4 December 2012 —  From  “smart” “smart” lamp posts in London that can monitor equipment for heart and vital organs to bike sharing and carbon neutral strategies – cities are going smart and green, reports Leon Gettler in his latest Green MashUP.

Cities are big contributors to climate change. City activities are the main source for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.  Much of it is driven by lifestyle choices and population density, According to the World Bank cities consume as much as 80 per cent of energy production worldwide.
They account for a massive share of global greenhouse gas emissions. These are generated less by industrial activities and more by the energy services required for lighting, heating, and cooling. Urban areas currently account for over 67 per cent of energy-related global greenhouse gases. That’s expected to rise to 74 per cent by 2030.

Building smarter cities that is an obvious approach to the problem. When you think about it, cities are the places that are best positioned to solve the world’s energy and climate challenges. They have economic strength, masses of intellectual capital and a concentration of state-of-the-art technologies. That turns cities into test beds for environmentally-compatible and climate-friendly economic systems and lifestyles.  Smart cities are growth engines with the infrastructure to stimulate the economy through cleantech innovation.

It’s a massive job. Roadways, power grids, telecommunications lines and efficient healthcare all rely on a strong infrastructure to handle demand. The task of people running the cities is to optimise these infrastructural networks in order to achieve sustainable development. This requires public and private cooperation from businesses.

But it can be done and there are plenty of smart cities around the world showing us that anything is possible. What we’re seeing now is just the beginning. It will get more exciting as more technologies evolve and as cities come up with more ideas.

Paris for example has Velib, a bike sharing program and it’s followed up on that with an electric vehicle sharing scheme.

Toronto uses natural gas from landfills to power the city’s garbage trucks. It also has a Smart Commute program which involves special and co-ordinated carpooling programs, building inspections to make sure there are showers and lockers for active commuters, special work arrangements like telework and flexible work arrangements.

Vienna is creating a road map using technology and involving business and government to create energy-efficient and climate-friendly urban development by 2020. Initiatives include an EcoBuy Vienna program of ecologically sustainable procurement practices, using thermal waste recycling and having biomass and industrial waste heat used for heating. For waste management, solid wastes and sewage sludge are turned into input materials to generate energy. The city’s waste incinerators are fitted with state-of-the-art combustion and flue-gas treatment technology to supply energy for space heating and hot water while reducing CO2 emissions and the need for landfills. There are green building programs with about 10 per cent of the city’s housing stock renovated over the past 15 years – nearly half the city’s 940,000 dwellings are owned by the city or by non-profit housing companies – and turning flat roofs around the city into rooftop gardens.

Vancouver is repaving its streets with recycled plastic to turn itself into the greenest city in the world by 2020.

Copenhagen aims to become carbon neutral by 2025.  It has turned itself into a green laboratory. Heat generated from waste supplies 98 per cent of the city and cooling systems come from sea water abstraction, absorption chillers and electrical chillers. They’re expected to save 14,000 tonnes CO2 a year. The city is also working with businesses, including government owned Dong Energy which is testing a new green energy solution using enzyme technology to produce biomass from waste.

In Tokyo, Panasonic is spearheading plans to create an eco-burb in Fujisawa city, 40 kilometres south west of the city proper. The project also involves other companies like Sumitomo, Mitsui and Tokyo Gas. There are plans for a “green axis” of vegetation through the town, electric vehicle charging and sharing infrastructure, solar panels, lots of car sharing, homes filled with smart appliances and LED lighting with lots of energy generation.

Barcelona is setting another example of what a smart city can do. It has introduced a solar thermal ordinance in 2000 that requires all new buildings over a certain size to generate hot water from solar thermal energy. More recently, an initiative known as LIVE Barcelona promoted electric vehicle adoption. Right now, there are almost 200 EV charging stations throughout the city and it’s growing

London is now testing a new operating system. With partners including Hitachi, Phillips and Greenwich council, Living Plan IT has an Urban OS which will connect key services such as water, transport, and energy. It has modern sensory technology that monitors light and heating, “smart” lamp posts. It can even potentially monitor individual medical devices for heart rates and vital organs. This is the sort of technology that can completely reinvigorate urban areas.

Australia has some smart cities too although compared to what’s happening overseas, we have some way to go.

Sydney, for example, is the first city in Australia to roll-out new energy-efficient LED street and park lights. Sydney has also rolled out a trigeneration strategy which aims to  reduce carbon emissions by 70 per cent by 2030, the most ambitious plan of any Australian city. A Melbourne designer, with the support of the state government, has developed a model for a water-smart city with houses having permeable surfaces to replace concrete, decking or gravel so that water can seep into the lawn and garden, improving soil moisture, rather than run into a drain, rain gardens to help filter stormwater before it enters waterways, rainwater tanks to capture water for the garden, washing machine and toilet flushing, systems that divert tank overflow if the garden needs a little extra water and billabongs or natural pools to store and reuse water run off in the backyard. In an Australian first, Adelaide is rolling out free outdoor Wi Fi.

The game changer here will be the NBN which will create smart grids to connect businesses and communities around the country and manage peak electricity demand. According to Scientific American, digital technology will create truly smart cities. It says this is why real estate developers, global information-technology companies and governments are attempting to build urban centres from scratch that are filled with technologically enhanced infrastructure and services.

“With proper technical-support structures, the populace can tackle problems such as energy use, traffic congestion, health care and education more effectively than centralized dictates. And residents of wired cities can use their distributed intelligence to fashion new community activities, as well as a new kind of citizen activism … What is happening at an urban scale today is similar to what happened two decades ago in Formula One auto racing. Up to that point, success on the circuit was primarily credited to a car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But then telemetry technology blossomed. The car was transformed into a computer that was monitored in real time by thousands of sensors, becoming “intelligent” and better able to respond to the conditions of the race.

The exciting part about smart cities is that it’s an opportunity for local government to connect with its communities. Oracle says it’s a perfect opportunity for councils and planning authorities to reduce operational costs, decrease crime, measure the value of infrastructure investments in roads, sewerage systems, public education, social safety nets, public healthcare and increasing economic development and developing a sustainable workforce. “Through executive dashboards, mayors, city and county council members and other government executives identify the key policy objectives they need to track, and post attainment of those objectives on their website for all constituents to see; they can even build community forums to elicit discussion and feedback.”

As the Brookings Institution says: “The federal and state governments should become smart investors. Federal transportation law, for example, could reward metropolitan areas that embrace congestion pricing or allocate transportation resources based on the integration of housing, transport and employment data.  States could require fragmented municipal governments to establish common platforms for shared services or challenges. All these efforts would trigger markets for the application of smart technology. At the city or metropolitan scale, intermediaries are needed to negotiate across the fragmented landscape of governmental and private entities.”

And those intermediaries for state and federal governments will be the councils.

In an age when cities are growing, and climate change is intensifying – the World Bank now gives a 20 per cent likelihood of a four degree centigrade rise by 2100 – the smarter city is the way to tackle the problem. It’s very much a case of think global, act local.

Leon Gettler is a freelance business journalist, author and podcaster. He works for a range of publications and produces two podcasts for RMIT every week: Talking Business and Talking Technology. He has an acute interest in the environment, its impact on business and the response of businesses and governments.