Project explores human factor in 'smarter cities'

A Boston University-led Smart Neighborhood project is seeking to lower the city's carbon footprint with clean technologies and a healthy dose of community outreach.
Written by Martin LaMonica, Contributor on

BOSTON--To get a sustainable city program off the ground, Boston University researchers are acting more like political candidates than energy engineers.

Boston University is participating in a US$2 million National Science Foundation-funded Smart Neighborhood project that seeks to make a Boston neighborhood more energy efficient. But rather than just install solar panels or electricity monitors, researchers are focusing on ways to get people on board and participate in what they hope will be a "living laboratory".

One of the ideas behind the project is that there is no lack of technology to measure energy consumption, project participants said at a recent public outreach event. Two-way smart meters, for example, can be hooked up to provide a real-time display of electricity use. But more data doesn't necessarily lead to changes in energy-related behavior, such as cutting wasted energy or shifting to off-peak hours to reduce bills.

The BU project does intend to monitor electricity in an effort to lower its carbon footprint. But it's coupled that with community relations, financing, and even measuring the the impact from trees on the local carbon footprint.

"We have a various smart stuff which may be tied to a building or a technology but we want to take a more holistic view," said Nalin Kulatilaka, a professor of finance at Boston University and one of the investigators. "And we thought the right unit of analysis was the neighborhood."

Kulatilaka, for example, is trying to connect with local business owners and building managers to find ways to devise effective contracts for energy investments. Contracts can make it easier to finance installation of on-site solar panels or efficient building equipment, which would spur more investment, he explained.

Urban ecosystem services
One morning last month, Kulatilaka and other participants from the BU Smart Neighborhood project set up stands in Copley Square in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston to gather feedback from residents walking by.

Representatives from IBM and utility NStar, which are participating in the project, were also on hand to hear what local residents had to say about making the neighborhood more sustainable.

A number of people queried said they would like to use energy more efficiently, improve recycling, and reduce auto traffic, said IBM's vice president of industry solutions David Bartlett who works on IBM's smarter planet initiatives.

One way to lower the carbon footprint of the neighborhood is to add solar panels, but that could pose a problem because it's a historical neighborhood. In an effort to get buy-in from the community, members of the Smart Neighborhood project met with the local neighborhood association to discuss the feasibility of solar or on-site power generation on Back Bay buildings, said Bartlett.

"We can take existing IT and communications technology and things like smart sensors and apply it to this space," Bartlett said. "But to really get the city to (use it), you really need people to be involved."

One unique aspect of the project is that the natural environment is also part of the analysis for lowering the local carbon footprint.

Boston University professor Nathan Philips, whose expertise is in plant physiology, is using a carbon dioxide monitor to understand the exchange of carbon dioxide from human and natural sources on a local level. When cities or neighborhoods do inventories of carbon emissions, they typically do not include the amount of CO2 absorbed from plants.

"The ecosystem services that natural systems provide in urban areas are not qualified and not obvious because they operate in an urban environment," he said.

This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.

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