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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US needs White House Climate Change Council to protect lives and economy

ny dark

With the Zika virus spreading in Florida, it’s timely to consider how we will prepare for our increasing real-time manifestations of climate change. Once thought to be a threat in the distant future, the impacts of climate change are becoming more evident through events such as ongoing drought, extended severe heat waves, coastal and inland flooding and now possibly through what the CDC is calling an unprecedented insect transmission of a birth defect.

The year 2016 is on track to become the earth’s warmest year by a significant margin, with July 2016 being the hottest month ever recorded. Besides experiencing “Black Swan” events that might be tied to climate change (like the spreading of Zika), we have witnessed over the past year record numbers of drought-induced wildfires and deadly 1,000-year inland flood events from “rain bombs” in states such as West Virginia, Maryland and the cities of Houston, Baton Rouge and Columbia, SC.

Our public health and safety institutions, along with infrastructure, already outmoded and in need of repair, simply can’t keep up with the developing threats and pressures. It’s time for a more thorough assessment of climate change’s advancing impacts with a measured response of planning for additional resources, new technologies, public safety protocol, workforce development, as well as international and domestic security.

Without a doubt, the United States needs to further the Obama Administration’s comprehensive climate change mitigation with its national Clean Power Plan and become the world’s first clean-energy superpower. As essential as they are, mitigation actions are only one prong of critical over-arching policy and action needed. The other prong is to concurrently make our society, the economy and public institutions more resilient, and adaptive, to the disruptions and shocks resulting from an unstable climate.

The new president could help the nation better manage climate change risk by creating a cross-agency national Climate Change Security Council or National Resilience Council based in the White House. This council, for which retired US Marine Col. James Seaton and I are advocating, would be similar in structure to the White House National Economic Council or the National Security Council, the NSC. Seaton was an NSC staff member during the Bill Clinton administration.

The new national Climate Change Council would coordinate and prioritize domestic protection as well as foreign humanitarian and national security-related planning for climate change resilience across cabinet-level federal agencies. Key agencies would include Homeland Security and other major departments: particularly Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Defense, Commerce and Labor. The Department of Energy, which is increasingly being tasked with climate change mitigation, would also participate in adaptation planning, particularly around the vulnerability of the nation’s power grid to climate change.

Because climate change has a delayed impact from carbon emissions, we are only now experiencing the regional and local impacts of global emissions from decades earlier. How would the a White House Office of Climate Change Security start making our cities, regions and industries more able to cope with climate change’s apparent accelerating impacts?

The Obama administration has made a good start on climate change security with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Resilience Toolkit and climate change directives that every federal agency was ordered last month to consider. Canada has already created a Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment and its duties include climate change adaptation.

Looking beyond the Obama legacy, how do major US presidential candidates stack up on this critical issue?

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump denies the existence of climate change, a stance taken by no other world leaders after 195 nations formally adopted the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015, an agreement that Trump says he will not honor if elected president. This stance would endanger our national and international security.

Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the need for climate change mitigation; her campaign’s platform on climate change resilience or security is limited to the following declaration: “Clinton will work to ensure that federal infrastructure investments are resilient to both current and future climate risks, and she will partner with states, cities and rural communities to develop regionally coordinated, resilient infrastructure strategies.”

The incoming administration would be prudent to acknowledge that the nation’s current built environment and institutions were not designed for climate change’s increased stresses. From streets to utility sewer, power and water systems, the world’s increasingly urban population is living in cities and buildings that were designed for an era of greater resource availability, and for more benign, less volatile climate conditions.

Perhaps most critically needed is a massive program to plan metro area green infrastructure, to cool soaring urban temperatures and reduce destructive flash flood damages by capturing rainwater for storage and reuse in engineered, climate resilient landscapes. In urbanized or suburban areas, green infrastructure can include parks, transit and road rights of way, even rooftops, yards and parking lots. Green infrastructure reduces water consumption through stormwater capture and reuse, which can also significantly cut energy consumption.

The new council could champion preserving and restoring the eco-system services carried out by coastal barrier islands, wetlands, and forests. Wetlands and estuaries, for instance, provide habitat for wildlife while buffering coastal storm surges and inland flooding.

