In 2009, civilization hit an inflection point: the population living in cities reached 50% for the first time. By 2050, it is projected that a staggering 70% of the world’s population will call cities ‘home.’ Although this concentration of humanity is new territory for society, so far, cities seem to be doing an amazing job at being smart agents of change.
The concentration of people in metropolis areas makes them the world’s economic centers. Literally. Despite only occupying less than 2% of the world’s surface, cities are responsible for 80% of global economic output. As agents of change, cities have significantly more flexibility to take action than countries do. Former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, crystallized the action-oriented role cities play in our society when he said, “Nations talk; cities act.”
Efficiency and Collaboration Brought to You by Technological Innovation
The Economist’s Intelligence Unit just released a study related to the new way cities function, titled “Empowering Cities.” They partnered with Philips Lighting last year to conduct a survey on how citizens and their city governments use technology to drive smart cities. The opening of their report sums it perfectly: “Digital technologies are the lifeblood of today’s cities. They are applied widely in industry and society, from information and communications technology to the Internet of Things, in which objects are connected to the Internet. As sensors turn any object into part of an intelligent urban network, and as computing power facilitates analysis of the data these sensors collect, elected officials and city administrators can gain an unparalleled understanding of the infrastructure and services of their city.”
Back in 2001 at a United Nations meeting on web-based computing, I introduced a new concept around the value of apps that was parallel to Moore’s Law (which refers to the doubling of processing power every two years). Called Traver’s Law, the axiom states that “the value of a connection is a multiple of the application capabilities accessible to its user, whether human or machine.” In other words, technology enables an unprecedented level of dialogue between all players in cities: citizens, businesses, organizations, governments, and the machines of intelligent infrastructure that serve them.
The study found that in the next three years, 31% of citizens expect digital technology to impact their daily transportation, while 25% expect it to impact pollution reduction and environmental sustainability. These technologies mirror the way people’s lives have been positively influenced in other areas, such as telecommunications, which include collaboration, crowdsourcing, and communication with city agencies. We believe technology is powering true democracy in cities all around the world, making them even more attractive as places to live, work and play. This transformation is the face of the new city, and according to citizens, it is a happy one.
Smart Cities Consume Energy Smartly
It is no coincidence that the co-sponsor of The Economist’s survey of smart cities is Philips Lighting. After all, cities consume 80% of the world’s energy supply, which is used for electricity and transportation. Energy plays an important role not only in the way cities are managed but in the daily quality-of-life of its citizens. Companies that play in this space have an opportunity to help ensure that cities become and remain sustainable.
For perspective, utilities, which provide cities with their energy lifeblood, are experiencing a big transformation in their operations and business model (see our article on the future of utilities). Most of us have seen our energy meters upgraded to “smart meters” in the past few years. These devices give utilities valuable information regarding consumption habits at a granular household and business level, which they can use to better manage peaks and to ensure a more efficient supply of electricity. These devices are only the tip of the iceberg. As people and companies install renewable energy technology at the “edge” of the grid, such as home solar panels, utilities will continue to work on win-win business models to incorporate these variable energy sources into the network so that everyone can benefit. Eventually, even those utilities concerned about losing their monopoly control will come around to driving power generation at the edge.
The net is that technology in the form of smart meters, smart buildings, and smart devices, such as Nest, to name but a few, enables an unprecedented level of managed efficiency in the energy that powers the world’s cities. This efficiency is one of two areas that will continue to drive smart cities.
Smart Cities Can Tackle Climate Change
The second area that makes cities strong engines for sustainability (and change) is the source of the energy that powers their electricity and transportation. The image of big cities covered by a permanent cloud of smog is an ever-present issue that smart cities are looking to tackle. Their incredible economic output has a dark side: they account for 75% of global carbon emissions. The use of hydrocarbons in transportation, electricity, and industry accounts for this pollution, which impacts not only global warming but the health of more than half of humanity who now calls metropolis areas their home.
Today’s engaged and connected citizens demand strong, sustainable economic growth alongside rapid de-carbonization and improvements in quality-of-life for themselves and their families. Many choose to contribute towards this goal by taking public transport or buying electric cars. The problem is that most of the electricity for these “zero-emission” choices still comes from carbon-emitting fuels like coal. They also are bound, by virtue of the Paris Climate Change Agreement signed by 195 countries last year, to play an active role in helping their countries meet their global warming commitments. Ironically, in December, Paris itself had to limit cars within its city limits due to high pollution levels. Beijing had to cancel flights due to high levels of pollution, which affected aircraft visibility. Help is on the way. The good news is that technology is making it possible to solve this no-compromise equation between sustainability, quality-of-life, and economic growth.
Smart Cities and Hydrogen 2.0
Amongst the technologies in development that can help cities achieve their sustainability goals without compromising on progress is Hydrogen 2.0, which will enable the localized production of hydrogen energy at the point-of-use―safely, affordably and with no carbon emissions. Hydrogen 2.0 may provide the type of energy that can help cities thrive without making painful tradeoffs by aligning their goals for energy independence, lower energy costs, clean transportation and buildings, economic development, and climate change mitigation.
Although there is probably no single solution that fits all the energy needs of a city, at the end of the day, clean energy initiatives need to incorporate the principle that The Economist study refers to as “collaborative city,” where technology, communications, and data enables businesses, governments and citizens to work together to make cities the engines of sustainability the world so desperately needs.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.