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.

Bristol opens up transport data to app developers

Bristol City Council has launched an application programme interface (API) to provide free and easy access to transport data from across the city, in support of new and innovative technology projects.

The Bristol API is the latest step in a project that has already opened up a number of civic data sets held by the council via the Bristol Open Data portal, which was first launched in the summer of 2014 with support from the Future Cities and Connected Digital Economy catapults.

Bristol continues to be a leading proponent of open data in its quest to be a smart city and Stephen Hilton should be applauded for driving these initiatives through in the city. It’s a mature city council that is willing to recognise the value of the data it holds and to make that available as a stiumulant to local entrepreneurs for the benefit of its citizens.

Source: Bristol opens up transport data to app developers

If only everything in life was as reliable as a … oh.

In the first blog I contributed to ‘Sustainable Smart Cities’ I wrote about the known impacts of poor air quality – particularly in urban areas. In that blog it said:

A report ‘Public Health Impacts of Combustion Emissions in the United Kingdom’  (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es2040416) states ‘Combustion emissions are a major contributor to degradation of air quality and pose a risk to human health. We evaluate and apply a multiscale air quality modeling system to assess the impact of combustion emissions on UK air quality. Epidemiological evidence is used to quantitatively relate PM2.5 exposure to risk of early death. We find that UK combustion emissions cause 13,000 premature deaths in the UK per year, while an additional 6000 deaths in the UK are caused by non-UK European Union (EU) combustion emissions.

In the EU, with a raft of legislation and Directives, there was frustration that nation states were failing to put in place the policies that would drive local air quality improvement. Local government would be nervous of introducing any policies that were considered ‘anti-business’ or ‘anti-car’ for fear of losing votes. National governments just ran scared of dictating uniform standards and policies. But there was hope. There was an increasing growth in electric vehicles, hydrogen technology, and compressed natural gas. Major hauliers have moved away from diesel and reaped the rewards. However, whilst there were tax incentives for motorists for lower emission vehicles there was always going to be an uptake of diesel and its growth in the UK has been in direct response to that.

We need to move away from diesel towards ever increasing cleaner fuels. Increasingly, we see two short-medium term winners – for lighter vehicles electric hybrid and electric plug-in solutions are likely to fair well and, given the improvement in battery technology and capacity the concept of ‘range anxiety’ (that awful fear that you might be left stranded somewhere without a hope of plugging-in) will become a thing of the past. More and more of these lighter vehicles appear to have switched from petrol to diesel in recent years as subsequent UK policy incentivised the uptake of diesel through reduced road tax as a way of reducing carbon emissions. For once, what’s been good for carbon dioxide (and only very marginally) hasn’t been good for local air quality.

But, overall, the policy makers have been weak to press harder despite the fines from Brussels hanging over Member States for whom air quality improvements have yet to be realised.

The growth in diesel vehicles by number has probably masked the very fact that has been exposed this week – that it is in the interests of car manufacturers to ‘fiddle’ the system to ensure in tests their vehicles pass the emissions tests. But in reality, on the roads, they are performing knowhere near where they say they are and a dirty, choking country mile from where they need to be. Don’t think either that it’s just diesel. Petrol, whilst more refined, is not much better and the real challenge is to switch from petroleum based products altogether.

The revelation that the respected car manufacturer, Volkswagen, has been ‘fiddling’ has brought a backlash that meant the CEO walked. The company’s credentials for reliability smashed by the story breaking. They wont be alone, surely. In a report ‘Don’t Breathe Here: Tackling Air Pollution from Vehicles’ – T&E analyses the reasons for and solutions to air pollution caused by diesel machines and cars – the worst of which, an Audi, emitted 22 times the allowed EU limit. In fact, every major car manufacturer is selling diesel cars that fail to meet EU air pollution limits on the road in Europe, according to data obtained by T&E.

As a consequence of this and emissions from diesel machines, much urban air in Europe is not fit to breathe. The high levels of particles, nitrogen oxides and unburned fuel create a cocktail of harmful pollution. The effects are half a million premature deaths each year; a quarter of a million hospital admissions; and 100 million lost working days cumulatively costing over €900 billion.

The regulators in whom we trust have been undone in the US and, who knows, in the EU too. So why is it that it we are surprised? The Brussels-based NGO Transport & Environment aren’t. They have long been among those highlighting the fact that the real world experience of many car owners, even in terms of fuel consumption, did not come anywhere near to the official figures that resulted from emissions testing.  The question arises of why it takes underfunded NGOs to discover these problems, rather than the regulators themselves.

