Jesse Berst
Conversation with the Chairman of the Smart Cities Council

Jesse Berst

ViewPoints: What is a Smart City?

 

Jesse Berst: The history of human progress is not a slow, steady climb. Our lifestyle takes great leaps and then we go along quietly for a while; we invent fire and life gets a lot better, then we invent the wheel and steam power, and the internet and so on. Smart Cities is that next big step. I don’t think people realize that we could be at the dawning of the next golden age with all these amazing empowering tools that give us participatory democracy, that let our government come to us and let us know what’s going on; and they don’t see how the computer has improved our lives. In regards the Smart City, the simplest explanation really is using computer power to make life better. Beyond that, a little further on, you have central networks that report the city’s conditions, you have communications networks that communicate that data to where it’s needed, and then computers crunch the data to give you an awareness of the situation, to optimize the system and to predict what’s going to happen next. So you don’t have to wonder any more what’s going on in your city – your city tells you. Your streets tell you if they’re congested, the buildings tell you if they’re occupied, your car tells you if it’s too close to another car; and your government talks to you on your Smartphone. There’s more to it, but that’s the big picture.

VP: Is it a reality of today or of tomorrow?

JB: You’re not really a Smart City until you’ve made all the aspects of urban life smart and you’ve interconnected them all. We’re not there yet; in each of those individual silos there are wonderful examples, but we haven’t put it all together. It’ll be 20 or 30 years and it’ll be an ongoing journey; though in a lot of places all of the major stages have already been accomplished. And we’re beginning to see it happen in cities like Barcelona.

VP: Barcelona is setting itself up as a pioneer, and Spain has taken a big step forward… is that true?

JB: Yes, and the great thing about Barcelona is that it has documented its success. When you’re in the early stages of any of these technology transitions, making the business case, improving the Return on Investment (ROI) is essential, and Barcelona has already been doing that. They documented 3.65 billion in benefits. But there are some jobs that the industry needs to do better, which is to help cities improve the ROI and help them recognize all the value streams. For example, how do you quantify the value of a power grid that doesn’t go down in a storm, or some of the societal benefits?

VP: It’s an investment in social capital, not just in technology…

JB: This could be an enabler of that real participatory democracy, where people really do get their way and we really do have transparency. One of the first projects many American citizens have experienced is what’s called Open Data. Statistics gathered from the taxpayer are published and are theoretically available to anybody who’s got time to go down and dig through data and find out what’s going on. The irony is that cities save a whole lot of money. In the USA we have the Freedom of Information Act, and there are now armies of people listening and transcribing what city leaders and others say. It’s better to put it up on a website and say, “Here it is”.

When Toronto switched to digital payments for people receiving public benefits, the process saved them two million dollars each year; but it also made life much better for the homeless and people with no bank accounts, because they used to wait for the check and they often had to go and get it from one of these payday loan places. So they were charged around 10% interest for the check and then they walked around with cash which was both tempting for them to spend on something they shouldn’t but also tempting for someone to steal; now they get this debit card which they can use anywhere but eliminates the ability to spend it on drugs.

VP: Taking the Spanish case, it being a young democracy, there is an issue of education, and political culture. Would you agree that education is key?

JB: It’s absolutely one of the verticals, we call them city responsibilities. Education is absolutely being transformed, and we aren’t taking enough care of it yet: I want us to do more through the Smart Cities Council, it is an absolutely essential element. There are some great digital learning tools now that do the basic stuff better than humans, and let the teacher spend more time on motivation, problem-solving, getting pupils over a hurdle – and not just sitting in front of the kids reading out a multiplication table or having them repeat stuff. The computer can actually listen to your French and hear your pronunciation mistakes better than a human, and correct them for you. And it can pace learning. Unfortunately we haven’t pulled it together successfully yet and like every industry it’s got its legacy and its entrenched interests. Human nature!

VP: Let’s talk about the Smart Cities Council as a global institution. Can you tell us about its background?

JB: Our model is livability, workability and sustainability. We think it’s important to strive for all three. I think sometimes workability gets forgotten. There are a lot of sustainability organizations: the joke I make sometimes is, if you just want your city to be more sustainable, you can use the Troy method, which is to have half your population move out, so you cut your carbon emissions in half; but it’s probably not a good long-term strategy. It’s important for cities to know that they are competing with every other city for jobs and talent: people pick the city they want to live in, they figure out what’s being offered. And in the future that city has to be sustainable, it has to be connected, and livable: it is possible to have all three. The Smart City is really the foundation for future prosperity. You’ve got to have that if you’re going to be globally competitive; and if you’re not starting right now, you’re falling behind.

