Building Digital, Sustainable Cities
Remains a Priority

Building Digital, Sustainable Cities
Remains a Priority

July 2021:

Building Digital, Sustainable Cities
Remains a Priority

Cities need to invest if they want to thrive under the pressure of future challenges, but does digital equal sustainable?

It’s 2021, and the decade of sustainability is officially underway. 2020 proved to be a bit of a hiccup, but, despite some setbacks, sustainability has remained a focus for cities around the world. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have made it even clearer to governments that they need to be building digital, sustainable cities if they’re going to thrive under the pressure of future challenges, including global climate change.

The reality is COVID both decelerated and accelerated the pursuit of digital cities, depending on whether you take a short or long-term view. For instance, the pandemic caused an economic shock to municipal budgets, and many cities are still sorting their short and long-term priorities. Economic relief for unemployed citizens remains a top priority, while other major investments in digital, sustainable cities are on the back burner. And while this may decelerate sustainability agendas in the short term, a complete post-pandemic recovery will rearrange the pots on the stove, so to speak. Many digital services that cities relied on during the pandemic are here to stay, and with this digital transformation will come more resilient, sustainable cities.

The pandemic has been a catalyst for societal change on many levels. Looking ahead, COVID and its aftermath will accelerate the transition to digital, sustainable cities. One key reason is the tidal shift to remote work and the broad public acceptance of remote-work technologies. The reduction in traffic as citizens took fewer trips to work, combined with the comparative low occupancy of office buildings resulted in less air pollution and reduced overall energy consumption. Plus, in moving to a largely virtual workforce and an economy where everything from groceries to healthcare can be purchased and/or consumed online, cities have had to invest in the strength and reliability of their digital infrastructure. In many cases, this included figuring out how to provide government services online—from food stamps to drivers’ licenses, and beyond.

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The past year and a half also drove cities across the globe to rethink their infrastructure planning. Some of the ideas that emerged from COVID are now permanent sustainable solutions, such as monitoring travel patterns using sensor technology and crowdsourced information, which helps cities adjust transportation services based on realtime demand and commuting patterns. Further, the pandemic brought to light several inequities in resource distribution. As society moves into the next phase of post-pandemic recovery, the goal is to position cities so future social and economic crises have less of an impact than COVID did. Whether the next major disruption is due to climate change or something else, governments and enterprises must be better prepared to respond and recover from crises in a way that is more equitable, resilient, and, ultimately, sustainable.

Major Needs and Trends

Billy Grayson, executive director of the Center for Sustainability and Economic Performance at the Urban Land Institute, says cities’ most pressing needs involve citizen health and mitigating climate risk. “Air pollution is still one of the most significant causes of chronic disease and early mortality in cities,” he says. “Cities need to accelerate the phaseout of fossil fuel-based transportation and power generation as quickly and cost-effectively as possible to address their impacts to human health and the environment. Increasing the number and size of high-quality parks and open space, improving healthy local food options, and building a more walkable, bikeable city infrastructure also can play a significant role in building a healthier city.”

Meanwhile, extreme weather events are increasing in their frequency and magnitude, and chronic stressors like extreme heat and drought have a significant impact on the economy, as well as the health and safety of citizens.

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“Our entire planet needs to cut carbon emissions in half over the next decade and to get on a path to net-zero carbon by 2050,” Grayson says. “Cities are responsible for as much as 75% of global emissions, and as a result they need a plan to decarbonize quickly while enhancing the quality of life for their residents and the long-term economic prosperity of the city. Cities that get on the path to net-zero carbon will also see health benefits (e.g., a reduction in air pollution) and can leverage their sustainability programs to address social equity issues—from delivering new ‘green jobs’ to proactively investing in underinvested parts of the city and leveraging sustainable infrastructure investments to start addressing historical racism and past patterns of disinvestment.”

Hiba Baroud, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, earth and environmental sciences, and electrical engineering and computer science at Vanderbilt University, says essential services, including mobility, energy, and water and waste management, always rank as the top needs of cities—sustainable or not. “As cities become denser and more developed, the population will drive a greater demand for these essential services,” Baroud says. “This in turn creates two significant challenges: ensuring that resources will be sufficient for a growing population that are distributed appropriately and ensuring that services will be reliable and efficient.”

Climate models for the next century predict more extreme weather events, such as heat waves and winter storms.

Baroud says this will further increase the demand for these services in the future. “We have seen how extreme weather has affected the power grid operation of major cities like Houston and Los Angeles over the past year alone,” she adds. “If these challenges go unaddressed, there is no way that any city can sustain the provision of vital services over any period of time.”

For these reasons and others, Baroud suggests the main sustainability-related focus for cities this decade will coalesce around mobility, energy, and water issues. “There have been many investments in sustainable and energy-efficient modes of transportation to date, ranging from now-ubiquitous ridesharing services to the growth of electric and hybrid vehicle technology, production, and adoption,” she says.

