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Smart cities, from the ground up

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Tetra Tech Inc.’s James Lenzotti already had a great gig, splitting time between the Breckenridge and Denver offices, with much of his time spent working on resort properties. Now that his company has thrown what is probably the best gig in the world for a civil engineer his way, he gets to add Kenya to his regular work places.

“It’s really the chance of a lifetime,” said Lenzotti, program director for Tetra Tech’s work on the Konza Technopolis. This $15 billion project — Tetra Tech’s design and program management contract is is worth $5 billion — will build a smart city from scratch at Konza, Kenya, about 60 kilometers south of the capital city of Nairobi. Konza will be a totally wired, or smart, city from the ground up, with monitoring and instantaneous adjustments to buildings, traffic, trash, utilities, the power grid and even hospital and ambulance services.

About 50 Tetra Tech staffers and consultants from across Colorado and the globe are participating on the project, which is one of the flagship projects of the Kenya Vision 2030 project, designed to accommodate the business-processing-outsourcing and information-technology enabled-services sectors in Kenya. Oz Architecture of Denver and Boulder is also actively engaged in the design phase that will combine the smart-city approach with a pedestrian-friendly and sustainable environment.

“As a land-use planner, when will I ever have this opportunity again?” mused senior planner Anne Johnson, who works out of Tetra Tech’s Longmont office. “We’re taking the good, the bad and ugly of what we’ve learned here and using it to build a city for them from the ground up.”

The site selection itself was essentially determined by a crossroads between major cities and also the access to transcontinental fiber lines. The climate — high-altitude savanna — is not unlike much of Colorado, though the temperatures vary only between 50 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and as with Colorado, water is an essential issue.

“We are looking at a lot of sustainability issues, including a lot of water projects such as reuse (of grey) water for irrigation, which saves water and power, and rainwater harvesting,” Lenzotti said. In addition, much of the energy will come from a proposed solar farm, and all of the buildings will have solar-panel roofs. Kenya already gets much of its electricity from geothermal power.

Water planning and engineering in particular is a strength of Tetra Tech, which provides consulting, engineering, land-use planning, program management, construction management, and technical services, with 16,000 associates across the globe. Here in Colorado, there are six northern Front Range offices and 500 employees, who mostly serve commercial, industrial, and government clients with land-use, planning and development assistance, as well as water and wastewater treatment, civil, environmental, electrical, geotechnical and mechanical engineering expertise.

Though the company may be uniquely qualified to take on building one of the world’s few smart cities from the ground up, that isn’t to say there haven’t been unique challenges along the way as well. As is the case with many African governments, Kenya is not immune to some forms of minor government corruption being widely accepted.

However, Anna Vaughn, a director of Tetra Tech’s Business Development Support Services in Fort Collins, said the oversight of the World Bank, which supplied initial funding, was important in overcoming the everyday graft that sometimes infiltrates African business ventures. But moving developers and builders through government licensing is also a challenge at times.

“Fiscal issues are often a big deal,” Vaughn said, noting that the smart city may be the largest priority in Kenya’s 2030 Vision plan but not the only priority. A smaller country by economic measure, Kenya is also seeking to convert transportation to a standard gauge rail line, as well as building a major international port.

But Kenya isn’t necessarily a backward country, either. Vaughn said it is a bit amusing to see local goat herders using their smartphones to purchase water for the flocks, as non-currency transactions — called Mobile or M-Pesa, from the Swahili name for money, Pesa — are more common than cash.

Learning to deal with Kenyan society and culture has been an eye-opening experience, according to these Tetra Tech execs, and also an important part of the venture. Not only are they developing a 30-year vision of a city, but they also have to accommodate the growth of governmental and societal functions, including municipal operations, fire and police services, that usually come in tandem with a city’s growth.

“We are bringing the knowledge that we’ve gained from working throughout the world to bear on this project,” Lenzotti said about Tetra Tech’s 50-year history.

“We’re a big company (with $2.6 billion in annual revenue), but we communicate more like a smaller company, so we’re able to bring resources from our employees across the globe to bear,” he said. “But everything we’re learning is also being transposed back to places we work in like Colorado, to make our company even stronger and more efficient.”

That knowledge can be significant as major cities across the globe move to retrofit into smart cities, and the Kenyan model will provide important financial and environmental data on the success, or potentially the failures, of efforts made in building a smart city from the ground up.

Lenzotti noted that the effort is already affecting his day-to-day thinking about what should be the first priorities in cities, from monitoring water and energy use, to vacuum systems for trash removal and smart parking systems for cars.

“On the way here, I was stuck on I-25 where there was a rollover accident, and I was thinking that all of the traffic signalization along the detour routes should be optimized to the specific event,” he said.

“We’re looking at building more holistic and sustainable cities, and how a successful city can be built for the first time in Africa,” he said. “But we are also looking to turn this over to the Kenyans as soon as possible, so through capacity building, we are working our way out of a job.”

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