Cities As Platforms

Gerard Grech is CEO of Tech City UK, a nonprofit organization focused on accelerating the growth of UK digital businesses. This piece is reblogged from TechCrunch.com: 

Cities As Platforms – To evolve, cities must be viewed as platforms, with populations encouraged to utilize technology to creatively disrupt and redefine core functionalities. Every digitally enabled citizen living in a city is a hub of real-time data. When analyzed in isolation, there’s no actionable intelligence. But when you view the data we produce on a macro scale, the possibilities for radical inventiveness are endless.

Read the full piece here.

City transport needs saving from itself

A really good piece on integration of systems and a smart city approach published by The Conversation (7th August 2015) “City transport needs saving from itself – here’s how to do it” by Yvonne Huebner. The piece covers energy, grid lock and smart traffic systems.

The desire for ever greater urbanisation is putting unrealistic demands on existing infrastructure, road and rail networks constrained by geology, topography, climate, land ownership, planning (or lack of it) and the unregulated freedoms afforded to personal mobility. Politically, gridlock (or congestion) is always topical and of great local importance to the economy, health, wellbeing and environment within our cities. Smarter cities with integrated systems of movement en masse have to be part of the solution.

Sidewalk Labs is Google’s new urban startup for Smart Cities

On Tuesday, Google unveiled a new independent startup called Sidewalk Labs with the goal of making technology that can fix difficult urban problems like making transportation run more smoothly, cutting energy use and lowering the cost of living. The company will be based in New York City and run by Dan Doctoroff, the former CEO of Bloomberg and former Deputy Mayor of Economic Development and Rebuilding for New York City. 

There is no shortage of innovation in Google products but they recognise it’s how these products and services are integrated that will accelerate the speed at which we transition from ‘dumb’ to ‘smart’. Of course, Google aren’t the only player in this space – but they are a key one. I would like to see cities utilising these tools but also working with their home universities to deliver smarter cities which tackle issues of governance, democracy and transparency as well as tech-savvy IT.

How to protect fast-growing cities from failing

Some insightful points made about the rapid urbanisation of our planet in this great Ted Talk by Robert Muggah.

In his talk “How to protect fast-growing cities from failing” he explains how its the speed at which cities grow that is important. Those with a longer period of gestation which mature more slowly are less likely to experience the traumas of rapid growth. He cites cities in the south hemisphere as being vulnerable in the coming decades.

Realtime, High Res, Open Data of a Changing Planet

This was another of those truly inspirational Ted talks that makes you realise that not everyone is out there to screw the world over. Fantastic stuff from Will Marshall and his colleagues to develop a floatilla of satellites to enable high-res digital photography of the earth in, virtually, real-time. Then to open that up to citizens of the world for their own exploitation and exploration. Watch the 8 min talk here:

Will Marshall: Tiny satellites show us the Earth as it changes in near-real-time | Talk Video | TED.com.

Carbon. It’s Not Staying or Going Underground and It Needs To

Not really aligned with sustainable cities per se, but occasionally you read a blog that just clarifies complexity in a wonderfully concise way. Today I read a blog written by Howard J. Herzog, a Senior Research Engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his blog on The Conversation‘s website “Pumping CO2 underground can help fight climate change. Why is it stuck in second gear?” he explains not only the opportunity afforded by carbon capture and storage but also disentangles the complexity of financial and political interventions and drivers. But, quite simply, he does make the case for capturing ‘free’ CO2 and storing it underground to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere causing climate change.

On the same day, by coincidence, George Monbiot writes in The Guardian The extraction of fossil fuels is a hard fact. The rules governments have developed to prevent their use are weak, inconsistent and negotiable. In other words, when coal, oil and gas are produced, they will be used. Continued production will overwhelm attempts to restrict consumption. Even if efforts to restrict consumption temporarily succeed, they are likely to be self-defeating. A reduction in demand when supply is unconstrained lowers the price, favouring carbon-intensive industry”. Keeping those fossil fuels that were formed over millions of years underground exactly there is the only way we’re going to stave off irreversible climate change. 

Both conclude that the true cost of ‘freeing’ those carbons is not being met. If there was a true polluter pays principle it would make the case for keeping the carbon in the ground in the first place and it would certainly help invest in technologies to capture carbon, store it and re-use it. We need to find ways of keeping what is in the ground there for longer and ways of putting what has already been liberated back there, safely out of the atmosphere whilst we figure out a low carbon solution to our needs.

