The Path to Smarter Cities is Becoming Clear

By Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO on December 05, 2017
Traver Kennedy
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Experimenting on a Big Scale

Last year, we wrote a post about the tremendous impact that cities have on our world. Despite occupying only 2% of the global land surface, they account for 80% of global economic output. This is not surprising given cities’ historical influence on society and their sheer concentration of resources. Since 2008, more than half of the world’s population have become urban dwellers. According to reports from the United Nations, this figure will increase in the coming decades.

The disproportionate concentration of human and economic activity in cities comes with a price tag. Cities consume 80% of the energy produced globally, and consequently, are responsible for 75% of global carbon emissions. This year, for instance, cities in India and China reached record levels of smog that directly affect the health and quality of life of their citizens, according to a report by the Health Effect Institute in Boston. Nearly any world-changing initiative designed for global impact—whether in the areas of sustainability, communications or transportation—must start at the city level. The good news is that the world’s greatest minds are working to make cities clean and smart so they and their citizens can thrive.

Smarter cities for happy citizens and a clean planet.

 Enter Bill Gates

Serial, world-changing individuals like Bill Gates are working to make our cities smarter and are using their enormous resources to create real-life experiments on a grand scale. A few weeks ago, it was reported that Bill Gates purchased 24,800 acres in Arizona, just 45-minutes outside Phoenix, to create “a forward-thinking community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs.”

All of these elements referenced in the press release directly affect the carbon footprint of a city and the quality of life of those who live there. Experimenting from the ground up—as opposed to an existing city where legacy infrastructure and systems need to be phased out—can accelerate the path to creating smart city models that can then be adopted with confidence elsewhere. As Futurism wrote, a “lack of existing structure will allow the ‘smart city’ to be molded into a completely unique space.”

Take, for example, data centers. The explosive growth of our digital lives has prompted data centers to sprout everywhere to the point where they now account for roughly 2% of global energy consumption. The rapid pace of growth has resulted in old warehouses being upgraded to host the servers that power the Internet. Often, these warehouses are located in the middle of cities, and their enormous energy consumption strains the electricity grid that powers everything else in the metropolitan area. Designing a city from scratch would result in data centers that can be located where they make the most sense. Also, they could be built from the ground up with designs that optimize their energy use and minimize their environmental impact, such as those we featured in this blog a few months ago.

The same goes for other key elements of a productive city such as logistics hubs, transportation, and even a layout designed for walking and biking. The importance of the latter has been an important driver of the renaissance of downtown areas everywhere.

A Smart Energy Mix for Smarter Cities

The sourcing and use of energy clearly makes or breaks a city’s claim to being “smart.” Although the specific plans that Bill Gates has around powering his experimental city have not yet been publicized, if his city is to succeed, he will need to design a mix of energy that can be called smart. Luckily, the path to a sustainable energy mix has already been pioneered in many cities around the globe.

Cities across Texas, for instance, rely on one of the world’s highest concentrations of wind turbines for nearly 20% of their electricity according to Scientific American. Elsewhere, Iceland, for example, has turned to their most abundant resource, underground thermal heat, to power 100% of their urban electricity cleanly. The reality is that the city of the future, which is rapidly coming into focus today, uses a mix of many energy sources at their disposal (some more sustainable than others) to provide resilient and clean electricity to homes and industry.

One of the areas where there has been steady progress over the past few years is distributed renewable energy. As technology offers consumers more energy options that they can install locally—such as solar panels, micro wind turbines, and hydrogen fuel cells—the race is on to incorporate off-grid energy into a city’s overall energy supply. Although the ideal energy model of the smart city of tomorrow is still in the works, it is evident that it will incorporate a mix that includes the natural resources a city has at its disposal, sustainable alternatives to minimize their environmental footprint, and smarter energy consumption by their own citizens.

Clearing the Path to Smarter Cities

An initiative to reimagine the fundamental elements that make for a smarter city in an experimental environment is excellent news. At a time when we need the help of technology to solve the global issues that progress has caused, having one of the world’s most successful technology and social entrepreneurs focused on cities—where the impact can happen—is a path to clarity we can bet on.

 

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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