Smart Cities and Communities – Sustainable?

In the recent blogs I have composed about city ambitions for sustainability it seems the concept of a ‘smart city’ is falling between the cracks of silo-thinking when it has the opportunity to integrate, unify and deliver multi-ambitions and objectives. Too often the comment is ‘well, I am in charge of transport but the person in charge of ‘smart’ is over there in economic development’ … or, ‘we’ll do the smart bit when we’ve cracked this highways contract and decided what to do with the economic regeneration plan, I’ll have more time then’.

Big missed opportunities.

It was heartening, then, to attend the excellent Smart Cities and Communities conference last week in Manchester where several cities and agencies showed how they were actively integrating their ambitions for growth, quality, citizen engagement, transport, energy, asset management, governance and performance. Many were trialing things at a manageable (albeit still ambitious) scale – such as the work underway in the Manchester Oxford Rd corridor and across Peterborough.

One cannot help but be impressed by the commitment to the smart agenda in Singapore – a city half the size of Manchester but with twice the population. Culturally atuned to technology and acting smarter it’s invested heavily in the infrastructure needed to achieve its positioning in the global economy and to ensure that it is able to embrace opportunity.

I would like to see other cities, like Nottingham and Sheffield (where I work and live) embrace these opportunities so that they can achieve their ambitions for carbon reduction, liveability, traffic congestion, air quality improvements, etc. Birmingham and Bristol have embraced this in their ‘commissioned’ strategies. Sheffield‘s recent Green Commission report paid lip service to ‘smart’ but it showed a lack of understanding. In Nottingham, I hope, it will be seen as an opportunity to harness the collective agencies for transport, energy, planning, regeneration, business growth, citizen engagement, green and blue space management, healthcare, security, etc. But there is some catching up to do.

So the question posed by Cedric Price remains a good one. It’s not all about technology, of course, but without a vision, leadership, some projects, willing partners and a desire to make the sum of the parts add up a little better, you’ll not be smart. And that makes you ….

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A Grey, Blue, Green Implementation Spectrum

This is my second blog on the Sheffield Green Commission. 

With time to re-read, reflect and review the output of the Green Commission, would like to make the following observations:

  1. The report covers 4 key areas – ‘Connected City’; ‘Transformative Energy’; ‘European Green City’; and ‘Learning City’.
  2. It’s been facilitated by the City Council and co-Chaired by a City Councillor but has no new policy commitments from the City Council within it (nor any real commitment to develop new policy).
  3. It makes recommendations but it’s not clear who will follow through these proposals and has neither incentives nor sanctions for those acting (or failing to) on them.
  4. The scope is laudable, comprehensive and builds on the City’s strengths but ignores some difficult areas and conflicts.
  5. The Commissioners involved in the process are respected, knowledgeable and committed to the City but they have no levers, influence or clout to deliver their work – other than their own personal commitment to this agenda.
  6. The recommendations are written as if the people of Sheffield have a choice and there is a ‘policy-on’ or ‘policy-off’ choice. There isn’t. Successful cities have embraced the kind of recommendations proposed here. They’ve demonstrated how the social, economic and environmental commitments made are mutually reinforcing and effective.
  7. Sadly, there appears to be little input from the private sector and its representative bodies, with the notable exception of E.on, Veolia and Amey – two of whom are contractually linked to the City Council. The Chamber of Commerce representative left the Commission before the concluding report was published.
  8. The report is written in a passive, hopeful voice. It, too often, suggests ‘Sheffield considers’ and ought to have a few more verbs in it – strategy and policy are good, but there needs to be a sense of action, with timeframes.

Whilst this might sound critical, there is much to like on the visioning. A highly connected city, with smart ambitions, commitment to public transport, walking and cycling with smart cards and high speed internet connectivity sounds wonderful. Imagine a city where everyone can get where they want to, when they want to, how they want to without creating choking air pollution or pumping more Co2 in to the atmosphere. Sounds great.

I love the vision of a learning city where Sheffield actively engages with its UK city counterparts through Core Cities and with leading European Cities through the Eurocities network, bringing knowledge, experience and opportunity to benefit the citizens and businesses of Sheffield. Sadly the City Council’s commitment to the Core Cities Energy & Climate Change work has been inconsistent in the past 2-3 years and its involvement in Eurocities weak. Officers fail to attend or bring back the lessons learned.

At last, Sheffield is recognising that its green assets should form the central core of its ambitions – but recognising it must invest less in grey infrastructure and consider blue space, water and its ability to adapt to future climate change.

Lastly, who wouldn’t want a city more resilient to the frailties of the UK Government’s weak energy policy. More investment in localised energy generation and distribution of both heat and power is the cornerstone of any successful city. There are some interesting ideas posed in the report about ways in which finance can be raised to invest and references Bristol’s work in this area. I would suggest that other cities are also acknowledged – not just to borrow ideas but to give the confidence to decision makers to get on and make this happen. Nottingham is buying gas and electricity wholesale and acting as a supplier through its Robin Hood Energy Company to pass on those benefits to its citizens.

