The Sustainable Cities Priority - Opportunity for Technology

By Sarah Sorensen
June 20, 2011

For centuries people have been drawn to cities, lured by the promise of jobs and opportunity. As hubs for markets, politics, and the arts, cities can provide residents everything from a living to a lifestyle. Today, more than 50% of the 6.7 billion people in the world live in cities.

The trend for the foreseeable future is that people are going to continue to flock to cities - it's estimated in just 15 years, as we add close to a billion people, more than 4 billion of us will be living in cities. In fact, about 70 percent of the world's population is expected to reside in cities by 2050 (Pike Research).

Unfortunately, as cities grow, so does their impact. According to Pike, cities are responsible for consuming 66% of the world's energy and producing 70% of the world's emissions. Other estimates have cities accounting for as much as 80% of global green house emissions. Regardless, it's a percentage that can't be sustained. Cities know this and are starting to take action; coming together in consortiums, such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group that met last month, to try to find ways to increase efficiencies and reduce emissions.

Many cities have made the important first step of measuring their impacts and have voluntarily disclosed their findings through the Carbon Disclosure Project's new CDP Cities report. All this data is available online, bringing transparency to vital information that can help cities understand their environmental performance, learn from the successes and failures of others, and create effective plans to mitigate their impacts. (Check out the ambitious/inspirational plans of Masdar City.)

The World Bank calculated the level of investment needed to account for climate change adaption costs at around $80-$100 billion per year, globally. They then went on to estimate that cities will need to bear the brunt of that investment, at 80%. And this is the opportunity - those cities that drive for the most sustainable investment decisions, by adopting solutions and technologies that significantly improve the efficiencies of their transportation, buildings and public services, will be able to best support their growth and mitigate their impacts.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has estimated we will need to make an investment of $71 trillion, or 3.5 percent of the global GDP, through 2030, to improve just the basic infrastructure worldwide. These upgrades include roads, alternative transportation (rail), energy and water systems, as well as the telecom network and IT infrastructure that will play the connector role so critical to real-time understanding, analysis, planning and mobilization.

If these upgrades are done with sustainability as a goal, for example adopting renewable energy sources, choosing reusable materials, automating energy usage, etc. there is a real opportunity to make decisions that will reduce consumption, while maximizing utility to create truly sustainable cities.

But the window of opportunity is closing. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that most developing countries are building their infrastructure "now"; in fact, over half of the capital stock that will be in place in 2020 is being built between now and then. The good news is that proper investment in sustainable infrastructure can yield significant results; MGI estimates investing $90 billion a year now in more sustainable infrastructure, could yield savings of $600 billion a year by 2020.

But how do you convince cash-strapped cities (and even countries) to make that kind of investment? This is where technology can come in - Autodesk, with its 3D modeling and the recent introduction of Eco Materials Advisor, is hoping to accelerate more sustainable design choices by making it easier for designers, builders, contractors, and other key stakeholders to understand and evaluate the environmental impacts of their design choices, whether they are creating an overpass, apartment complex, or automobile. Bentley Systems offers 3D Cities, which is designed to help cities through the entire lifecycle and workflow of their infrastructure to identify efficiencies to reduce their costs and resources consumption, as well as help them communicate their vision, so they can get buy in from citizens and stakeholders, of where they would like to take their infrastructure.

It's these kinds of innovative solutions that can jump-start real change for cities; oh, and it's also a way for many businesses, who can help cities be more sustainable, jump-start their growth. IDC Government Insights estimates the new Smarter Cities information technology market opportunity will be around $34 billion in 2011, with the potential to increase more than 18 percent per year to $57 billion by 2014. This includes networking and computing technology, as well as the software that can make sense of all the data.

Companies such as IBM, Cisco and the aforementioned Autodesk and Bentley Systems have begun introducing solutions that can help cities take the important steps they need to become more sustainable. For example, IBM just released the Intelligent Operations Center for Smarter Cities that offers analytical insights into municipal operations to help cities "better anticipate problems, respond to crises, and manage resources." And Cisco's Smart+Connected Communities solutions are designed to help cities transform themselves into connected communities that can enable better resource management and operational efficiencies.

The needs are pressing - cities must be sustainable and dramatically improve everything from their energy and water consumption to service efficiencies and traffic flows (to reduce commute times and congestion pollution). The good news is that there are solutions today that can help cities meet this challenge and things we can each do to reduce our personal footprints. Together, if we demand, innovate and adopt more sustainable technologies and practices, we can create the sustainable cities that will be able to provide the services, infrastructure and quality of life that billions of us can rely on, now and in the future.

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