Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Country Needs New Cities

By all accounts and forecasts, cities will host the majority of the world's population (now at 7
billion people) within the next 20 years.  The problem as I see it, particularly here in the U.S., is that there aren't enough of them.  And a majority of the ones that do exist are unfortunately falling apart at the seams... structurally, socially, and financially.  Estimates are that most U.S. cities will continue to suffer through budget gaps in the 10 - 20% range for the foreseeable future.  So why does the country continue to try to keep patching these cities together and forcing them to remain the sole focus of our national re-urbanization?  Why don't we just create new ones?

4-1NewCities The world has been dabbling in the development of new urban centers from scratch for the last decade or more.  New cities are popping up all over the Middle East and Asia and are being viewed as the next bastion of urban living for a new generation, replete with new technologies and new efficiencies.  Now seems like the best time for the U.S., to begin looking to shore up it's future by investing in the development of it's own new cities... either from scratch or by thoughtfully expanding the country's towns and small city communities who are beginning to build for the future.

In a recent benchmarking study of the top 100 U.S. cities, IBM found that the most efficient of the top 100 does not correlate to population size.  Smaller cities in the U.S. have begun to differentiate themselves as leaders in urban planning, attracting younger more technology oriented citizens, and managing their public finances. While older cities continue to suffer infrastructure failures, growth limitations, and population gentrification.

There are some very good examples of how new (or newly reinvigorated) U.S. cities can rise up from sleepy, small, almost broken towns.  Dubuque, Iowa has been named one of America's most sustainable cities for the last two years.  This reinvention of itself as a "smart city" demonstrates the direction needed in the U.S. to create environments for the new urban generation.  Even better are cities planned from scratch like Destiny City, Florida, where sustainability can be built in from the start and growth can be optimized along the lines of the efficiencies noted in the IBM study.

It's not that current U.S. cities don't have value and can't continue to be engines for economic growth.  However reinvention can only go so far before inherent constraints in city infrastructure limit the return on investment of new growth initiatives... regardless of the power of technology advances.  Attracting new populations to overburdened cities does not make sense from a smart growth perspective.  Developing new, sustainable communities that grow into tomorrow's city icons does.  I, personally, look forward to seeing the new skylines of the next New York, Chicago, or Boston grow out of the vast space that still makes up the majority of the U.S.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Shifting focus of Climate Change responsibility?

Last Sunday, I posted a Tweet about an article I read in the NY Times on the loss of focus at the federal government level around climate change. In general, the article posits that in the U.S., the attention to climate change as a serious issue has been over come by events and a decided lack of hard, generally accepted, scientific research.  The article goes on to discuss that while the remainder of the world generally accepts the hypothesis of man-made contributions to climate change and is actively doing things about it, the U.S., has consciously lagged behind and has put the issue politically not just on the back burner but possibly off the stove altogether.

My initial reaction was one of woeful acceptance that my government could just not handle such a heated topic amidst their ongoing infighting and grappling with the current economic conditions of the country.  My Tweet was a sarcastic dig at the concept of a first world power intellectually disavowing any complicity to the changes in global climate change while the rest of the world continues to believe the preponderance of scientific research that affirms some degree (levels vary) of humankind’s involvement in changing climate dynamics. But after my initial reaction subsided, I began to think a bit differently about the impacts of the U.S. federal government shunning global climate change as a policy issue.

A week's worth of articles last week from sources like Newsweek, The Corporate Eco Forum, and even the NY Times, began to lead me to feel that perhaps the federal government does NOT have to play a lead role in moving the U.S. toward action with regard to climate change?  After all, states, corporations, non-profit organizations, cities, and even the DoD, currently seem to be operating under the assumption that climate change is a reality and that accountability for addressing it lies firmly with those that are contributing to it. Billions of dollars are being spent annually in the areas of sustainability strategy, energy management, carbon gas emission reductions, water remediation, and all things "green" without clear guidance from and in spite of federal law makers lack of consensus on U.S. position.  While certainly the guise underlying much of this spending has not always overtly been rooted in climate change (it's generally in the name of cost reductions, efficiency improvements, job creation, or creating competitive differentiation) , the spending continues to grow nonetheless.

So I'm now taking heart in the fact that, like a true market economy, industry is moving forward with tackling global climate change regardless of U.S. official position. The years of wrangling and on again, off again regulatory positioning have probably forced industry's hand here but it appears as though the fence sitting days are over.  In full disclosure, as someone who currently professionally supports these industry and state-level efforts, I am eager to see it continue. I just now hope the federal government doesn't do anything to halt the progress the country is making in combating global climate change in spite of itself!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Devices that Drive Behavior Pricing

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that little device that Progressive Insurance has been pushing lately to help save money on your car insurance.  The Snapshot™ device is Progressive’s attempt at using technology to provide them with details needed to give their clients insurance rates that better match their actual driving behaviors.  While a quick Google search returns many complaints that the device is “Big Brother” like, many more comments suggest that the device has saved them money.  The device basically works by plugging in to the car’s information system and reporting back to Progressive on several key aspects of a drivers driving patterns such as breaking speed, driving distances, and driving times (e.g., after midnight).  Progressive then uses that data to provide discounts to customers who voluntarily use this device.snapshot-sg-478x500

This concept of being voluntary is critical to the concept of behavior pricing.  I personally believe that behavior driven pricing will become more and more pervasive as companies seek to create more tailored products and services while helping to achieve societal sustainability goals.  Let me explain.