As mentioned, the energy sector and particularly our national power grid is unprepared for climate change. An influential 2014 report on the financial risks of climate change in the United States, Risky Business, estimated that the United States will require 95 Gigawatts of more power over the next 5 to 25 years to account for energy demand from climate change—equivalent to 200 more power plants. There’s also the specter of flooding, severe storms and heat waves damaging generation, capacity and transmission.

New more-resilient energy and water systems will need to be “smart”, able to use artificial intelligence, a field of scientific innovation being led by Google and others.

Smart energy systems reduce demand before critical energy generation limits are breached by climate stresses. These systems will require renewable and other energy-powered microgrids combined with battery storage to “island” affected areas from extreme weather precipitated grid failures. A White House-level council could scale these best practices at home through the Department of Labor and abroad through the Department of Commerce.

Climate change security would create positive economic impact. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of jobs could be created through the replacement of aging and outmoded grey infrastructure with smart systems and urban green infrastructure, and through planning and constructing storm barriers and constructed wetlands. Restoration of wetlands, aquatic, riverine and estuarine ecosystems accounted for $3.2 billion in revenues and 40,000 jobs in 2013. Smart microgrids, resilient water systems and energy efficiency improvements are other big domestic job creators that can save lives during the most pressing climate-influenced events.

Numerous isolated examples of climate resilience practices already exist. These best management practices can be adapted to local climate, cultural and economic needs and replicated throughout the nation. Resilience skills and technologies will also be critical to our helping other countries faced with even more daunting climate change precipitated disasters.

Los Angeles is trying to recharge its aquifers by capturing stormwater in parking lots, streets and medians to recharge its drinking water aquifer. The city’s Department of Water and Power has utilized GIS-based 3-D imaging and cost-benefit analyses for its extensive properties, demonstrating how local rainwater can be economically captured to recharge the city’s underground water aquifers. Much of the city now depends almost entirely on faraway mountain range snowmelt that because of ongoing drought is already being reduced by climate change.

New Orleans, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco are reinventing themselves with multi-purpose public recreational-rainwater retention space in order to temper the more severe heat waves, floods and storm surges becoming more common. College campuses like the University of California at San Diego are using advanced innovation like microgrids with renewable energy sources to head off grid failures from climate change stresses while incubating exciting new smart technologies that save money for the campus and state taxpayers.

More fully-realized climate security solutions are being advocated by a number of organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program; The Skoll Foundation Global Threats Program; the Natural Resources Defense Council’s push for green infrastructure; and the Post Carbon Institute’s community resilience program, as well as IBM, ESRI and others in the private sector.

But these efforts need to be scaled up and integrated with national planning, financing and job training.

Climate change security’s sphere of influence extends far beyond national policy at home. The World Bank said in a recent report that Asian cities in particular are “dangerously unprepared” for climate change risks like increased flooding and storm damage. Indeed, as the Department of Defense has indicated going back to the early 2000s, climate threats to food and water security—think Syria–are a serious issue for the defense of our allies and the world order (link added after Sept. 14 publication of bi-partisan US military “Climate and Security” report).

Domestic climate change security efforts have bi-partisan support. Moderate Republicans and independents in Florida are now demanding action to protect against climate change, including urban planning and infrastructure to adapt to sea level rise.

Fortunately, we don’t have to make a trade-off with climate mitigation to reduce near-term climate change threats, risks and damages. We can and should continue the push to a Net Zero carbon economy to stave off the worst effects of future climate change. It behooves us as a species and nation to figure out how to adapt to climate change and how to steward the earth in the face of this existential threat.

Timely creation of a White House Climate Change Security Council would provide prioritized and coordinated solutions across federal agencies, as well as state and local government, to help make us better prepared and more secure for an uncertain and vastly different future.

(photo: Midnight in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy, by Iwean Bain, New York Magazine)

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Cities and Smart Grids: latest from US and China


smart grid3.jpg

The internet, distributed renewable energy, electric
vehicles and energy management are ready to coalesce: the impact on cities and
our lives will be profound. The US-China
Green Energy Conference (sponsored by the US-China Green Energy Council) held Friday in the Silicon Valley took a deep bi-national dive
into what smart grids are and what they will mean for so-called smart cities,
their wired citizenry and the future of global carbon emissions.

