City-Climate-Tech: a 21st Century Nexus


Political Insights, November 7, 2018

Climate change and urbanization are accelerating the development and adoption of digitized solutions for civic, social, and energy challenges. DeLaine Mayer examines the role of cities and climate technology in this landscape.

By DeLaine Mayer

Cities play a crucial role in 21st century global development. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas. By 2050, the world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion people, with 66 percent of that population, or 6.4 billion people, living in urban spaces.  This urban migration comes with critical challenges. For pre-existing cities, stress is put on infrastructure, housing, transportation, economic opportunities, social services, pollution and climate, and energy systems to adapt to increased populations. For new cities, especially in Africa and Asia, new urban systems must be built from the ground up to meet immediate needs of new populations. These challenges come with incredible opportunities. As cities reimagine the systems and prospects housed within them, digitized, smart technology will provide a key to unlocking urban environmental, energy, and economic boons.

The urban emphasis is, in part, because cities are responsible for a large portion of energy consumption and Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs). Cities represent two-thirds of global energy demand and 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. As cities grow, in the absence of improved energy efficiency or zero emissions development solutions, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions will grow. Many global cities are adapting by pushing for increased efficiency across multiple sectors, including pro-renewables policy and deployment, to reimagine development in the absence of the historic coupling of economic growth and emissions. As technologies improve, new efficiencies in urban spaces can be imagined, thanks, in large part, to increased digitalization.

Development plans for global cities reflect digitalization of smart systems. Information and Communication Technology (ICT), geared towards system-wide efficiency through systems surveillance and monitoring, changes the percentage of electricity wasted, incentivizes consumer efficiency, and integrates renewable energy sources with the traditional grid. The 20th century Internet of Things (IoT) has become the 21st century Internet of Everything (IoE): global interconnectedness of data, people, sectors, and technologies.

The advent of the internet in the 20th century transformed relationships. People connected with one another in radically new ways; digital connectedness became a new form of explanation for “social events and social structures.” In 2008-2009, more objects were connected to the web than human users, shifting the web from “the Internet of people to the Internet of things.” Wireless connections between physical things via their technological components and communicative networks embodies the totality of the Internet of Things system. The IoT communication systems allowed users to control physical objects via digital commands, creating huge opportunities for energy efficiencies to be further developed in physical space, but controlled online. Smart decision-making became an industry standard. In cities, for example, data on water, electricity, and waste systems could be monitored and evaluated at the user-level, with inefficiencies identified virtually and corrected digitally or physically, as needed. As cities adopt stronger efficiency standards to grapple with greenhouse gas emissions, smartness in urban systems is even more necessary. In terms of economic sectors, electricity and heat production is the largest greenhouse gas emitter globally (25 percent of 2010 global GHGs.) Separately, buildings are responsible for 6 percent of global emissions. Increasing efficiency in these sectors has a significant effect on a city’s ability to reduce emissions, which is part of what drives adoption of smart systems.

Today, the Internet of Everything has built out the IoT. IoE is about convergence of technological connectivity and new intelligence. Smart now refers to the connection of a Thing to the internet, along with a number of other monitoring and data analysis systems. Advances in artificial intelligence have further strengthened the machine-to-machine analysis of human behavior, modifying systems based on usage. Smart, in the urban development space, refers to technological convergence across multiple sectors. With the goal of lowered emissions, efficiency has become synonymous with digital.

Digitalization as an environmental techno-fix adjusts many of the usage concerns related to the energy system. “Digitalization can improve safety, increase productivity and reduce costs in oil and gas, coal and power,” according to a 2017 International Energy Agency report. But Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) are increasingly energy users themselves. “They will draw electricity at the plug while driving growth in demand for – and energy use by – data centres and network services.” Gains in energy efficiency will likely offset demand growth from increased data storage, but only with the increased deployment of new energy sources. This digital development, accepted as the new normal, is co-evolving with the scaling up of renewables.

Renewables technology, solar panels and wind turbines especially, are increasingly integrated into digital infrastructure. “Digitalization can help integrate variable renewables by enabling grids to better match energy demand to times when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing,” reducing curtailment of renewable energy sources and improving renewables’ connectivity with the grid system. This is known as an “application layer” – the integration of software with infrastructure. These layers have iterations across industries and sectors; when applied to clean energy, they are known as the Cleanweb. The Cleanweb “takes advantage of the Internet, social media, and mobile communications to alter how we consume resources, relate to the world, interact with each other, and pursue economic growth.”  This digital infrastructure is the foundation of clean energy tech because increased efficiency comes from increasing monitoring and surveillance of systems, including rapid communication to convey inefficiencies or changes in energy supply, which can prompt machine or human action. Large components of the development of this infrastructure have been in private enterprises, as the urgency to find and deploy solutions to the climate crisis has required fast innovation and action.

Keywords: cities, urbanization, climate change, technology, digitalization, IoT, IoE

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