lake, Lake Bohinj (a major source of the Sava, Slovenia’s largest river), the surrounding communities form a working landscape. Full-time herders are on the rebound in the Bohinj region after dropping to a low in the early 2000s. Bohinj dairy products including milk and yogurt can be found in Ljubljana’s mainstream food markets—they are competitively priced and delicious.

Slovenia’s average farm agricultural production area is among the smallest in the European Union, with 17 acres for food and 14 acres of forest.  They often have non-irrigated meadows, taking advantage of plentiful year-round precipitation.

The bounty of natural inputs (water, hay and other forage) give farmers good incentives to take care of their local forests. Slovenian farming operations are usually family-owned and family-run. An impressive 71 percent of Slovenian farms or pastures are run by farmers and/or herders that live and work on their own land—that is, when they are not grazing in common lands. All of these factors result in an astonishing 38 percent of the country’s land harboring natural habitat and endangered species, according to the EU’s Natura 2000 program.

Ljubljana and Slovenia should capitalize on preserving such pristine assets and unique culture through innovative planning and management practices, including new technology-optimized food certification systems.

Already abundant clean water, healthy living for flora, fauna and humans can then become the basis for regenerative agriculture and low-impact tourism—in effect, a national model for the world, especially non-arid regions.

This is second in a two-part series on Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, and the northwest Alps of Slovenia. The first part explored whether Slovenia is Europe’s Costa Rica in terms of biodiversity and resource conservation.

Lake Bohinj photo by Gilad Rom from Los Angeles, United States – Lake Bohinj Uploaded by sporti, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27600906

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Why the US Needs Smart Cities Ranking

The time has arrived to compare and rank US smart cities as we move into the second greatest techno-cultural wave of the century, after the mobile revolution. Smart cities will digitize and profoundly transform our energy, mobility, water, waste and municipal services, including safety and outreach.

smart citiesClearly, smart cities and its Internet of Things (IoT, along with blockchain, etc.) underbelly will catalyze and energize many sectors of our economy in software, hardware, services and infrastructure.

Ten years ago, I wrote the book How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings, which benchmarked the largest 50 cities in 15 categories of economic and environmental sustainability, as well as climate resilience, and provided an aggregate ranking—from #1 Portland, Oregon to #50 Columbus, Ohio.

Since How Green Is Your City? came out in with its 1,000 data points and three billion media impressions, mayors from Michael Bloomberg of New York (#4 overall), to Richard Daley of Chicago (#6), lauded the study; cities like Houston (#39) formed sustainability departments in reaction; while the national leadership of China asked for guidance on how to similarly measure and rank its cities. Meanwhile, Hurricane Sandy took aim on New York City, and the Paris Climate Accord, approved in 2015, was driven significantly by the participation of the more sustainable cities in national coalitions.

So why embark on a similar ranking for smart cities? As our climate-change impacted and globalized world becomes primarily urban, and with cities as the molten core of financial, political and economic power, we will require the new ability to use sensors to provide Big Data, and then there must be responses based upon artificial intelligence.

The need for smart cities has long been evident. The Bay Area consultancy I founded, Common Current, has worked globally since 2008 with smart city issues regarding water, infrastructure, transportation, air quality, buildings and energy. Through government and private sector clients in the United States, I have addressed national, urban and industry leaders throughout Asia as well as the European Union, and a French national ministry session on achieving net zero buildings at COP 21 in Paris.

Clearly there is acute interest in smart cities, especially in Europe and Asia. The present field of US smart cities is highly active, but it is also fragmented and opaque, just as US cities were in sustainability a decade ago.

For smart cities, Common Current has been tracking developments in more than 25 large US cities so far, from Google’s Sidewalk Labs and the Vulcan mobility project in Columbus, Ohio (Columbus, Ohio, won a $40 million US Department of Transportation grant for last year’s Smart Cities Challenge), to Comcast’s new wide area networks for sensors in Chicago, the Bay Area and Philadelphia.

Unlike Singapore or Barcelona on the international level, there is no clear smart city leader in the United States. There are many participants and key early projects: San Diego (LED street lighting platform), Boston (smart intersection), San Francisco (smart parking), New York (smart microgrid), Cincinnati (smart sewers), Atlanta (AT&T cross-sector framework), Los Angeles (smart poles for lighting and broadband), Louisville (the grassroots “Louie Lab”), and Kansas City (Smart City Streetcar Corridor).

The goal of the US Smart Cities Ranking is to cover the largest 50 cities by population with a unified research methodology and survey project, rank the cities in each category and overall, and to publish the results in an open-source format.

Through involvement with technology, infrastructure and financing entities in smart cities, we may have some biases, but transparency and consistent data values will be evident, as it was with the rankings in How Green Is My City? Former Seattle Sustainability Director Steve Nicholas, vice president of Climate and Environmental Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, said, “I’ve been in the sustainability business for 15 or 20 years now. And these types of rankings have been tried dozens and dozens of times and this in my opinion is the best one in terms of its rigor and how much care they’ve given to apples-to-apples comparisons. A lot of that comes from Warren’s commitment.”

