Smart city formula: Equal parts vision, private-public cooperation and policy support

Smart city projects are gaining support outside the United States, but policy and the investment climate have made retrofit schemes more challenging.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

What will it take to get the smart communities and cities movement off the ground? Seriously speaking, not just in a pilot project sense.

Equal parts visionary leadership and innovative public-private partnerships, along with a liberal helping of smart policy and municipal questions.

What will be the most difficult part of the equation? If you guessed politics and regulations, you're thinking along the lines of the folks that technology giant Cisco gathered for a conference call Tuesday afternoon to talk up the forthcoming Meeting of the Minds conference in Boulder from Sept. 21 - 23. The event, billed as a gathering of those involved with the sustainable cities movement, is expected to gather around 200 public and private sector representatives to discuss design, policy, planning and technology.

It is Cisco's position (along with the other companies on the call such as Toyota and Philips Lighting, which are sponsors of the conference) that there will be something like 100 new cities on the planet by 2025 that shelter more than 1 million citizens. Energy consumption could increase something like 80 percent during this timeframe, according to some slides served up on the call by Wim Elfrink, Cisco's chief globalization officer and executive vice president for emerging solutions. The question is how technology can be used to help better manage the environmental impact of these new metropolises.

Being that I live near New York City, which is facing more of a retrofit situations than a build-from-scratch scenario when it comes to things like smart transportation or smart civic lighting solutions, I keyed in on a presentation given during the call by Edmund Woodbury, president of McCaffrey Interests, which is behind the planning of the Chicago Lakeside project. That project, which is being spearheaded along with U.S. Steel, is intended to transform a former 500-acre-plus steelworks site into a sustainable community that includes 17,500 residential units. "Our challenge today is how to envision the community of tomorrow," said Woodbury.

One of the most exciting things about this piece of land, he noted, is that there is basically no usable infrastructure, so there are many different options about how to proceed. Here are some of the aspirations of the master plan:

  • To rely as little on the public grid as possible: That will mean using systems that convert waste to energy, harness wind and sun power resources, and that can expand as demand expands.
  • Minimal potable water use: As much as 75 percent less than a traditional neighborhood. That will require technology and systems for reclaiming water and for returning stormwater to a huge natural resource nearby, Lake Michigan.
  • Smart transportation: The site will prioritize walking paths, car sharing programs, and bicycles, as well as water taxis to bring people into other areas of the Chicago downtown.

This is all good stuff, but it would be virtually possible to do without the support of the local government, and therein lies the rub. McCaffery Interests was fortunate to get the support of the administration. It is being helped by $100 million in tax incentives. But this isn't always the case. Especially in states and cities where citizens are claiming for tax cuts and more accountability.

Lesa Mitchell, vice president for the Kauffman Foundation, who was also participating in the call, said the challenge to smart cities is particularly acute in the United States: "We have some serious difficulties to policy," she said.

When I challenged some of the call participants about this, they suggested the competitive pressures from other nations would help shift the balance, at least with "progressive leaders." Cisco's Elfrink also suggested that the technology industry needs to do more to make the case for investment. "You get the policies you deserve ... As an industry we have to step up much more and train government that were are going to be much more effective if you think this way. Sustainability has the share of mind of everyone, if you come up with its constructive purposes."

I sure would like to subscribe to that mindset, but I worry that many policymakers in the United States are increasingly being paralyzed by the economy and are having trouble looking into the future. What do you think? Do you think municipal, state and federal policies will nurture the rise of smart cities or will antiquated policies and regulations dumb down the movement?

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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