Green Tech for Cities

This column was originally published on Worldchanging on October 6th:

The sustainable future will be a networked future: technology will be the glue that binds the green city together. One voice among those pushing this idea comes from communication equipment giant Cisco, which is staking the claim that sustainable cities are not just about grass roofs and vertical farming, but about using the IT skeleton of the urban environment—its web of communication systems, connected transport systems and networked living and working environments—to tie the whole city together in an integrated, controllable, monitored community.

As a step on this road to fully networked city environments, last month Cisco and the City of Amsterdam held the second Connected Urban Development (CUD) conference to highlight the Dutch city's inclusion as one of three initial cities, alongside San Francisco and Seoul, in its CUD initiative. CUD's creation in 2006 was driven by Cisco CEO John Chambers' involvement in the Clinton Global Initiative, and held its first summit in San Francisco last year. This year's event also marked the inclusion of four additional cities as CUD testing ground: Madrid, Hamburg, Lisbon and Birmingham, England.

Kicking off the conference, Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen pointed out that his city has several obvious reasons for being interested in looking more deeply into using IT to do its part to help slow climate change: not only because it is a low-lying city that would be strongly impacted by rising sea levels, but also because it has a tech-centric economy, with 12 percent of employment linked to IT and new media. With major traffic problems (and increasingly tech-based solutions) in his city as well as around the Netherlands in general, Cohen said Amsterdam felt not only pressure but an obligation to cut carbon emissions, and has set C02 reduction targets for 2029 at 40 percent lower than 1990, which will require aggressive action. Population density is a core issue the Dutch have had to face in recent years, as the country ranks 23rd in inhabitants per square kilometer worldwide, even higher if only land mass is taken into consideration.

Cisco Europe's Chris Dedicote also pointed to IT as a potentially powerful tool in helping cities lower emissions and achieve greater levels of sustainability by linking transportation, energy, built environments and other urban infrastructure, but only if use of technology itself is better understood for its own potential for negative impact on the environment. Dedicote said an estimated 2 percent of global carbon emissions can be traced back to unmanaged use of IT, and that his company was itself trying to better understand its own internal carbon consumption in order to establish carbon budgets alongside financial budgets. "You have no idea how much energy a department or an office uses," Dedicote said in his keynote. "In the same way we know how much money [a department] spends, if we also know how much energy they use, it has an incredible impact on the way they work." Dedicote pointed to refining monitoring and sensing technologies as the next key step in getting to this level of transparency across companies, buildings and entire cities.

Larger IT and communication companies have placed a main focus on the topic of energy-efficiency strategies as a competitive advantage. Cisco and one of its largest competitors, Nortel, have both been focusing on the energy consumption levels of their own networking equipment and benefits of green IT. Nortel's latest ad campaign targets Cisco directly, claiming its own gear's lower energy consumption amounts to an "energy tax" on those who use Cisco equipment. Cisco itself appointed a director of green engineering earlier this year to drive the company's efforts in the area.


One element of Amsterdam's strategy is the development of networked co-working centers, the first of which opened last week in Almere. The fast-growing satellite city to Amsterdam's east is typical of sprawl that has emerged as the Netherlands’ population has grown in the past few decades. Created in 1971 in part to ease crowding in Amsterdam and now home to 185,000, Almere is expected to double in population by 2030, according to the city's mayor, Annemarie Jorritsma. The Smart Work Centre provides working space for area commuters, including meeting space and fiber-based videoconferencing facilities, taking advantage of the massive fiber network infrastructure that has been laid under the Netherlands in the past decade. The city of Amsterdam uses the co-working space, as does IBM, but it will take many such centers to make a significant impact on working and commuting patterns in the region, and even then proponents will have to break through a traditional work culture built around 9 to 5 presence under management's eye.

CUD's next stop is next spring in Seoul, where it will take stock of the initiative's progress. Based on the plans and case studies discussed at CUD, sights are set high among government leaders, technologists and urban planners. With major projects ranging from San Francisco's Treasure Island redevelopment to Abu Dhabi's futuristic technology project of Masdar City—both presented at the conference—those hatching new mega-developments globally are feeling increasingly pushed to put sustainability front and center in order to achieve the scale of their project plans. Where a diverse set of city departmental managers once sat in different facilities watching traffic or power grid performance disconnected from one another, concepts discussed at CUD point toward a future where integrated "dashboard" views of a city's vital statistics—a la Sim City—will redefine the nature of city management.