Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster: Lessons from a Month of Thinking about Smart Cities

Meeting of the Minds (MotM), an international gathering of companies and people working in urban sustainability, met for two days in Toronto in September and the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster(RTCC) was there to take notes and look for opportunities to connect our members to their mission. 

While there is no one definition of urban sustainability, it is generally held that a sustainable community can meet its present needs without sacrificing those of future inhabitants. MotM conference keynotes talked about a lot of cool technology (i.e., the sexy part), and about the hard work of engaging across disciplines and organizations to fully deliver on technology’s promise (the harsh reality). Smart, sustainable and vibrant communities won’t be found “in the polarities” but somewhere in the middle, we were told. We have more technology than we can use, several experts said, and so the innovations will come in the business models and policy design. 

One size fits all? No. Clear roadmap? Clearly not.

But maybe there’s an app for that…

We heard more than one expert say that while urban infrastructure investments are costly and hard to model economically, the engine of change could be software driven: the linking of everything through the Internet of Things. (IoT is the rapidly evolving concept of connecting objects into networks the way websites are connected in the Internet, resulting in an intelligence that can adapt quickly and use resources more efficiently.)  

A few weeks later, the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster was leading a delegation to Net Zero Cities in Ft. Collins, Colorado. As a member of the International Cleantech Network, we joined 13 peer clusters from around the globe to continue to share contacts, make introductions and develop projects.

Just as in Toronto, the crisp fall air sharpened our minds, and we were witness to countless innovative ideas and a slew of successful projects offered by conference presenters.

Case in point: the session on intelligent system integration in smart cities. The fundamental driver for cities is how to handle growth.  Wes Sylvester, Global Energy Vertical Business Lead for Cisco, and founding member of the RTCC board of directors, offered that sustainability in urban spaces has become non-negotiable. For Cisco, sustainability means connectivity, vertical solutions, monitored infrastructure and actionable data.

For example, a smart hospital connects to a smart traffic control system, providing green lights all the way for a racing ambulance.  A city-wide network is financed by advertising revenue and consumer access; a city gets smart parking and smart traffic control capabilities in the process. Smart parking applications reduce fuel use in the double digits and driver frustration by…. well, a lot more than that.

An example from another session came from Charlottesville, VA, where the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP), a public-private partnership, enabled hundreds of homeowners to participate in energy audits and retrofits, netting tens of thousands of dollars in savings. Real estate searches in Charlottesville now recognize LEAP-audited homes as an asset.

The obvious upside: an integrated network may only require one business case to justify the total cost of a multi-stakeholder project.  Adding information adds value.  The downside: smart traffic (or any other smart project) can still encounter roadblocks.  An example: who owns the infrastructure?

But real cities are doing real work and finding the tools to help them get there.

Back in Raleigh last week, we were teleported to Christchurch, New Zealand, where we were introduced to Sensing City by RTCC founding board of director Tim Fairchild, Director of the Global Utilities Practice at SAS. 

After a devastating earthquake, Christchurch is rebuilding as a smart city.  They are involving non-traditional stakeholders that envision a safe, healthy and connected community.  Led by the self-titled Serendipity Architect, Roger Dennis, Christchurch schoolchildren are monitoring water quality with cheap and readily available test strips and pinging results to a central database with a photo app.  Air quality sensors around the city are linked by inexpensive attachments to asthma inhalers, allowing more data points to be synthesized, resulting in better public information on air quality.  Sensing City has made big data friendly to consumers.  And it started with public health-related projects that create natural affinities for diverse stakeholders, making future projects more likely.  Smart!

There were certainly sessions during these conferences that felt overwhelming. Steve Maxwell, author of the Future of Water, in his lunchtime keynote at Net Zero Cities, didn’t withhold on the scary statistics.  And some people, like fellow Meeting of the Minds delegate, Mary Newsome, just had enough of the data, good or bad. 

“Tell the truth,” she wrote in her post mortem, “Do you really want yet more information streaming at you? How many of us can drink from the fire hose we’re already slurping from, much less absorb more?”  

After a month of thinking about smart cities, however, I’m excited about the possibilities -- harsh realities notwithstanding. I’m definitely excited that the Research Triangle Region has more than 200 companies inventing and manufacturing the solutions that will make smart cities more than just a big idea. 

Yes, these projects are unwieldy and unconventional.  That’s predictable.  

But I liked what Sam Booth from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory had to say in his closing remarks at Net Zero Cities about the energy efficiency project they’ve installed on their campus: “We’re doing it.  And it is possible.”

Author: Christa Wagner Vinson, Program Manager, Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster

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