In my previous blog I wrote about my concerns for the lack of governance and monitoring of implementation. The report is honest in its appraisal of what is needed but the City is kidding itself if it thinks it’s really committed politically. It’s not the politicians fault either. Successively, over the last 5 years the expertise the city had has been allowed to retire, retreat or just fade away leaving fewer and fewer to do what the Council does best: govern. Even if all recommendations are supported there is no-one left to oversee their implementation. None of the City Council’s own employees lasted the duration of the Commission – at the end of the process there wasn’t a City Council officer – just the co-Chair, Cllr Jayne Dunn – to take the next steps.

The Council has several roles it can play, but fundamentally it can take direct action by commissioning, contracting and writing and implementing policy; or it can make things happen indirectly by facilitating investment, derisking it and working with the private sector (such as happened with the E.ON investment in the Lower Don Valley). Unlike previous policies this paper doesn’t commit what the role of the Council should be. Sadly, in times of reducing resources I fear the City Council will keep its head down and hope this all blows over.

Any of you who know me personally and/or professionally will know I am positive, optimistic and supportive of good ideas. There is much to like in this report in terms of vision and ambition. But until there are clear policy commitments to tackling carbon emissions, investing in blue infrastructure, air quality and to smart city ambitions I am afraid this will be just another document. The commissioners involved in this process deserve the elected Members of Council to show real commitment to delivering this. Time to step up SCC.

You should read the report and can contribute your own thoughts to the consultation here.

The Department of Changed

Consider that 3.2 billion people —nearly half the planet’s population at the time—watched the last World Cup soccer tournament at some point; one billion tuned in just for the final game.

Even more—over half the planet–watched the Beijing Olympics, 4.4 billion; the largest population to ever watch anything in the history of mankind.

In both cases, what people saw was sports. In both cases, the games featured major sustainability stories—and not even a fraction of the viewers knew about them.

In Brazil, the World Cup tried but failed to reach the sustainability goals within its grasp.

On the other hand, the Beijing Olympics broke many sustainability barriers, despite the challenging air pollution problems faced there. In the game’s’ aftermath,  China has started to phase out all coal-fired power plants nationwide.

Source: The Department of Changed

How to make a mess of the UK’s Energy Planning

Spot on summary Sandy

Green Urbanist

The Cabinet Office published a remarkable report today on energy “Red Tape”. Why is it remarkable? Because reading it closely and between the lines, there couldn’t be a more damning indictment of this government’s handling of UK energy policy since 2010.

To be frank it is a complete mess. And all caused by the huge policy disruptions, contradictions and plain stupidity engendered by DECC and HM Treasury. Of course this “Red Tape” report and Cabinet Office can’t use such language. That would be too honest, and totally off the agenda as far as this government is concerned.

But just look at what is said in the report.

  • “We have spoken to a wide range of businesses, from large and established energy companies to new starters and small and medium enterprises. We found the consultation process insightful and it was enlightening to hear views from such a variety of organisations”.

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The PipeCo: an alternate approach to financing heat networks

District heating is booming in the UK, but to pose a serious alternative to the gas network a different funding model is needed, according to Ian Manders and Tanja Groth

A PipeCo model works on the basis of splitting the investment in a new district heating scheme into the expensive heat distribution network, which lasts for 50-60 years before refurbishment, from the energy generation plant and ancillaries, which have a lifecycle of 15-20 years before replacement.

It could work like this:

  1.     Company “A” borrows money and builds a district heating scheme. After commissioning the scheme, the overall costs are known and the income from customers “C” has been secured. At this point, A sells the pipe network to Company “B”, the PipeCo. B is backed by institutional finance which is happy with a low-risk return over several decades.
  2.     A continues to operate the system. From its’ energy centre it supplies C over the PipeCo network, for which it pays a regular (but relatively small) use of system charge to B.

A has managed in the short term to offset its biggest cost (ie the pipe network) leaving it with the parts of the project with a higher IRR that can be financed for a shorter period at higher discount rates.

A then starts looking for another project and the whole process starts again. A and B are in a symbiotic relationship but each have the funding structure suitable for their role in the project.

Source: The PipeCo: an alternate approach to financing heat networks

Launch of Zero Carbon Yorkshire

The aim of Zero Carbon Yorkshire (ZCY) is to bring together a cross-section of the Yorkshire community who have an interest in or are connected with projects and initiatives related to climate change, renewable energy, energy efficiency, transport and conservation, and together co-produce an evolving road-map to a Zero Carbon Yorkshire.

Source: Launch of Zero Carbon Yorkshire