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5 lessons from IoT leaders creating sustainable, smart cities

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Smart cities must be sustainable in order to survive. Sustainability is a key component of a truly smart city. If you add connectivity to a city without any connection to sustainability issues, you haven’t really created a smart city.

To be truly innovative, a city needs to consider elements including renewable energy, smart grids, smart parking and smart transportation. There must be a balance between economy, environment and society to build a strong, resilient city that survives the test of time.

At IoT World 2017 (#IOTW17) in Santa Clara, CA last week, I hosted a panel of leaders who are working within the smart city realm. I asked them about what they’ve learned in regards to sustainability and smart cities and to share details on some of their projects.

The panelists were:

John Miri, chief administrative officer, Lower Colorado River Authority
Deborah Acosta, chief innovation officer, City of San Leandro, CA
Abhay Jain, CEO and co-founder, ActiveScaler, Inc.
Ahsan Baig, Deputy CIO, City of Oakland, CA
The information they shared with me was highly relevant to smart cities and is useful for any city seeking to become more sustainable. Here is a summary of the top five takeaways:

1. Start with the infrastructure
Acosta said cities must start first with improving their infrastructure. In San Leandro, a city of 90,000 residents covering 15 square miles, the city entered the 1980’s as a manufacturing powerhouse but lost jobs overseas throughout the decade. Manufacturing is still the city’s lifeblood, as it is home to food giants such as Ghiradelli and Coca-Cola, as well as tech company OSIsoft. There was a risk the companies would leave without the proper infrastructure in place, so in 2012, San Leandro installed a 20-mile fiber optic loop to provide the foundation for IoT.

In another move to stay relevant, last year the city embarked on a $5.2 million project with Climatec for smart city technologies such as smart streetlights and streetpoles on a mesh Wi-FI network. And earlier this month, the city closed an RFP for a vendor to help it develop a smart city strategy.Infrastructure, Acosta said, “is what cities do. Cities need to start with their infrastructure to make sure they’re ready to create alternative energy paths.”

The role of city officials, she said, is “making sure that their communities are prepared for this crazy scary new world we are entering. You have to create safe ways for them to be actually be able to engage. Not only by saving money, but we have to create a world where they are ‘prosumers’ not just consumers. If we can create a world where energy is created by an individual and sold on the market, which we’re doing in California by creating the CCA’s [Community Choice Aggregation], which are competitors to our incumbent utilities, we believe we can accelerate that world.”

Jain said there are three essential components to the infrastructure of a city that can survive throughout the centuries, and that is having the ability to provide emergency services, essential services and entertainment. “If you don’t create infrastructure for all these essentials, people cannot live in cities. It’s happened before. Cities have been abandoned for these reasons.”

Baig said that when the California economy tanked in 2008, the budgets for the cities were decimated in 2009 and 2010, particilarly in IT. Meager funds were redirected to essential services. “The lesson I learned when it comes to IoT and making a city sustainable is you need to have capital, and you need to have resources, the people who are trained in the proper processes and tools.”

“It’s mission critical to have infrastructure to support making a city truly resilient and sustainable,” Baig said.2. Renewable energy is essential in a sustainable city
Acosta said a flat “no” when asked if a sustainable city could exist without renewable energy. “The current way that we generate electricity in the United States through hydropower, through nuclear energy, through burning coal, is not sustainable. With coal of course being the most dangerous of all of them. We have to go the path of renewable energy.”

She said that not only is renewable energy clean, but it’s an economical decision. In the book “Climate of Hope” by Carl Pope and Michael Bloomberg, she said the authors say that clean energy pays back a community. “Right now their estimate is there are six times more people employed in clean energies and sustainability than there are in oil, gas and coal combined in this country. That’s an astonishing figure. It’s all about the money. It’s all about the economics. That’s the reason we can’t avoid this any more other than just the technological and the reasons we should be doing it for our planet. It’s because it’s an economic development issue.”

Baig said sustainability is a critical component for Oakland as well, and is a major point in the mayor’s budget. “In the City of Oakland we have the Port of Oakland, which is the fourth largest port in the country. We have about 70,000 jobs associated with the port of Oakland.” The port did $49 billion in trade last year and it helps reduce the number of tractor-trailers on the roads when products are transported through the port.
3. IoT is necessary in a sustainable, smart city
Illegal dumping is a big problem in Oakland. The city has installed IoT devices for license plate recognition embedded within cameras and to help with identifying hot spots for dumping. “Our

target is to make sure we have a sustainable program with a policy so that we can take care of this whole illegal dumping issue,” Baig said.

In San Leandro, IoT devices create data points to give the city information to use to make better decisions about priorities. The recently closed RFP is part of that, with the desire for a smart city strategy. “We have to be able to prioritize first before we figure out how we can invest the return on investment. Our smart city lights will give a tremendous return on investment. The first few years we will be paying off our bond, but after that what can we invest in? We don’t know. Remember cities are coming out of the Dark Ages, especially after the economic downturn. We don’t know what we don’t know, so we have to figure out what that best ROI is for us and how we can invest it,” Acosta said.
4. Smart grids and smart metering are a key way to address sustainability issues
“Sustainability is an important part of a smart city. On our side, I think there are a few things we are doing that are part of the how to effort. One is to be a good backend support for demand management. Smart meters and smart grids, all of these great devices are coming online, especially for the consumer,” Miri said.

Connecting consumers with resources, and giving them the ability to know how much they’re consuming, and when they’re consuming it, is one way to combat the energy problem. When people can see how much they’re using, and are given incentives to use it during low-demand hours, then it can make sustainability not only environmentally successful, but also financially and socially so that it “just becomes the way we generate power,” Miri said.
5. Solving transportation and mobility problems are critical
Acosta said transportation and mobility are critical to smart cities across the country. “Traffic is choking us. And it is compounded by applications like Waze which actually directs traffic around the freeway jams and into your cities, causing impact to your roads which are very expensive to maintain.”

In California, all cities have call to action plans. Most California cities, including San Leandro, have a goal of reducing their carbon impact by 25% by 2020.

“For a city like San Leandro, the fiber optics of the infrastructure provides the basis that we need for the Internet of Things that is in turn going to allow us to be able to solve some of these serious sustainability problems and to be able to move towards zero net energy,” she said.

Miri said, “If you want to help us … solve the public transportation problem, and not just our buses, but how people move around through cities. If you want to solve a problem for the ages, give us connected, autonomous driving cars and a shared economy. Game over.”

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