When you walk into the Chicago Architecture Center, you come across some memorable exhibits about skyscrapers, Chicago history, and some of the amazing buildings in progress. But there’s also an exhibit all about what Chicago could–and needs to look like–within the next few decades in order to be sustainable.
The concept art is beautiful, innovative, and promising: a city version of an Apple store with greenery and small natural reserves scattered around a clean, autonomous utopia. But let the whole “next few decades” timeline sink in a bit. That’s not the distant future. Many cities are hundreds of miles behind when it comes to anticipating growth, resources, and how quickly human needs are changing.
Where are cities in this transformative journey?
How can progress be made, right now?
Over half of the world’s population lives in an urban area, and that figure is expected to rise to 68% by 2050. In order to build a sustainable future, and not see companies and people forced into to the suburbs, cities have to be more livable. And we have to use all of our tech resources right now to solve for “livable” 2050.
Cities will need a safe, vibrant core, green transportation options, affordable energy-efficient housing, vital neighborhood communities, culturally appropriate services, healthy walkable areas, and MUCH more. Tech alone can’t make this happen.
To create successful, sustainable urban environments, a win-win feedback loop is being, and must continue to be cultivated between smart city technology and corporate responsibility.
Maximizing Public-Private Partnerships
Cities strive to attract quality businesses (e.g. the fierce competition for another Amazon homebase). The benefit of scoring a new corporate resident is usually measured in jobs, income, and taxes. Smart cities, however, dive much deeper into the broader implications around businesses.
Funding IoT Infrastructure–It’s a Challenge
Relying on technology to provide data collection and access hubs for dozens of infrastructure systems, smart cities focus on countless connected urban systems, including:
- Traffic control
- Trash collection
- Water infrastructure
- Energy distribution
Current estimates suggest only 16% of cities have the funding available to pay for most IoT infrastructure innovations. This is where public/private partnerships kick in.
Corporate Partners can Help
The Smart Cities Council of North America lists a growing team of corporate partners that provide IoT, AI, and big data infrastructure that make urban innovations possible. A few examples include:
- Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge is providing $70 million in aid to 25 cities, for improvements in energy use and transportation.
- Racine, Wisconsin won a 2019 Smart City award after announcing a partnership with FoxConn to develop applications for sustainable infrastructure.
- In Louisville, KY, a public-private partnership, titled AIR Louisville, uses data analytics in order to inform the public about asthma triggers. It provides sensors for individual asthma inhalers, which collect information on the surrounding environment every time a person uses their inhaler.
These are not isolated events. City-corporation partnerships are, in many ways, the future of urban sustainability.
For any growing city, congestion, especially on the road, becomes the loudest voice in the room (honk). The average traffic speed in urban centers fell to 15 mph from 18 in 2015. Three miles per hour might not seem like a big deal, but there’s only so far that trend can go until all the sudden things are at a stand-still.
Historically, the solution to congestion was just to build new or expand existing roads. In many cases, this ends up being a bandaid that comes off the moment it gets tested by the elements. And this cycle inevitably causes environmental headaches. What is actually taking up the space on the roads are the common denominator. Solving for CARS is what really matters.
But People Love Cars…Right?
Younger workers who are less likely to have children are more likely to live in downtown areas. Bike sharing programs initially met some of the need for short-distance transit, but powered scooters (for better or worse to general well-being) are shaping up to be an even bigger trend. Bird, the pioneer electric scooter brand, already offers dockless electric scooters in over 100 American cities.
The Gogoro scooter system, in Amsterdam and Taipei, provides similar electric scooters, as well as an easily accessible system of battery exchange stations. The scooters, which are connected by sensors to a smart city system, offer riders feedback on energy consumption and best ways to optimize performance. Scooter goals.
It’s safe to say there will be several generations of individual-use modes of transport, but what can be done for the large chunk of the population who don’t currently have options outside of their cars?
Inevitably, some people in cities will continue to drive, regardless of it being by choice or necessity. The faster these drivers can find parking spots, the better. Real-time sensors, either in the ground or overhead in street lights, can signal drivers when a parking space opens up. Cities all over the world are implementing this tech. Right now, 11% of public parking spaces, globally, are powered by smart technology. This figure will grow.
In addition to monitoring occupancy, smart parking apps also enable easy customer payment, and record the license plates of cars who don’t pay. The most important benefit yielded by these smart parking systems, however, is that they provide an overview of a city’s traffic patterns. Intelligent analysis of the demand for parking spaces can inform future city planning in a larger sense.
More Efficient Waste Management
Companies like Smartbin and Enevo are offering cities another element of urban sustainability. City trash bins equipped with sensors report each container’s fill level and predict when it will need to be emptied. The software integrates this data with other information about road conditions and truck availability. It then informs trash truck drivers of the best routes in real time, saving cities up to 50% on trash collection and delivery costs.
Smart trash collection networks can be combined with IoT-equipped, solar-powered trash compacting bins, such as those offered by ECube Labs, so waste occupies less volume. The technology around efficient waste management is based on responsive, real-time flexible service — an emerging value that underlies all smart city technology. Instead of sending trash trucks around on an inefficient pre-determined schedule, only to find many bins partly full, smart collection platforms maximize the efficiency of every route.
Strong Spirit, Engaged Population
Winning the hearts of city dwellers isn’t just about the nitty gritty of parking, traffic, and waste management. A sense of belonging and community is a big part of what keeps people living and working in urban environments. Here, too, private companies are leading the way.
Resident engagement is one of the factors recognized by the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge. Funding is set aside for this specific purpose, to “maximize community buy-in.” New York City is making strides toward engaging its citizens by converting 7500 obsolete phone booths into LinkNYC smart kiosks. These will serve city residents as free wifi hotspots, as well as offering charging outlets, video calling, transportation updates, maps and more.
Kansas City is creating a similar smart kiosk system, installed along the route of its new streetcar route. This transformation is occurring at no cost to the city, and is being entirely funded by a consortium of private companies. They will make up their cost through advertising revenue at the new kiosks.
Corporations Going Human
Local corporate volunteering brings 360-degree benefits: A PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey shows 88% of millennials “gravitate toward companies with proven corporate social responsibility programs.” In addition to attracting employees, volunteerism also associates the company brand with positive emotions about the immediate community.
Cities are the direct beneficiaries of volunteer energy, whether it’s dedicated to environmental improvements like beach cleanups and tree-planting, or toward a food or toy drive, or home-building projects for neighbors who need help. Finally, the opportunity to volunteer is shown to strengthen personal confidence and local connections among the participants.
Flows Both Ways
Companies recognize their long-term health is tied to the character and promise of their cities–and vise versa. Companies need their cities to be desirable and livable, in order to attract qualified employees who want to establish themselves personally and professionally.
Boomtowns, once-greats, up-and-comers. Cities need private partners with fortitude to create sustainability initiatives that will draw quality corporate development — and the jobs and vitality that comes with them.
Both corporations and cities that view smart city projects as great business opportunities–as well as significant priorities–are positioned to win. A positive feedback loop that gathers energy as it flows; what better way could there be to power the world toward a better future?