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“Looking ahead, we can expect to see modernization of transportation options including infrastructure, ridesharing modalities, and micro-mobility. This trend of modernizing existing systems and available technologies underscores the growing need for multimodal systems to be well integrated to ensure their sustainability. We can’t forget that mobility includes walkability within densely populated urban centers. To this end, we will be seeing the implementation of sustainable urban design to maximize pedestrian access to vital services in the years to come.”

Energy as a sustainability trend covers building, city, and grid scales. The most important trend on each scale is the implementation of sustainable solutions, including renewable energy. “We are seeing positive indicators that smart grids can push forward sustainable energy solutions that manage growing energy demands while building capacity to better manage risks presented by renewable energy sources,” Baroud explains.

Further, the smart water-monitoring market is expected to grow significantly in the next decade.

“The impact of the use of smart GPS technology in trucking is assessed at the economic, environmental, and social levels.”

“Sensors that monitor pipelines and infrastructure in concert with crowdsourced data and apps that monitor environmental parameters and drive actions are gaining traction in tandem,” adds Baroud. “We have already seen the smart water-management system created by IBM that combines data from multiple sources to provide a realtime and systemwide understanding of water-distribution systems. Monitoring systems with realtime insights about infrastructure systems that can detect issues before they become a disaster will be a technology trend we see across cities.”

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Don Carter, senior research fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Remaking Cities Institute, says reduced fossil fuel energy use and zero-carbon goals are at the top of cities’ agendas worldwide, and TBL (triple bottom line) sustainability accounting (social, environmental, and financial) has also emerged as a strong trend. In terms of pressing needs, he says: “Dealing with housing affordability is a critical need, not only the high costs of construction and rehabilitation but also the ongoing costs of utilities and maintenance. Many cities have made mobility a priority—public transit, bicycles, pedestrians, and shared vehicles over single-occupancy vehicles.”

Joe DiStefano, CEO and cofounder of UrbanFootprint, points to two key areas cities need to focus on—food security and eviction protection. “The pandemic has shone a light on the inefficiencies and inequities of our resource-distribution systems,” he says. “As we begin to recover from COVID, the really substantial challenge is to ensure that relief in the form of food benefits and eviction relief is targeted to the people and communities that need it most, creating more resilient communities now and over the long term.”

To address these challenges, UrbanFootprint has crafted new datasets like its Food Security Insights and Eviction Risk Insights tools that provide up-to-date, granular data on food insecurity and eviction risk across the U.S. “We’re applying the kind of technical prowess and data science know-how used by Amazon and e-commerce companies to get Americans a toaster or Xbox in 24 hours to get critical relief to the most vulnerable Americans. This targeted relief is essential to building back resilience in communities, which is mission-critical if we are to holistically and effectively address our sustainability and social equity challenges.”

Tech Opportunities and Hurdles

Archana Vidyasekar, research director of the Visionary Innovation Group at Frost & Sullivan, says technology can be a massive enabler for sustainability. “For example, digital twins are helping cities create a more sustainable urban space, while AI (artificial intelligence) is ensuring a sustainable outcome by assisting with optimization problems,” she says. “For example, IBM’s AI offers optimized weather forecasting with predictions 30% more accurate than before, helping renewable energy companies maximize their energy production.”

Urban Land Institute’s Grayson says sensor technologies offer a huge opportunity for building digital, sustainable cities. “Low-cost, ubiquitous sensors can have a tremendous impact on building connected, digital, and sustainable cities,” he says. “An effective sensor network can help optimize building energy use, improve traffic flow, and strengthen power, water, transportation, and digital infrastructure and more effectively convey a range of key information across and through a city. They can enhance residents’ experience with the places they live, work, and play in a city, and they can improve a city’s response capabilities in the face of a natural disaster or other local emergency.”

Data analytics are also key to building sustainable cities. Remaking Cities Institute’s Carter says: “An example would be to demonstrate that investments in insulation and more sustainable sources of energy, although perhaps costly upfront, have a short payback period for cities. Sensors and monitors of air quality, traffic congestion, weather systems, and utility use, combined with artificial intelligence can provide the ability to control urban systems in a predictable and sustainable way.”

As to what’s holding cities back from pursuing sustainability or reaching their sustainability goals, Frost’s Vidyasekar says it’s policy. “Governments are in perennial policy gridlocks due to partisanship and a lack of compromise in policy commitments to environmental problems,” she says.

Carl Piva, CEO at Internetstiftelsen (The Swedish Internet Foundation), says setting credible sustainability goals and then building and executing a plan to reach those goals requires both political will and administrative and technical talent.

