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Smart Cities

Two events I attended this month brought home the importance of cities as centers of solutions for urban sustainability and climate change. In the absence of a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions, cities around the world have already made efforts to decarbonize their economies. Global networks like the C40 include energy and climate as major issues that cities need to tackle if they are to be responsible stakeholders.
LockeMy colleagues at Cypress Rivers invited me to attend the China 2.0 Forum at Stanford University. The keynote speaker was one other than US Ambassador to the PRC, Gary Locke. While the focus of his talk was on the need for financial reforms in China, Ambassador Locke made note of country’s crucial role in the climate problem and how local governments were already taking the initiative there. Every week, the US embassy in Beijing is being contacted by city and country officials who are finding a wide variety of technologies from waste management to transportation solutions.

Indeed, the opportunities are enormous for win-win as American companies can provide the necessary know-how to help these cities find appropriate solutions for their energy and environmental challenges.

SCWOver in Asia, the concept of smart cities have been promoted for several years. Although there is no standard definition, a smart city is characterized as one that uses well designed planning and advanced ITC to create conditions that are conducive to economic growth comfortable lifestyles, and responsibility for the environment.  As a technology driven country, Japan has made enormous efforts in this area with several model cities. Among them, Yokohama is considered one of the “smartest” and has been the host of the annual Smart City Week. These include innovations for local energy production and delivery, water procurement and distribution, and waste management and recycling.

Another highly touted model in Japan is the Kitakyushu Model, which offers know-hows in urban development by integrating waste management, energy management, water management, and environment conservation. Case studies include Kitakyushu Ecotown which has high concentration of recycling plants. In a toolkit in the package, it also has a checklist for making a master plan. They are available on the web.

This year, the discussion at Smart City Week focused on the concept of public-private partnerships (PPPs). Also known as business to government (B2G), it is a framework at the city and municipal level for facilitating, and in some cases, financing the implementation of infrastructure projects. Not only do technology providers play an important role in these relationships, real estate are often promoting these types of projects from energy efficient buildings to urban restructuring. Moreover, these projects must also look at how to better engage residents as stakeholders in their communities. While technology plays an important role, awareness and behavior play as important of a role.

What makes innovation at the city so important in the global scheme is that successes at this scale can be easily learned from each other. These experiences to share ideas and what works can build the confidence and trust needed towards building a global consensus to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, smartening our cities will be an ongoing process but meetings like Smart City Week give leaders and implementers to discuss what works, what doesn’t, and why.

 

Long Live Green Squared Suburbs

I’m watching a CNN special on reinventing Los Angeles, and calling on suburbs as dead, time to move on. 

But I LIKE suburbs.  I like grass.  I like trees.  I like quiet.  I like space – both in my house and between my neighbors.  I don’t like my neighbors waking me up with loud sex at freaking 4 am (which I’ve decided is just par for the course in city environments).

I like my own garage.    Walkable and mixed use can be great.  Done that.  I’m never giving up grass and quiet for walkable and mixed use again.  And well designed suburbs can give you both.

What I don’t understand is why the suburbs have to die – just because of commutes and smog.   Why does being green and sustainable mean I have to live in a hot urban hellhole or drive an hour and half each way?  Why can’t I have a green squared suburb – green with grass AND sustainability.  Why is density good in and of itself?  That’s a false choice.

A large chunk of the professionals I know telecommute and adjust work schedules around commutes, at least sometime.  And still get their jobs done.  Companies need to get this. If I ever got a real job (not that it’s going to happen), I guarantee you lack of flexible working hours and location would be a deal breaker.

Like with most things in economics, it doesn’t even matter if only a portion of the population can do flex and remote.  Just make it possible for 10-20% of the total workforce to adjust, even some of the time, and add that flexibility in.  We’ll likely find that we relieved pressure on house pricing, infrastructure, and everything else, benefiting all of us.  That’s the flip-side benefit of inelasticity in economics.  Small changes in volume can change price fast.

So I submit:

If we have electric vehicles and renewable energy to fight smog.  Especially the continued rise of what I call the one-two auto family – one big car and one small one (which is frankly all the first generation of EVs is good for).  Flex schedules and flex commutes letting the family adjust cars to the right purpose.

If we have the web and skype and mobile everything on our phones.  And cloud computing for all our office stuff.

If ecommerce and on demand continues to grow and change the shopping and entertainment experience.  Read flex travel and random amenities in the smallest town – this is what broadband is delivering us.

If we build flex time and telecommuting into the basic employer – employee contract, with employers paying a premium for the 9 to 5 at the office.  The employer gets more productivity for less money.  And the employee gets their life back and spends less on gas and food.

Then we can have our suburbs and walk them too, or live sustainably, more cheaply, and profitably in small and medium sized cities, and relieve pressure on price and annoyance in the large cities.  And not give up our quiet, space and grass.

These are not big ifs.  Long live the green squared suburb!