So this is a coalition of the leading Smart City practitioners, most of the largest and most successful ones, along with some innovative smaller companies. We are advised by more than 80 independent experts. So two national laboratories, 10 universities from six countries, all of the major standards bodies to make sure that what we do is open; all the major climate and environmental groups are also on our advisory council. They look at our materials, make sure that they’re objective, accurate, vendor neutral, and open. And our job is to support and educate cities so they’re ready to transform. And we hope when they transform they’ll buy technology from our member companies but our role is primarily just to get them informed so they make the smartest choices.

Our member companies have worked on more than 5,000 Smart City projects past and present all around the world. That’s a lot of lessons learned, a lot of mistakes made, a lot of best practices figured out. So we’re trying to pass on those best practices to city leaders. And one of the things we’re seeing is the lack of a holistic approach. I saw a presentation a year or so ago, and a woman presented eleven websites that her city has created for citizens using eleven different tools and interfaces. None of them shared information. Really they should’ve got one platform, and they should’ve been trading information. So we’re eager for cities to take that kind of platform approach so that the software module they build over there can then be used again over here and you don’t have to reinvent it, and so that the data can be shared.

We all experience from Google Maps the value of data mash-ups. If I type “Tapas restaurant” and get all the nearby ones, that’s amazing. It’s the same with cities. To do that you’ve got to have a common data architecture. You don’t have one giant database, you just have to agree in advance on how they’re going to talk to each other. You can go and build yours, and a year later your partner can build one, and they’ll all talk. When Honolulu started working with IBM on Smart Cities they lowered their annual software licenses by 30% which is millions of dollars, because they crossed the silos and started sharing.

VP: It’s the open source kind of philosophy isn’t it? Not only within a country but also globally. But there are many differences between the challenges that can be faced by the first world and developing countries…

JB: It’s surprising how much they have in common. Some of the regulatory challenges, the people, governmental issues, funding issues can be very different, but often the solutions have a lot in common. We have twenty principles in all, but seventeen of them are universal, they apply across all departments and all parts of the world; and there are things like having a city-wide cyber security policy or city-wide data privacy policy. And one third of the cities don’t have a city-wide data privacy or cyber security policy – they’re hoping that the police department on its own somehow figures out how to keep hackers from breaking in. And that’s just cyber security; then there’s data privacy, somebody goes out and reveals that so and so has this illness or so and so had a license violation or something, I mean it’s just insane. So those are the kind of principles that we were talking about. Some of the mistakes could be very serious and we want to avoid that.

One of the things we do as part of our mission is really to build trustful cities, helping cities understand how to get organized, how to set priorities; they’re not necessarily trained to do that, but we developed the Smart Cities Council Readiness Guide to give them a foundation. Then they can decide whether they are ready to think about starting with Open Data, or with something else, and then we build trustful cities and they can talk to our member companies, and the cities are much more open.

There is an African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child; well it takes an ecosystem to build a Smart City. We tell them, it is important to start small, but first think big, figure out what you want to be when you grow up. So we can put technology at the service of your larger goals. And that’s actually a problem we are trying to address at the Council, we actually see a lot of technology for technology’s sake – somebody gets a little budget and runs off and does such and such. We were talking to Brookings Institution and they said two problems that they encountered were lack of anything cross-departmental, no vision for the city. And we agree with them. Are you trying to build an innovation cluster? Bring back manufacturing? Be a tourist destination? Once you know that then you can work backwards. And with the Readiness Guide, you can plan a road map, and do it in such a way that all of those pieces are going to fit.

We host Smart Cities Now Forums around the world and we tell the mayors that there are three elements to being a really effective mayor. The first is to have a vision and to really understand where you are headed, that’s the core of your essence; number two is to be receptive to innovation, to be really open; and then the third is to be able to get money so that you can actually execute things.

Some of the mayors I’ve met here are so visionary, so committed, and they have that sense of urgency, and it’s just so inspiring, because they’re getting things done, they have the right motives. Now I have some hope for the future.

So our mission is to accelerate progress in the sector and bring livability, workability and sustainability more quickly, but there is one thing we could do to make things faster and that would be cloning visionary mayors. Everything can be right in a city but they need the leadership.

And Barcelona is a good example of leadership.

VP: Could you give us examples of places that have something to teach, some Smart City projects?

