In 2008, humanity reached a major threshold: we became urban. For the first time, half of the world’s population was now living in cities. It took nearly ten thousand years of civilization to reach that tipping point. If you live among that half of the world’s population, which now stands at 54% according to the UN, here are some facts that may surprise you about the influence and impact of modern urbanization:
Here’s that uncomfortable figure again. In a world where climate change poses as one of the greatest threats to our future, cities account for 75% of global carbon emissions. The good news is that if you live in a city and want to do something about climate change, you are in the right place to make a difference. In honor of Smart Cities Week this week, I would like to reflect on how we, as citizens, can help make cities smarter.
How Smart is Your City?
There are many ways to measure how “smart” cities are. One of the leading measurements comes from a report called Cities in Motion from the IESE Business School in Spain. Their results are easily visualized in an infographic. Specifically, their measure of “smartness” comes from an index comprised of 77 indicators that cover ten important dimensions of urban life: human capital, social cohesion, economy, public management, governance, environment, mobility & transportation, urban planning, international outreach, and technology. According to their index, New York, London, Paris, San Francisco, and Boston are the five smartest cities in the world (among the 181 cities they measured).
Yet, walk down any street in San Francisco, and you will wonder how it made it to the top five. Despite being one of the innovation centers of the world, the city has entire homeless families camping next to five-star hotels. According to locals, traffic has never been worse. Bike lanes are so new in the city that fatalities are quite common, and the noisy train that connects the city to Silicon Valley runs on diesel. San Francisco is only one of these “smart” cities—compare Paris or New York for traffic and air pollution.
An insightful article by Forbes on this very topic talks about “reputation versus reality.” The article notes that, in another index that measures reputation, New York is nowhere near the top. The measure of a smart city should be much simpler. It should be focused on how livable the city is and how positive a role the city plays for the planet at large. After all, we now live in an interconnected world.
Really Smart Cities Should Make for Happy Global Citizens
The ultimate yardstick for measuring the “smartness” of a city is its ability to make no compromises on achieving a good quality of life for its citizens, solid economic growth, and global sustainability. It is that simple. We could measure how “smart” a city is by how close it achieves a balance across these three critical areas. Let’s briefly cover each.
Quality of life: Many of the smart cities that the IESE report measures have formal programs focused on the quality of life of the people who live there. San Francisco, for example, is quite aware of their homeless and public transport issues and has an initiative actually called “Quality of Life” with the aim of using technology to solve the many issues that make for happy citizens—from clean and safe streets to homelessness and public transport. Quality of life ranges from feeling secure to having access to healthy life choices to breathing clean air. Any smart city needs to measure and improve this area constantly.
Solid Economic Growth: When visiting a city, you can quickly assess whether it is growing by counting the number of construction cranes in its skyline. Growing cities see shiny new buildings go up (smart buildings, I may add), beautiful parks made on previously neglected spaces, and designer restaurants dishing up the latest culinary trends. Growth attracts new businesses, creates jobs, and makes people feel proud of their city. Solid growth also inspires and spurs areas that are important for citizens such as the arts and education. Smart cities and economic growth tend to go hand-in-hand.
Global Sustainability: The figures at the opening of this article tell the story. Cities have a substantial and disproportionate economic impact in the world and are responsible for 80% of global economic output. Unfortunately, the same is true for their environmental impact; cities contribute 75% of global carbon emissions. Any effort to combat climate change needs to start in cities. The culprits of carbon emissions in cities are mainly electricity, transportation, and industry, which are the engines that move any city forward. Therefore, a smart city needs to give citizens and industry clean choices that are practical.
No-Compromise Smarts Start with Smart Energy Choices
Unsustainable cities are not that smart. They impact both the environment and their citizens’ quality of life negatively with untenable traffic, pollution, and noise. This cycle eventually results in people and businesses moving out, thereby, slowing growth. One of the key ingredients for making a city “smart” is clean energy.
The choices that cities make for powering their grid, industry, and transportation (both public and private) directly impact quality of life, economic growth, and sustainability. No other variable is more important for the city in the long-term and more immediate for citizens in the short-term. Many of the cities included in the IESE Cities in Motion index are working hard to create smart grids that use renewables, such as wind, solar, and to some extent hydrogen, to manage demand peaks and consume fewer hydrocarbons. An ever-growing number of cities have even pledged to move to 100% renewables in the next few decades.
Transportation is also an area where cities are actively evaluating sustainable alternatives that their citizens demand. Several cities in California, for example, have hydrogen refueling stations for cars and buses. Most have preferential parking with charging plugs for electric cars (although the energy that charges those batteries ultimately needs to come from a clean source) and public transportation that runs on carbon-free fuels.
We have cause for celebrating Smart Cities Week this year, as more and more cities are making smart, sustainable choices that ultimately lift the quality of life for all of us. However, there’s much more that needs to be done.
At Joi Scientific, we are working to broaden the energy choices that cities have in the near future with clean and abundant Hydrogen 2.0 energy to power their grid, transportation, and industry. Together, hydrogen and other renewables can make cities really smart and take them to the top of their class by ensuring they remain the engines of global economic growth while shrinking their global carbon emissions footprint.
© Copyright 2016 Joi Scientific, Inc. All rights reserved. JOI SCIENTIFIC and HYDROGEN 2.0 are trademarks of Joi Scientific, Inc. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.
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.