The Progressive device, while voluntary, provides not only a cost saving to the consumer but also has an indirect benefit of instilling better driving practices for those who use it… namely less aggressive driving.  I say indirect benefit because neither the company nor the consumer will directly benefit from this in the short term.  However, in the long term, the company potentially saves having to payout for accidents while consumers may see increased gas mileage, decreased operating costs for their car, and, frankly, stay alive.

So this little technical device, which isn’t super advanced in and of itself, has many implications for driving the future economy… in my humble opinion.

In order to better convey my point, lets look at a few other examples of pricing driven by the completely voluntary adoption of  behavior rewarded by service providers (both public and private sector). 

  1. EZ Pass – a little smart card that provides users with the ability to zip through tolls for a discount over the cash toll price.  For the State Highway Administrations, the savings come in the form of less cost for handling money and paying toll takers.  The indirect benefit is less congestion at toll booths with less resulting carbon spewing from the tail pipes of vacationing families or daily commuters.
  2. Air Conditioning Unit Regulators – wireless devices connected to air conditioner and heat pump compressors to allow Electric companies to cycle these devices in times of high electricity demand.  The benefit for the customer usually comes in the form of credits to their utility bill.  The Utility benefits from not having outages during times of high demand, which cost them hundreds of millions of dollars a year.  The indirect benefit of course is more stable energy generation resulting in lower carbon output.
  3. Speeding Tickets – though an unlikely example, the threat of higher penalties for greater infractions is the original behavior driven pricing model.  The indirect benefit here is similar to the Snapshot device but also indirectly impacts infrastructure sustainability through fewer roadway improvements.

So going forward, using behavior driven pricing, either through technology or practice, seems to have a lot of appeal in helping achieve societies sustainability goals.  Some of my thoughts on most promising near term opportunities are:

  1. In order to incent the greater use of mass transit, use the information from the smart cards being used across the US in transit systems to provide riders with tax rebates for proving you used mass transit for commuting purposes.
  2. Getting a small discount on the price of gas for voluntarily filling up your tank after dark, when it’s been acknowledge that there is a lower release of gas fumes into the atmosphere.  The discounts could come from either the petroleum companies or the banks who issue cobranded credit cards.
  3. A non-consumer idea would be to attach a small weight and identification sensors to commercial dumpsters and trash trucks to allow companies to get discounts from Counties or States for keeping solid waste below contractually agreed to levels.  Companies or building owners could work with occupants to figure out ways to minimize solid waste disposal.

There are many other examples I can come up with but the key is in the combination of using technology to enable voluntary behavior changes that result in economic value to the user and service provider while achieving societal sustainability goals.  More and more companies seems to be looking for ways to explore this model… some successfully, others not so.  However, as a user of EZ Pass and A/C regulators from BG&E, I consider myself as a good example of someone who has definitely changed my behavior to get that minimal economic benefit.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Smaller Cities Primed to Become the Core of Sustainable Smarter Cities

A recent article in Wired Magazine written by Adam Davidson highlights that smaller cities not dominated by universities are attracting knowledge workers and entrepreneurs at a rate that matches or even exceeds larger cities.  This is good news for the development of Smarter Cities as envisioned by IBM Corporation.  By starting with smaller cities, especially those that will need to leverage a more interconnected infrastructure, the Smarter Cities movement can be modeled then tweaked for expansion to larger, more complex environments.

When married with the principles behind Sustainable Communities efforts led by EPA and HUD, these smaller cities become much more that a test bed for technology.  As these cities begin to evolve in a way that attracts a more conscientious population attuned to both technology and sustainability, they become templates that a broader coalition of partners can leverage drive these principles to a high level with greater scale.


As the populations of cities continues to grow over the coming decades, city infrastructures will need to accommodate not only the influx of people but the needs of people at work.  The forecast is that 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050.  The infrastructure issues of many cities, in their current state, will not be able to sustain this large population migration without help.

The promise of Smarter Cities as envisioned by IBM is exactly the kind of integrative support the Sustainable Growth policies and practices need to be realized within these smaller cities.  Smarter Cities and Sustainable Growth are complementary ideas that must come together in order to make the city the next frontier in smart growth.  As cities like Bethesda, Maryland and Lowell, Massachusetts lead the pack in revitalizing urban growth by appealing to a knowledge rich population with higher than average median household income, the technology needed to transform them into smart, sustainable metropolises is being implemented today by IBM and its Smarter Cities partners.  The question is will enough cities be in a fiscal position to create a truly smarter infrastructure?  That is a question though for a future post.

