Smart Cities: What’s in a Name?

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After Harvey and Irma, some cities and towns may need to rebuild parts of their infrastructure. To do that, they can partially rely on disaster relief public assistance from the federal government, but also will need their own funds and sweat equity. Local government personnel, elected officials, and concerned citizens may discuss the “Smart City” concept as they formulate plans to move forward with recovery.

The word “Smart” clearly speaks to consumers, since it’s attached to a wide range of products and services. (It already has a longer shelf life than that relic of 1990s marketing, the “e- prefix”). No city is lining up to get grants or recognition for being a Dumb City, although I believe many people weary of being hyper-connected would move to one tomorrow. So, what is a Smart City and what questions should energy consumers ask if (when) the term comes to their neighborhood?

The ever-helpful internet serves up dozens of definitions. My amalgamation of these: A Smart City uses existing and new technologies, along with a robust interactive planning effort among its departments and stakeholders, to make every aspect of its operations more efficient and effective for citizens and businesses. The Smart City relies universally on big data and real-time responses. High-speed, broadly available telecommunications are critical. The Smart Grid, seen as the responsibility of the local utility provider, is also integral.

The Smart Cities movement emerged over a decade ago, boosted by a partnership between the Clinton Foundation and Cisco, which developed a suite of technologies to help cities become more sustainable. Not surprisingly, other technology companies, such as Google and IBM, were also generating new applications and testing them all over the world. The ensuing years have seen a veritable explosion of conferences, frameworks, working groups and panel presentations. Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s “Smart City Challenge” was featured prominently at SXSW, a sure sign of the concept’s trendiness.

Energy companies, long-standing partners with their local communities, are full participants in the Smart City conversation. In March, the Edison Foundation highlighted the achievements of several cities and their utility counterparts, including Columbus, Kansas City, and San Diego. They also flagged the unavoidable fact that electricity provides the lifeblood for many of the exciting technologies (EVs, public charging stations, data centers, connected information kiosks, to name a few) needed. Smart meters, which provide real-time data about outages and energy usage, are rapidly replacing “dumb” meters thanks to efforts by the entire electric utility sector, with estimates now of over 70 million installed in the U.S.

As Smart City efforts grow, energy consumers and stakeholders should be aware of the tendency some organizations have shown to infuse Smart City dialogue with talking points about renewable energy and climate change. As plans develop for rebuilding after Harvey and Irma, we are likely to see some take advantage of the disasters to tie Smart City programs to 100 Percent Renewable Energy goals. As PACE noted earlier this summer, in reviewing an academic debate, 100 percent renewable energy programs aren’t feasible from either a technological or economics perspective. In PACE’s view, focusing on unrealistic goals diverts from conversations needed now in order to move forward on achievable results for consumers.

If a Smart City discussion is ongoing or begins in your area, some useful questions might include:

  • If the community gets a Smart City grant, can it sustain the program after the money and interested funder are gone?
  • Will the community see a broad and equitable build-out of broadband services?
  • Can average citizens easily participate in conversations about the Smart City?
  • What’s the cost per consumer of a Smart City initiative, and how does that compare to alternative plans?
  • Are third-parties, such as technology vendors, gaining unnecessary access to consumer data, especially concerning energy usage?
  • Are Smart City drivers, including funding, tied to 100 percent Renewable Energy initiatives?

Smart City conversations are often grounded in good common sense. There’s nothing wrong with applying a catchy label to routine planning, brainstorming and partnerships. Local officials and expert staff should be recognized for thinking ahead and congratulated for attracting much-needed private investment from mega-companies such as Google.

The proliferation of discussions and programs around Smart Cities points to the complexity of the subject and need to get it right. A smart way forward is to recognize, as many communities have, that when it comes to technology and consumers, one size doesn’t and shouldn’t fit all.