Smart grid specifics are finally starting to emerge from
the marketing haze. They will rely heavily on smart buildings, and are a
critical solution in making renewable energy more scalable through more
efficient energy transmission systems. Cities
like Dubuque, Iowa are working with 1,000 residents to test smart grid
applications and have reportedly lowered their water use by 6% in early trials
with IBM
.

Elsewhere, China is testing a four-square kilometer smart
grid pilot area in its national urban eco showcase, Tianjin Eco-City. The smart
grid includes a 30kw PV solar microgrid on the roof of the Tianjin “Eco-City Business Hall,”
where residents will be able to charge their electric vehicles while they view
virtual reality demonstrations of how the smart grid works, including its
“self-healing” capabilities within the Eco-City’s network.

In terms of renewable energy, smart grids will be a killer
app. Right now, when the wind completely dies in larger areas of wind power
generation, such as the West Texas plains, the transmission system supplying
electricity to cities, including Austin and Dallas, suffers a “mad scramble,”
according to Liang Min, of the US Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). In fact, according
to Chuck Wells from OSISoft, such power hiccups are currently so disruptive, that 45% more fossil fuel is
needed to back up regional energy grids having large-scale wind and solar
generation versus regional grids that rely only on fossil fuels.

On the home or business side, people are responsible for
about 30% of a typical building’s energy system performance, said John Skinner,
Managing Director of Intel’s Open Energy initiative. The more reliable information people have,
the more likely they can make smart decisions about energy use, and the more
likely they can pay less for energy than they do with analog meters (the ones
with the wheels turning inside them).

Energy transactions will become more transparent through
next-generation smart grid transaction languages, such as TeMIX which was
presented to the US-China energy conference by Edward Cazalet, CEO of TeMIX. Cazalet’s presentation reminded me of how the internet
was optimized when TCP/ IP, the unifying data transfer protocols behind the web,
were created. The capability for energy systems to use a unified language
around energy use and transactions will be critical. This language will allow governments,
businesses and residents to better manage their energy consumption. Currently,
energy costs can  vary tremendously based
on factors including climate, usage and equipment, costing as much as five times or more during
peak hours. Few people outside of large businesses realize they can
cut energy costs dramatically by changing their behavior, which can be as
straightforward as running energy
guzzling appliances during off-peak hours.

None of this means that smart meters are a panacea. In
cities throughout California, smart meters have been rolled out clumsily by the
utility Pacific Gas and Electric
.
After four years of replacing residential and business analog meters with wireless smart
meters, a vocal and well-organized group
of citizens are objecting to the continuous signals they transmit. Others
object based on invasion of privacy or fear the new meters would overcharge
them. PG&E has finally gotten around to a public education program extolling
the benefits of smart meters, which they say are mandatory for their
customers. Besides the heavy handedness,
even with the new PR campaign, PG&E has not made the case for compelling
consumer benefits.

Consolidated Edison of New York City, on the other hand has managed their
smart meter pilot program more effectively. Con Ed ran an extensive public
education program and transparent opt-out option for those that did not want
smart meters (2% did not want them) on their home or business for their New
York City pilot program
. The
utility offered participants in its pilot program rebates of $25-50. Six rate
structures with hourly rate changes and a web-based consumer dashboard
explained and demonstrated different rates, according to EPRI’s Liang Min.

Many companies including Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, General
Electric and Google are eyeing the nascent smart grid for its potential not
just to make cities more eco-efficient, but for also for lucrative smart-grid
revenue streams as they penetrate the last major untapped digital pathway into our lives.

“We are cooperating with many high tech companies,” Kai Xie,
General Manager of the US Office of the China State Grid told the US-China Energy
Conference. “We have also developed some in-house products for our customers,
including a dashboard (with Intel) as part of a two-way communication combined
smart meter and consumer portal. “

Our information, communications, photographs, entertainment
and medical industries are all now increasingly digital, and soon our energy
will be digitized, too. Let’s hope the planet and our cities will benefit from a smooth and well thought out transformation.

Warren
Karlenzig is president of Common
Current
. He is a fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute,  and co-author of
a
forthcoming United Nations manual on global sustainable city planning and
management. 
 

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