Small Cities Feed the Knowledge Economy | Magazine |

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Continued Single Family Home Price Decreases; An Open Window for Smart Growth Policies?

sustainable-development Recent news is not good for home prices across the country.  In a spot on CNBC today, market analyst Gary Kaminsky focused on the continued drop in the prices for current, single family housing stock.  While this continues to hamper recovery efforts within the US, the bright spot, according to Kaminsky is multifamily housing, where rents have continued to increase and mulitfamily real estate trusts continue to do well in trading markets.  As Kaminsky puts it, “things in the industry continue to worsen despite the government's best efforts. In short, there's a sea change in attitudes toward buying vs. renting.”

Could this be the sea change that Smart Growth policies, espoused by Smart Growth Network, have been waiting for to facilitate the transition of American housing from the unwieldy urban sprawl it has become to more environmentally friendly, affordable mixed use communities?  In it’s publication “Getting to Smart Growth; 100 Policies for Implementation” the Smart Growth Network spells out ten key policy principles that, if followed at the national level, could drive the development (and redevelopment) of communities that can achieve the benefits of Smart Growth.

For these principles to be effective, a shift in the way communities function, are financed, zoned, developed, governed, managed, and inhabited is required.  And for each of these changes to take place, the key stakeholders involved at each point must see the benefits of the change and be willing to invest to make it happen.  I believe the tipping point is near where lenders, burdened with ever deflating housing asset values, states, experiencing losses in tax revenues, and residents and business owners realizing the American Dream may not have to be delivered in sprawling suburbs, will each see the benefits or more sustainably created communities.

If current trends in housing prices continue or, at a minimum prices do not recover to pre-recession levels, Americans and American lenders will seek the stability of communities where housing prices are affordable and buyers will not have to overextend themselves to own their own home.  Where development of attractive communities will not have to be at the expense of farmland and natural resource areas.  Where mixed land use development will encourage living and working in close proximity so that transportation options can be more varied and available. And finally where people can develop a stronger sense of place and feel more connected to the decisions made around how their community is managed.

So while I, as a home owner, will most likely feel the effects of today’s news in the near future when I go to sell my home, I hold out hope that there is a positive side to current trends.  I also hope that the policy organizations, administration, and lending community take advantage of this open window and pursue the policies that will lead to a more sustainable housing future.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Earth – Already a “Smarter Planet”?

I recently Tweeted about a short blurb I read in the current issue (June 2011) of Wired Magazine having to do with the construction of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California’s Mohave Desert.  In the blurb, written by Boonsri Dickinson, a short list of pros and cons caught my eye.  In the last con, she writes that by itself, every square meter of the Mohave desert absorbs 106 grams of carbon annually.  This got me thinking about the campaign that IBM has propelled into the current vernacular over the last year and half – Smarter Planet.

There are three key ideas behind IBM’s Smarter Planet. First, that the world is increasingly becoming instrumented, meaning sensors are showing up in all types of products and locations.  Second, that these sensors are increasingly becoming interconnected, usually via the Internet. And third, that these interconnected instruments are being linked to massive data gathering and analysis systems thus making them intelligent… that is they can cause action based on the data they collect.  They way I interpret the item that Boonsri included in her cons list is that perhaps the greatest model of all for a Smarter Planet is the planet itself.

earth_system1  Assuming one generally buys into some of the current theorizing about the interconnectedness of ecosystems, it’s not hard to see the comparison with Smarter Planet.  Ecosystems have their sensors… trees, water, grass, desert sand, etc…. and ecosystems are connected by proximity to one another.  The key therefore becomes the “intelligence” being applied to what these sensors are taking in.  Going back to the Wired article, the fact that the desert absorbs carbon at a rate of about 1,700 tons a year could be perceived as the action that comes from the intelligence that other sensors are feeding to just this ecosystem.

It is estimated that the Ivanpah Solar Electric plant will remove 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its 30 year life.  While that’s way more than what the 5½ square miles of desert the site will consume can remove over the same period of time, it does make one wonder what impact the removal of a piece of one of the earth’s “intelligent sensors” will have on the whole system.

I’m a big believer that a lot of what we humans claim as inspiration comes from observing the patterns in nature.  It’s not a surprise to me that one of the most promising technical campaigns at one of the largest companies in the world has perhaps subconsciously mirrored one of the most advanced natural patterns on earth.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Contributing In My Own Way

Creating a new blog in this day and age is an act of a particular kind of lunacy.  The hopeful blogger, full of personal experience, wants to contribute to conversations (or start new ones) in an ocean of thoughts where his contribution might only be a drop.  However, because the ocean was started with such drops years ago, the hope is that each drop still can make a difference.

So this blogger is throwing his hat in the ring.  With the launch of Ahead, Warp Factor 1, I hope to contribute to the the ocean of conversation on what innovations in business, technology and society can drive increased sustainability in the world around me.

It's with this hope that this blogger makes the next drop.