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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Enabling Future Global Green Cities


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Between 2000 and 2030 the global urban footprint will double,
mostly due to growth in developing nation cities. Urban carbon and resource
impacts cannot, must not double during this period. What can be done by
policymakers, the private sector, civil society and urban leaders to prevent
the unthinkable, a global climate and ecosystem incapable of supporting stable species
populations and food production?

A botched transition to the coming urban future will ensure
stresses far beyond our comprehension.

So, I will be addressing the Global Green
Cities Symposium
in San Francisco Feb. 24 on “Enabling Future Global Green Cities.” In
my previous post I described how this event acknowledges a sense of urgency by taking
a novel approach to expert and cross-industry collaboration.

Clearly, cities in developing nations are the crux of the
matter: 90% of projected urban growth will occur in developing nation metros during the
next decades. By 2040, the developing nation urban sector will benefit from an
estimated total of more than $300 trillion in expenditures for the built
environment and transportation, both in infrastructure and operations. Increasingly
these city functions and services will be optimized to address both climate
change mitigation and climate change adaptation.

Before getting to the how, let’s address the issue of cities
on the basic level of benefits and risks.

Pros of increased urbanism:

  • easier provision of lower-cost high-value services (healthcare, education, water, transportation, communications, commerce)
  • enhanced cultural activities and opportunities
  • urban economic innovation in global hubs benefit their surrounding rural regions, and especially national economies

Cons of increased urbanism:

  • increased pollution and concentration of
    wastes, congestion, urban-heat island effect
  • negative social impacts which can include loss
    of sense of community, isolation from nature and decreased safety and
    security, exacerbated by a large-scale lack of affordable housing
  • sprawled urban borders place natural resources
    (agricultural land, habitat, fisheries, watersheds) at much greater risk

Beyond the pros and cons of urbanization, the populations
and economies of all cities are vulnerable to the increasingly severe impacts
of global climate change, including rising sea levels, flooding, winter storms,
drought and extreme heat events. Besides higher rates of death and
disease from climate change-induced environmental conditions, mass population
migrations are expected to occur in the not-distant future. From New Orleans
to Bangladesh,
urban climate-related population diasporas have already begun.

Cities will need to
quickly begin shifting their spending from high-carbon intensity infrastructure
to green infrastructure that produces very low carbon emissions in production,
transport, implementation and maintenance.

Long-term and strategic action plans will be necessary to
guide capital toward infrastructure solutions offering attractive
returns on investment. Such returns can take many forms–reduced operating costs
(including reuse and disposal), low embodied and operating carbon emissions, lower air
and water pollution levels, and greater resource efficiency.

Global competitiveness may soon be defined in part by comparative carbon
emission rates. Low-carbon urban economies, for instance, will gain a decisive
edge over economies (urban, exurban or rural) that remain relatively heavy
per-capita carbon emitters. This competitive advantage will be gained not only
because of environmental and quality of life factors but also because of the
potential merger of international trade rules and carbon emissions regulations.

The OECD Mayors Roundtable in 2010
recommended that urban policy makers pursue integrated policy in three areas: the adjustment of firms to new sustainability related
business opportunities and energy volatility; enabling individual consumers or citizens to change their preferences
for products and services, and, finally; developing and effectively diffusing green
technologies in the marketplace.

Following are other leading strategies and recommendations
that will be covered in the United Nations “Shanghai Training Manual for
Sustainable Cities”
.
 (In order to be more likely to succeed, multi-sector
collaboration and transparency will be required of each):

  •  New integrated, long-term and multi-scale models
    for structuring, managing, measuring and financing city performance (e.g.,
    World Bank Eco2 Cities program)
    including life-cycle energy/ carbon, maintenance and capital cost management across
    budgets, capital planning and large-scale investments. Early examples include Curitiba,
    Brazil, and a Stockholm industrial district.
  • Mega-region and regional planning approaches,
    including those with “cascaded” micro-planning, such as Greater London (pdf).
  • Community-based natural disaster management, such as the Dhaka example (pdf)
  • Core ICT Planning and Strategy: With e-planning ICT can help cities avoid
    high-carbon land use. Digital technology
    makes it possible for cities to achieve lower carbon emissions from better planning
    and management of infrastructure, buildings, energy and transportation. ICT can
    provide valuable public access in communications and governance, such as Mumbai’s
    e-government
    platform.
  • Public-private partnerships that are well constructed.
    Early examples include South Korea’s Smart Grid 2030,
    and
    China’s Guangdong Province wastewater projects.
    Public-private
    partnership agreements should be part of a transparent public
    process that is beneficial to all parties, especially citizens.
  • “In situ”
    slum upgrading
    , versus indiscriminately tearing down slums. Vulnerabilities must be addressed for those slums that are located in areas
    particularly at risk to climate change, such as flood plains and land subject
    to severe storm erosion. The good news, however, is that
    most urban slums are high
    density, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, made from recycled material, adaptive
    to changing conditions and can be socially inclusive with strong neighborhood
    social networks.

