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The beautiful, shiny future of a smart city calls to us

I admit to having a soft spot for the smart city movement. I can’t quite tell you why. It could be the awesomeness of the fully realized, fully connected, smoothly operating concept itself—and the doubts I have on how well, in this world, that could really work, given that we seem to be in a constant state of trying to shore things up (or, at least, I do). It could be this vision of a Jetson’s urban ideal that should (ideally) be illustrated by Arthur Radebaugh, were he still alive. (Google him. He did good, good stuff. Beautiful retro futurism.) It could be the dormant engineer in me who sees all the complicated needed connections, fail safes and oversights as a wonderful, complex, wacky problem to be solved (although I never managed even a Rubik’s Cube without peeling the stickers off and putting them back on—the cheater’s solution).

Whatever it is: Smart cities, I dig ‘em. That’s the basic. And I’ve written a lot on them, from who is doing great things (Amsterdam, Vienna, Rio, Masdar) to what it will really require in reality (think more about timing and less about terabytes). So, I was delighted to get Black & Veatch’s recent report on the subject “2016 Strategic Directions: Smart City/Smart Utility.” It caters to a personal passion.

The report works to identify both trends and problems as we all try to figure out how this movement, as the report aptly states “gains momentum.”  To gain some momentum on our own front, we asked Jennifer James, director of smart city solutions at Black & Veatch, to have a digital chat while I read through the report.

The first issue with any new-ish movement, of course, is definition. So, that was my first question to Jennifer, “How do we define a smart city?”

While my answer (see above with the Radebaugh reference) is decidedly more artsy-fartsy, Jennifer’s was distinctly more techie.

“A smart city uses information and communications technology (ICT) to plan and manage its critical functions in smarter and more integrated ways,” she said. “Goals include increased efficiency, resiliency, sustainability, economic growth and citizen quality of life.”

She was careful to add that a smart city really doesn’t have to be a city at all. (Villages, townships and four-way corners of folk, rejoice.) Instead, it could be “any cluster of people and infrastructure systems—an innovation district, port, campus, base or business park.”

So, we’re starting there: Clusters of people in places trying to get smarter when it comes to infrastructure.

While that explains the physical place, as I’ve written about before, the technical rise of smart cities tends to begin with that pesky infrastructure element. And who controls a lot of that infrastructure? A utility.  No one builds a better bus transport network and then decides from there it can build a smart city. It always begins on the utility side of the equation—the one ubiquitous need that feeds all the others, for example, like electricity. Sure, you may want a large EV fleet, but you’re going to need the utility’s help to charge it. Sure, you may want to set up a test pilot for energy storage on a major street of businesses in your urban center, but you’ll need the utility’s help to figure that into the grid.

Unfortunately, this often means that power companies pick up a lion’s share of work when building a smart city, but it also makes them leaders in the field.

So, this led me to a second question for Jennifer:  What makes a smart utility?

She answered, “A smart utility is a microcosm of a smart city. It is highly connected, instrumented and automated and able to coordinate with systems beyond its own boundaries like distributed energy resources (DER). It uses ICT and analytics to draw insights from large volumes of data to improve the efficiency and reliability of its operations, and to prepare for a complex future in which agility is key. Finally, it uses technology to better serve and communicate with its customers.”

What I get from that is: insights from data. That’s where smart utilities start getting smart, and the report itself talks about how utilities are starting to “extract value” from all those shiny smart grid/smart infrastructure investments over the last five years to a decade.

And, in a note I find interesting, the study points out a rising interest in the concept that can be gleaned from a rising interest in participating in the report itself. (“Municipal and government responses grew by more than 400 percent from 2015,” the authors write.) So, the smart city is suddenly a hot topic—a personal passion for more than just me, it would seem.

So, as a hot and happening topic, why aren’t we all suddenly living in a super smart city? Well, unfortunately, the answers to that aren’t so futuristic. In fact, they’re pretty grounded in the problems of the here and now. According to the report, we’ve got issues with budgets, with ROI and, yep, with managing the great challenge of everything working as a single ecosystem of sorts. 

We’re not there yet, for sure, but the report, and its authors (including Jennifer) see lots of progress, especially in the areas of what needs to be in place to move forward.

Jennifer added, “We asked utilities what automation and analytics systems they currently have, and nearly three quarters of respondents said they have SCADA systems, more than half have invested in customer information and outage management systems (CIS and OMS), and 42 percent have AMI. These numbers are moving in the right direction, but managing the complexities facing today’s utilities will require a monitoring, control and analytics infrastructure that goes well beyond SCADA. Surprisingly, almost 40 percent of respondents said they have no commitments to establish new roles or constructs to better extract value from data—even though they recognize the value of data analytics across the system.”