Digital-City Sustainability Trends for the 2020s

Billy Grayson, executive director of the Center for Sustainability and Economic Performance at the Urban Land Institute, shares three smart-city sustainability trends to watch in the next decade:

  1. Electrification: Smart cities are figuring out how to build a new all-electric infrastructure that includes renewable energy, energy storage, EV (electric vehicle) infrastructure, and microgrids that can handle this new decentralized and distributed world of energy generation and consumption. Electrification is necessary for cities to move toward a net-zero economy and to find a path to reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuel use cost-effectively.
  2. 5G (and 6G and 7G): Smart cities are making sure everyone can access high-speed wireless internet wherever they go. They are also navigating the challenges that this new always-connected city will face (especially privacy and cybersecurity), and deploying the physical infrastructure (towers, relays, cable, and other hardware) to make this next-generation wireless city possible. A digital city is a more efficient city, which should lead to a net reduction in energy use, water, and waste as a more digital infrastructure identifies opportunities to cut waste and deliver power and water more efficiently.
  3. New mobility: Smart cities are developing infrastructure and a policy and regulatory framework for the future of mobility in cities. Today, the focus is on how to manage micro-mobility and make cities more walkable, bikeable, e-bikeable, scooter-able, and so on. Smart cities are already also planning for future mobility, including land and air-based drones and autonomous vehicles. New infrastructure being built in smart cities is dynamic, so it can quickly and cost-effectively adapt to new mobility technologies. New mobility can also be low or no-carbon options as cities look to reduce their impact on climate change from passenger vehicle and public transportation emissions.

“It also requires money, which is a scarce resource in most cities around the world,” Piva says. “One successful approach is to liberate funding by digitizing public services and redirecting investment into these types of areas. This requires leadership, vision, and courage—not always easily found in a city government.”

Vanderbilt University’s Baroud adds awareness of and support for sustainable solutions is important for sustaining resources that support citywide projects for the long haul. “This directly connects to a city government’s ability to develop solutions that respond to infrastructure and zoning concerns,” Baroud notes. “Public-private partnerships are essential to getting this work done.”

Alongside these public-private partnerships, there are many stakeholders, institutions, and organizations advocating for their own goals within a smart city. “Municipal leadership must be able to connect these entities and leverage their shared goals to make meaningful change,” concludes Baroud. “This level of coordination is not simple. In fact, it is often a factor in why sustainability initiatives fail. While smart ideas are initially implemented at smaller scales, a lack of coordination jeopardizes projects from reaching their potential no matter how good they are.”

Finally, Michael King, transportation planner, urban designer, and founder of Traffic Calmer, points out digital does not necessarily equal sustainable, and cities must bridge the gap if they want to make the leap from smart to truly sustainable. “Does digital equal sustainable? Hardly,” King says. “Texas has a super-smart energy grid that proved to be entirely unsustainable. Digital is not smart; it’s just a tool. Digital is great because it can streamline transit payment systems, but it does not answer the question of how much the fare should be. Digital allows us to order what we want when we want it from Amazon, etc.

This is great, unless you are an underpaid driver, overworked warehouse worker, or wondering why there are four delivery vans on every block.”

While many pressing issues have been completely overshadowed by the COVID pandemic in the past 18 months, sustainability is one of the few that is still very much in focus. Why? “The simple answer is that people all around the world are seeing the early indicators of what will happen if we don’t take action now,” Internetstiftelsen’s Piva says. “Urban leaders around the world no longer have to doubt the scientific evidence of climate change. My prediction is that smart-city trends drive zero-carbon goals, investment in clean transport systems, green spaces, and more sustainable local ecosystems. I hope to see cities compete for talent by providing the best economic, social, and environmental living environment.”

In fact, Piva believes the ability to compete for talent is becoming one of cities’ most pressing needs. “With a world that is used to working online, why would you live in a major city if all you are offered are extremely high living expenses, a polluted environment, and poor public services?” he asks. “The city of the future will need to be a more attractive choice when physical proximity to an office is no longer a key requirement. To meet this challenge, you need a combination of actions relating to a social, environmental, and economic agenda.”

Tech that liberates funding for sustainability efforts, tech that addresses a better use of common resources, and tech that can transform industries that are dirty or inefficient have a golden future in the 2020s and beyond. Upfront costs and competing priorities are holding some cities back from achieving their sustainability goals, but almost all sustainability-related investments—from climate mitigation and resilience to parks and open spaces—have a tremendous ROI (return on investment) when you factor in the avoided social costs of inaction. (Think healthcare, social services, the cost to rebuild after major weather events, etc.) Urban Land Institute’s Grayson says even in these uncertain economic times, bigger and better investments in sustainability are a smart financial decision for cities if they’re using the right accounting.

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Peggy and Anne Munaretto, senior manager of climate change and sustainability services, Ernst & Young, discuss sustainability and ESG (environmental, social, and governance). She says ESG is an umbrella term—and they all are nonfinancial issues but do in time drive financial value for an organization.

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