 

£3 million funding to boost low carbon heating

The cynic in me isn’t surprised that this announcement comes less than 60 days before the General Election, but I am not a cynic really. It’s good to see DECC’s continued support for district heating. If there is one thing this Government can be applauded for its understanding of the importance of ‘heat’ and the opportunity for heat networks to reduce carbon emissions and provide cost-effective heat. Well done to Davey and his team in carving out £3 million of funding to boost low carbon heating.

DECC has done some useful enabling work to support the uptake of heat networks. It has established the Heat Network Development Unit (HNDU) to lead this and has produced some useful studies to demonstrate the untapped potential out there – such as the report produced in 2014 on heat opportunities from rivers.

The Government’s own Heat Strategy states that producing heat is the biggest user of energy in the UK and in most cases we burn gas in individual boilers to produce this heat. This is a wasteful method of producing heat and a large emitter of CO2, with heat being responsible for 1/3 of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Household heat demand has risen somewhat over the past 40 years from 400 TWh/y to 450 TWh/y, despite a marked improvement in the energy efficiency of homes and a slight reduction in the severity of winters. The average internal temperature of homes has risen by 6°C since the 1970s, and this combined with growth in housing – the number of households has risen by around 40% since the 1970s – has offset energy efficiency gains in terms of total energy used to heat homes Some studies suggest these temperature increases are due to factors including the move to central heating, rather than householders actively turning up their thermostats.

Heat networks in the UK use a range of heat sources including biomass and gas boilers, combined heat and power (CHP) plants and heat from energy-from-waste plants and, where conditions suit, such as is the case of Southampton, a small amount of geothermal heat. Networks are currently estimated to provide less than 2% of the UK’s heat demand supplying 172,000 domestic buildings (predominantly social housing, tower blocks and public buildings) and a range of commercial and industrial applications (particularly where high temperature heat in the form of steam is required). Despite being of a significant size, Sheffield’s city centre district energy network is estimated to provide 3% of the entire City’s total heat needs.

By comparison, district heating is widespread in many other parts of Europe, in China, Korea, Japan, Russia, and the USA, although the level of sophistication and reliability is very diverse. While having an average market share of 10% in Europe, district heat is particularly widespread in Scandinavia (Denmark nearly 70%, Finland 49%, and Sweden around 50%). It also has a substantial share elsewhere in Europe. For instance, district heat provides around 18% of heat in Austria (and 40% of heat in Vienna). European networks are currently growing at around 2,800 km per year, about 3% of current installed length. With the right planning, economic and market conditions it is clear district energy can play a more prominent role.

Whilst this funding announcement is showing funding going to new players in the district heating community as well as some established ones (Coventry, Leicester, Manchester, for example) there is a need to put money in to those long-established networks in cities that were at the forefront in decades past (Sheffield, Nottingham, Southampton). These ‘4th generation networks’ need to be reviewed, refreshed and developed as much as those ‘greenfield’ sites where district heating is all too new.

All the schemes developed to date have been local authority led. This round of funding allocates £3m across 55 local authorities in England and Wales. I would urge DECC to look at other types of organisation who might exploit heat networks at a medium scale where the conditions are right to do so. Those organisations with a long term stake in the city or town in which they are based are well placed. For example, NHS Trusts, universities and colleges, whilst not as big as an entire city or town often have enough scale in them to warrant district heating networks. Indeed, some of them already do. My own organisation, The University of Nottingham, has two of significance as well as several smaller, interconnected systems on its campuses. Most of them follow the model of high temperature, high pressure systems and don’t allow for storage, cooling or consider CHP. 

In the recent round of HEFCE/Salix Revolving Green Fund projects awarded interest free loans there were a good number of CHP schemes and a smaller number of district heating schemes put forward. I believe there would have been more had these organisations had sufficient revenue to develop shovel-ready projects for capital investment. Like the public sector, universities are often capital rich and revenue poor. That means that complex, integrated and multi-faceted feasibility studies can often become un-affordable – even if the capital is available for it to be delivered in time. I would like to see HNDU looking to other large organisations and helping them in the way that they have helped local authorities. If they could do it in partnership with the funding council and with their established partners, Salix Finance, even better.