To be clear, creating a study on the scale that the US Smart City Rankings necessitates requires resources for primary research, travel, networking, data analysis and results dissemination. Thus, Common Current invites sponsorship from large smart city players, including Global 1000 brands such as AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, IBM, Cisco, Deloitte, Intel, GE, Audi, Google, Microsoft and others, including the financial services, real estate and insurance industries.

With any benchmarking a central issue is effectively defining the universe: besides the activities in the cities themselves, what are smart city categories, their components and services, and emerging trends? How can performance measures best be applied to discrete categories? These answers will provide valuable insights and data, perhaps even more valuable than the results of the overall smart cities ranking.

Most importantly, benchmarking US smart cities by defined categories will enable city and market participants to move forward with a clearer sense of thoroughness and standards by which to measure innovation as well as general progress. Just as 2007 was the right time for US cities to have a template by which to guide their leadership in the sustainable economy and world politics, 2017-2018 is the right time for US cities and their partners to embark upon becoming global forces in smart technologies, management and economics.

I hope you’ll agree about the need for US Smart City Rankings. Please send inquiries to me:

warren (at) commoncurrent.com

regarding the US Smart Cities Rankings, which will be under development through 2018.

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Open data, swarms of sustainable apps to make cities smart hives

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The amazing growth of sharing apps promises to mark the spring of 2014 as the beginning of a new era demonstrating the power of the swarm. Just as the summer of 1998 marked the beginning of the mainstream Dot Com era and the spring of 2008 saw the advent of global social media, the April IPO of Opower marks a new digital-physical era, the collaborative economy.

The collaborative economy will make cities more convenient, less costly and more sustainable. To provide a mental model of this new world, think of cities as hives for “swarms” of physical activities optimized by, or made possible through open urban data schemes. Earlier this month, I presented this concept in Vienna (ranked as one of Europe’s top smart cities) at IconVienna, a Central European investment forum on smart cities and innovation.

Cities are similar to beehives as they provide the physical locations for the activities of the swarms they host. Of course, both cities and hives need to be in the right place to attract and maintain the largest, healthiest swarms. For beehives, it doesn’t hurt to have access to sunlight, water and flowers. (Admission: I’m an urban beekeeper) Swarms of bees, if they are wild, decide on locating in a hive according to consensus (15 bees must approve of the location) and then they develop optimal social structures according to simple rules and communications.

Cities or metros set laws, regulations and policies at the level of the hive. But emerging swarms, based on digital maps of locations and characteristics of “flowers,” optimize according to physical needs, desires and energy. When bees find flowers, they go back to their hive and dance to show the location of pollen-laden flowers.

Imagine if bees could compare with other nearby swarms how much energy they were using (as Opower enables its users to do), how much other swarms were gathering and the quality of their haul. Or if Airbnb offered swarms an easy way to find convenient unused hives, saving much energy and reducing greenhouse gases in the process.

More and more we humans are using rich digital maps and pricing information for sharing rental rooms, office space, cars, bikes, food, and energy use. Our pollen dance will be our testimonials, use patterns, geo-location, and referrals.

Some swarms will get smaller or even die off, while other swarms will grow until they divide and form new swarms based on emerging needs and changing conditions. Open data will reduce urban traffic congestion: no longer must cars circle downtown blocks as real-time parking rates and open spaces become transparent. Even more sustainable are those who are deciding to telecommute or use public transit on days when they know that parking costs are spiking or when spaces are unavailable.

Likewise mobility and housing availability will be based on shared uses through sharing and peer-to-peer platforms such as ZipCar, LyftUber, and Airbnb. Walkability data through Walkscore already allows people to analyze and select the most walking-friendly housing, jobs and vacations, so they don’t even have to depend (or spend!) on cars or transit. At a TEDx Mission a while back, I showed how hacktavists use open data from the Paris Velib bikeshare program to map bicycle availability in real time.

For energy use, besides Opower, companies such as C3 Energy and Stem provide Big Data energy analytics for businesses and industries, so they can reduce energy consumption through more intelligent use of utilities. These applications differ from sharing platforms, but still rely on bottom-up use strategies based at the level of digitized electrons—with energy being the last realm of digitization in our society, after communications, entertainment, and financial or healthcare services.

In Vienna, the hive and swarm concept I presented was met with excitement. European Union contingents of investors are planning trips to explore San Francisco Bay Area sharing economy start-ups as a result. The European Union is spending $92 million Euros on an ambitious smart city funding and strategy effort as part of its Horizon 2020 program, yet I was told that swarm-type user-centric applications have been largely overlooked so far. That omission is not surprising, as even in the US, cities such as Los Angeles are only now preparing to open up their data.

Hives (cities) must offer not only the best amenities, such as high quality of life, transit on demand and walkability, but they also must reduce restrictive policies favoring business as usual in order to enable massive, easy and open access to city data.

The swarms are coming: if you’re a city leader, you can block them or anger them. Or you can accommodate the swarms and share in the eco-efficiency and abundant honey they make when they prosper.

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