That sounds like a problem that circles right back to budget, if you ask me, but to remain in a positive, happy smart cities bubble, let’s, instead, think about who is making real progress.

Jennifer pointed out our old friends at Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). 

“SMUD is taking a proactive, data driven approach to understanding and planning for the impacts of DER adoption, including electric vehicles, distributed solar, battery energy storage, and energy efficiency and demand response programs. Their planning process uses a variety of models to identify DER potential and project customer adoption of different forms of DER. Their approach looks at all DER components in aggregate to understand total potential impacts and risks and help guide the best investments and customer programs,” Jennifer said.

She also gave kudos to Hawaiian Electric (HECO), San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Singapore Public Utilities District. HECO made the list for their drive toward 100% renewables and a strategic map through 2045 that hinges on predictive analytics and flexibility. SDG&E was included for grid communication upgrades that help with automation, visibility and reliability and make the tech side of microgrids and storage possible. Singapore Public Utilities District is a lesson in water efficiency, overcoming shortages with technology. 

“One of the things I like best about Singapore is how the smart water utility is acting as a cornerstone for Singapore’s larger efforts to become the first smart nation,” Jennifer added. “Singapore is densely populated, with a growing and aging population and finite land and natural resources. There’s a strong need to manage its systems efficiently and sustainably. The Singapore government is committed to pervasive connectivity, nationwide sensor networks, big data and analytics, and to creating standards to support innovation and protect security and privacy. They also foster collaboration between government, academic institutions, tech start-ups and investment capital organizations. Part of Singapore’s secret is its resolution to see challenges as opportunities to strengthen the entire nation.”

And Jennifer was quick to point out that we see some of that collaboration and vision here in the U.S., too, with initiatives like Envision Charlotte and the national Envision America smart cities program and San Diego’s regional work on smart city planning.

“The greater San Diego region is a hotspot for innovative smart cities initiatives, including the City of San Diego’s progressive Climate Action Plan, the Chula Vista Bayfront, Smart Port, Airport Green Build, intelligent streetlights and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. What’s great about San Diego is that the cities, progressive energy and water utilities, and nonprofit Cleantech San Diego are working together to connect the dots between the various smart initiatives to make San Diego one of the most connected and sustainable cities in the world,” she said.

While we all may look at Singapore, HECO and San Diego and see great possibilities, unfortunately, we still circle back to the biggest issue: money.

“Budget constraints and lack of in-house resources and expertise are top constraints for cities and utilities,” Jennifer admitted. There are solutions, however, and the first Jennifer suggested was to stop thinking of smart city projects as new budget line items. Instead, she advised figuring out how to incorporate tech needed for larger smart city projects into smaller arenas already in the budget. 

Additionally, think about co-funding, alternative funding, public-private partnerships and planning for the first smart city projects to have a rapid ROI that can help fund new initiatives, either with savings (or simply with the idea of being able to prove to those holding the purse strings that smart city stuffs work).

Her suggestion on one place to start: streetlights.

“Converting to smart, energy efficient streetlights can provide electricity savings of more than 60 percent,” she pointed out.

We all want a smarter city. We all want that beautiful Radebaugh future, and we all know that utilities will have to be heavily involved in the process. So, this brought on my final question for Jennifer: How could a utility help lay the smart city groundwork in its own community?

She had three suggestions: 

* Be proactive.

* Be collaborative.

* Plan smarter.

On the proactive front, if everyone surveyed for Black & Veatch’s report is right, smart cities aren’t optional. They’re coming. They’re definite. Reality will change. So, get in front of it rather than having to chase it later, Jennifer noted.

The collaborative front is probably more self-explanatory. You can’t make a smart city alone, dear utility. There are lots of people involved, lots of companies and city departments and social groups. You’re going to have to talk to all of them. A lot. (Try to remember what you did when talking to those same groups about smart grid stuff, Jennifer advised. If you can, though, take a few lessons from the chats that didn’t go to well with that one and try some workarounds.)

With the plan smarter front, just remember that you can’t use the same old solutions you’ve always used. 

“Yesterday’s planning approaches won’t solve tomorrow’s challenges,” Jennifer added. “A more holistic, data-driven and agile approach will chart a path to a smarter future. A system that uses flexible analytic frameworks, cloud computing power and machine learning builds awareness of the numerous interconnected utility and city functions which guides strategies and enables swift adaptation to evolving situations.”

Hopefully, if we can adapt and evolve, we’ll all get to that smart city future faster. I’m ready for my green roof and my flying car. Aren’t you? OK. I admit one of those things may come to me a lot faster than the other, but a girl can have her fun Jetsons/Back to the Future dream, can’t she?

Let’s talk more about the smart city concept and how utilities can dive in and help. Talk to us in the comments section below or on Twitter @IntelUtil.

Kathleen Wolf Davis's picture

Thank Kathleen for the Post!

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