Feature Story

ICT and Sustainable Urban Development

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Conference focuses on how ICT can promote innovative practices for reducing carbon emissions while fostering economic growth

February 20, 2008

By Jenny Carless, News@Cisco

Urban areas are currently the largest contributors to global energy consumption and climate change. The world's 20 largest cities alone - each with a population exceeding 10 million - are responsible for 75 percent of the planet's energy use.

Add to this the rapid development of metropolitan areas around the globe as well as the need to renew outdated 20th century infrastructures in mature cities, and urban planners are faced with daunting challenges. But there is a bright spot on the horizon: increasingly, these planners are turning to information and communications technology (ICT) as a key enabler in addressing their environmental, transportation and real estate challenges.

A New Approach

Beginning today, government, business and academic leaders from around the world are gathering in San Francisco, California for a two-day conference to learn how forward-thinking cities are taking advantage of ICT. These innovative municipalities are implementing city-wide network connectivity for communication and collaboration - changing the way their citizens work, live, play and learn while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions.

The conference, Connecting Cities: Achieving Innovation through Sustainability, is hosted by the City and County of San Francisco and Cisco.

The gathering will showcase the cities of Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Seoul, South Korea; and San Francisco as role models whose use of technology solutions to meet their needs can be replicated in other cities around the world through public-private sector partnership.

"Since climate change concerns us all, the collaboration of both the public and private sector is an absolute necessity," says Job Cohen, mayor of Amsterdam. "A global problem can only be challenged when thoughts and ideas are united, not divided."

Connected Urban Development

The conference will feature an impressive lineup of speakers, including dignitaries from the three partner cities; Carlota Perez, author of Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital; William J. Mitchell, director of the Design Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); and John Chambers, Cisco chairman and CEO.

In his keynote address, Chambers will outline how technology can play a role in addressing some of the world's most pressing environmental concerns. Studies show that ICT can be a large part of the climate change solution. For example, according to a report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, for every kilowatt-hour of energy consumed by ICT equipment, the United States economy increases its overall energy savings by a factor of approximately 10.

"It is our responsibility as global citizens to help address the challenges of climate change," Chambers says. "As a technology company, we are approaching this both by curbing our own carbon output as well as by multiplying our impact - through helping our customers take advantage of the network as a 'green platform' for sustainable business and government progress. The network offers the unique ability to enhance both productivity and sustainability."

The conference is part of Connected Urban Development (CUD), one of two initiatives to which Cisco committed as part of its participation in the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI).

Nicola Villa, global director of Connected Urban Development for Cisco Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG), the global strategic consulting arm of Cisco, explains that the company's commitment developed out of a conversation among representatives of Cisco and CGI.

"Our CGI colleagues pointed out that many people, particularly when looking at emerging markets, still equate economic growth with very inefficient energy consumption," he says. "And they wanted to start to decouple the two concepts - to show that a region can grow economically without necessarily using inefficient energy solutions."

"They noted that everyone says that broadband and ICT help, but no one has shown how," Villa adds. "So they asked us to demonstrate, through CUD, the ways in which we can use technology to decrease emissions, while still allowing economic development."

Launched at the end of 2006, CUD is a five-year program, with a US$15 million investment in people, research and equipment from Cisco.

The CUD vision is to create a global community of cities committed to advancing sustainability. In its first phase, the program has built partnerships with the three founding cities to focus on how innovative ICT applications can reduce carbon emissions while fostering economic growth. Accomplishments from this phase, including the Connected Bus (see below), are being highlighted at the San Francisco conference.

In CUD's second phase, four additional cities - Madrid, Spain; Lisbon, Portugal, Hamburg, Germany; and Birmingham, England - join the collaborative community and focus on developing ICT solutions to their own specific environmental and transit challenges. The final stage will focus on scaling efforts through joint initiatives with large international organizations that can take the knowledge, methodologies and architectures developed through CUD and start proliferating them globally.

ICT and Sustainable Cities

CUD demonstrates innovative ways to reduce carbon emissions by introducing fundamental improvements in the efficiency of urban infrastructure through ICT. The CUD approach goes beyond assessing the challenges and opportunities presented by sustainable development and offers scalable, tangible solutions for cities to increase operational efficiencies and optimize resource utilization in a manner that helps reduce carbon emissions and improve energy efficiency.

What's making all this possible is the proliferation of broadband communications over the past five or so years. Today, city planners can take advantage of the network to create services ranging from TelePresence, which helps enable energy efficiency by eliminating the need for travel, to "connected" buses.

The three partner cities are publicly showcasing some early results of their efforts in Green ICT (lead: San Francisco), Smart Transportation (lead: Seoul) and Smart Work (lead: Amsterdam). These comprehensive solutions are the result of Cisco IBSG collaborating with each city and MIT on their planning processes to develop an innovative combination of advanced technologies that meet the unique needs and green vision for each urban area. Some of these technologies include:

  • Vehicle tracking/identification systems
  • Dynamic congestion-charging programs
  • Video communication solutions
  • Integrated transportation management systems
  • Global positioning system (GPS), radio frequency identification (RFID) and other sensor technologies
  • Broadband, wireless and intelligent infrastructures
  • Collaboration technologies in the creation of innovative work environments

The Connected Bus, which will be on display during the conference, has been created by Cisco IBSG as a prototype that demonstrates the vision for what is possible in "greening" municipal public transportation. The technology and customized software used to create it can be applied to all methods of public transportation (e.g., trains, taxis).

The bus has a mobile hotspot that allows passengers to work and/or communicate with family and friends; and GPS tracking lets riders monitor when a bus is leaving, where it is going and which bus would be best to take.

Any municipality deploying a Connected Bus benefits, as well. For example, automated communications systems that monitor maintenance schedules help reduce costs; and better maintained, more efficient buses produce fewer carbon emissions. Overall, the return on investment for non-hybrid, green buses is higher than for their regular counterparts.

Building a Global Community of Experts

Over the next two days, conference attendees who represent government agencies will have the opportunity to look at their municipalities' carbon footprint and climate change strategy differently - and to see that ICT is part of a potential environmental solution rather than a net polluter. Representatives of the business community will learn how sustainable development provides companies with unprecedented economic opportunities.

This two-day conference serves as a showcase of what the founding cities, Cisco IBSG and others have been working on over the past year; and it provides important networking opportunities for attendees. Organizers hope this will be a first step in stimulating and building a global community of experts who will come together from cities across the globe to advance the cause of connecting cities and achieving sustainability through innovation.

Jenny Carless is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, CA.