JB: I’ll mention an example from the States. Chattanooga, Tennessee was the dirtiest city in America, old coal mining country, polluted. They decided to create this platform for prosperity; they wanted to have gigabit ultrafast broadband for every building in town and an ultra reliable clean power supply. So the utility company did both things: it put in a gigabit, used that communications network to create a smart grid. They have a lot of storms and outages, and now they have got this ultra reliable self-healing grid, so they have far fewer outages or at least far fewer people are affected. They have documented tens of millions of dollars in reduced outages and I think they’ve got 152,000 new jobs because of the company that went in there and offered the ultra fast broadband and the ultra reliable power.

I wanted to mention San Diego too. National Geographic has chosen ten Smart Cities worldwide and San Diego is the only one in the USA. Their big utility is the smartest big utility in the States, they’ve won awards five years in a row, they have more solar than any other utility. We all want renewable energy, but it creates big problems because it’s intermittent, the solar drops to zero when a cloud appears, this causes voltage fluctuations and it’s very difficult to keep everything in balance, so you have to have a smart grid. And they’ve got an ultra smart grid. They’ve got several micro grids which means you have your own little local sources, and if the big grid goes down, you operate just your critical load.

In 2005 I got an invitation to a conference by Rick Smalley, a Nobel Prize laureate who was a leading advocate of nanotechnology. He went around and tried to identify what was the hardest problem on earth, and decided it was energy, because not only does it have so many ramifications on its own but it contributes to so many other things like resource poverty. And he used the last few years of his life to try and solve energy and make it abundant and cheap for all. He invited me and unfortunately he passed away before the conference but I’ve always been inspired by the fact that he knew he was dying and still felt so strongly, if we can have energy independence – poverty , wars, and so much will change.

One of the cutting edges of Smart Cities is transition to renewable forms of energy and how countries are doing it, and how cities are doing it.

I think that the two pillars of a Smart City are energy and telecommunications. And it’s not that transportation and education aren’t important, but the solutions to all these elements always depend on those two. You can’t be a Smart and sustainable city unless you have clean, reliable, cheap energy and you have to have telecommunications to connect all these devices, and then connect the people with the results.

And it’s not just for big giant metropolises either; the great thing about a lot of these services is they’re being done in the cloud, so a small to medium city can get enterprise class software and services. They could never afford to do that, but now they can! It really is within reach, and there are so many innovative financing mechanisms. We were with people from New Bedford, Massachusetts, an old whaling town, now trying to remake itself, and Mayor John Mitchell was bragging about the fact that he has more per capita solar, and wind farms, and so on than anyone in the county. A little bit was from grants, but most of it was from just performance contracts with Siemens, and they take all the risk. They do all the upfront money, they guarantee so many millions of savings every year.

In Africa, in a city in Gabon, they don’t have any infrastructure, so they’re getting some funding. And they are just jumping straight to Smart Cities! They’re even trying to do Smart Countries. It doesn’t have to be just the developed world.

Another example from our partner at MasterCard, in South Africa. They’re trying to get rid of cash, that’s a smart thing. Just using cards. People don’t even think about smart payment! It should all be different.

VP: Companies solving local challenges, all within the Smart City context…

JB: Some giant construction engineering firms are overlooked and they are literally building Smart Cities all over the world. Cisco and Microsoft are essential, but Bechtel is now doing a lot of work. You need to embed sensors, you need things like smart streetlights, the cost of putting up the LEDs is really small. You can end up with a canopy network all around your city for almost free. LEDs pay for themselves in two to four years and then you’re saving money every year.

If you register on to the Smart Cities Council site, we have an apps gallery, with two or three hundred Smartphone apps. Like a snow plough app for Chicago which lets you know when it’s going to be around your town, daycare centers in New York app, Houston jobs within a certain radius … I could go on and on.

And one of the things we’re hearing that’s not just future tense is one app that works across a platform. We just talked to this man from Dubai, which is still like an oasis. They are creating one app that connects all the departments, eight of them; and public works, transportation, communication, energy, waste water, all of them can have an app so that the citizens can know what’s going on. I think there are going to be a lot more. Some cities really have a tough time giving their citizens a voice.

You can use that same technology to stay in touch and you can actually use it to listen in. One of our smaller members has technology which is able to watch social media and tell the city leaders what issues are hot, what issues are problematic. So you can listen to your population with accuracy.

Enevo is a Finnish logistics company but actually they put sensors in waste bins. In a city, waste recycling companies go every day, every hour, to pick up trash, but Enevo says you don’t need to go when the trash bin is empty, which the sensor detects.

Those trucks are the heaviest ones on the streets so they do tremendous damage to the street, in pollution, congestion. When you can actually reduce the number of trucks out there, you improve a lot of things.

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