Green urbanization has the potential to shape the 21st
century as much or more than earlier economic and technological advances. The
key difference between this trend and prior economic waves–transportation,
communications, energy, advanced materials and industrialization–will be the
use of integrated urban system approaches.

Bonafide global green cities will only be
fully realized through combined cultural, managerial and
technological innovation that is constantly guided by the active participation of the civil and
private sectors, academia and government.

Let’s all get busy…

(“World Metro Map” image credit)

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

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UN-Shanghai Expo Megacities Sustainability Study: My Role



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Urban sustainability is
the challenge of the century as more of the world’s population becomes urbanized
(50 percent in 2008, 60 percent by 2030), at an ever-faster rate
. Global climate change has been caused in large
part by the burning of fossil fuels to generate energy, materials and food for
metro areas. Yet urban culture also constitutes a powerful response capability
by which to cope with the diminishing socio-economic options forced by climate
change, especially in megacities, metro areas of more than 10 million people.

Upon this tableau, I am collaborating with the
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs,
in conjunction with other UN agencies (United Nations Environment Program, UN
Development Program, UN Habitat and UN Center for Regional Development) and the
Shanghai World Expo Bureau on a sourcebook for sustainable urban management in developing
nation megacities.

 

The sourcebook will consider sustainability advantages
to urbanization along with disadvantages. It will cover broad topics including
greening the urban economy, effective management, as well as solution sectors (land
use and planning, water, buildings, transportation, information and
communications technologies). Case studies will be provided to illustrate how
solutions have already overcome a host of urgent challenges, or how they may soon be able to help do so.

 

With the acute rise of
urbanization in developing nations, megacities will increase in both number and
economic-environmental influence. There are between 12 and
15 developing nation megacities (cities of 10 million population in their
metropolitan areas), with 19 developing nation cities in total expected to
reach megacity status by 2025

 

During the next ten
years, according to the McKinsey Global Institute (pdf), 90 percent of urban population growth will take place in developing
countries. In India, for example, cities are forecast to garner 85 percent or
the nation’s total tax revenue (up from current level of 80 percent), which
will be the primary source for financing economic development on a national
scale. Seventy percent of all new jobs are projected to be created in India’s cities by 2030, though cities are expected by that date to represent only 40 percent
of the nation’s total population.  

In terms of impacting climate change, consider
that the cities of Asia alone are expected to contribute more than half the global
greenhouse gas emissions between now and 2027
.

 

Besides the threats and risks that megacity
growth poses to global humanity and regional resources, trends in
developing nation megacities will also strongly define emerging economic
opportunities for large-scale low-carbon and resource-efficient technologies,
services and strategic approaches. Whether in Delhi or Mexico City, megacities
are devising more effective methods of integrated sustainability management using
everything from social networks and crowdsourcing, to paticipatory budgeting and
comprehensive green planning.

 

Cities are the most powerful economic engines in the world for advances in
information and communications technologies, health care, education and energy
systems. These combined capacities have provided urban areas with
anywhere from 55 percent (developing nations) to 85 percent (developed nations)
of total national income
, significantly surpassing per-capita income averages,
and trending even more upward during the next two decades of hyper-urban growth.

 

Megacities and urbanization, in other words,
should be the cause for global concern that needs to be tempered with concerted
strategy, actions and ultimately, hope for humanity. 

 

The complete United Nations study is expected to be released on
1 May 2011, the first anniversary of the opening of the 2010 Shanghai World
Expo-which has a theme of “Better city, Better life.”

Warren Karlenzig is president of Common Current,
an internationally active consultancy based in San Anselmo, California. He is a Fellow at the
Post-Carbon Institute and author of How Green is Your City?: The SustainLane US City Rankings.

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