Now that the truth is out will politicians respond and toughen up? Will the outcry and outrage of the car-driving public demand politicians sort things out? Or will they, like they did with the banking industry, simply wait for the dust, particulates, NOx and ozone to settle and let the auto industry carry on the way it has?

Source: How Volkswagen got caught cheating emissions tests by a clean air NGO

Smart City Collaboration [Cities and their Universities]

In previous blogs I have suggested the role that universities might play within their cities to forward the ‘smart’ agenda. Indeed, it was a feature of both the recent conferences organised by The Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges and the International Sustainable Campus Network.

Without doubt urbanisation is the perfect platform to encourage inter-disciplinary collaboration within universities. Those UK universities who have identified this as an opportunity to promote this through an emphasis on urbanisation are creating think tanks, centres of excellence and institutes to address them.

Now overlay that with ‘smart’ urbanisation and recognise the inherent willingness to experiment, to try out new ideas, that are encouraged in universities but frowned upon in risk-averse (and resource depleted) local authorities who act as proxy for ‘the city’.

Cities are recognising the need to engage with their universities to forward the smart city agenda. In essence, to help make their cities work better through a greater understanding of human behaviour, infrastructure capability and capacity, societal norms and observation. If you’re going to make informed decisions and change things you might want to consider how data can underpin that process.

This week President Obama launched a $160m initiative for smart cities in the USA. One of the initiative’s programs is the MetroLab Network, aimed at improving American cities through university-city partnerships. More than 20 cities participating in major new multi-city collaborations that will help city leaders effectively collaborate with universities and industry. The University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, in Philadelphia, and Georgia Tech and Georgia State University, in Atlanta, are four of the universities on board. The whole programme will provide a platform for:

  • Creating test beds for “Internet of Things” applications and developing new multi-sector collaborative models: Technological advancements and the diminishing cost of IT infrastructure have created the potential for an “Internet of Things,” a ubiquitous network of connected devices, smart sensors, and big data analytics. The United States has the opportunity to be a global leader in this field, and cities represent strong potential test beds for development and deployment of Internet of Things applications. Successfully deploying these and other new approaches often depends on new regional collaborations among a diverse array of public and private actors, including industry, academia, and various public entities.
  • Collaborating with the civic tech movement and forging intercity collaborations: There is a growing community of individuals, entrepreneurs, and nonprofits interested in harnessing IT to tackle local problems and work directly with city governments. These efforts can help cities leverage their data to develop new capabilities. Collaborations across communities are likewise indispensable for replicating what works in new places.
  • Leveraging existing Federal activity: From research on sensor networks and cybersecurity to investments in broadband infrastructure and intelligent transportation systems, the Federal government has an existing portfolio of activities that can provide a strong foundation for a Smart Cities effort.
  • Pursuing international collaboration: Fifty-four percent of the world’s population live in urban areas. Continued population growth and urbanization will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050. The associated climate and resource challenges demand innovative approaches. Products and services associated with this market present a significant export opportunity for the U.S., since almost 90 percent of this increase will occur in Africa and Asia.

It’s great to see Obama’s modest investment ($160m wont get you far but it will kick-start your smart city in to action) incentivising cities to work with their native and other universities. In the UK the Innovate UK/ Catapult approach has attempted to do a similar thing although it has got somewhat tied up redtape. As a result UK cities such as Glasgow (who benefitted most from the smart city / Future Cities call for funding on the back of its Commonwealth Games bid), Bristol, London, Birmingham and Manchester have developed ever closer links with their universities to develop governance, technology, data and behaviour insight to rethink energy, transport, waste, services. Other cities, such as Liverpool (read by previous blog here), have clear recommendations from the work of their commissions to engage with their universities to make this happen: The Mayor must task the universities and colleges to develop a joint International Research Centre for Environmentally Sustainable Cities was one recommendation in the Mayor’s Commission on Environmental Sustainability. Leeds and Sheffield universities are beginning to work with their city councils with the former recognising the opportunity for collaborative, shared, posts to take the agenda forward. I hope, in due course, the city I work in, Nottingham, will do likewise to utilise the expertise that exists within both Nottingham universities.

The Obama Administration has, rather prescriptively, made some clear commitments in its announcements this week including:

Building a Research Infrastructure for Smart Cities

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is announcing over $35 million in Smart Cities-related grants and planning new investments in FY16. With a new foundation-wide effort devoted to Smart and Connected Communities, NSF will bring academic researchers and community stakeholders together to unlock transformational progress on important challenges — including health and wellness, energy efficiency, building automation, transportation, and public safety — through research to integrate new digital tools and engineering solutions into the physical world. NSF announcements in support of this agenda include:

  • $11.5 million in new awards to develop and scale next-generation Internet application prototypes that leverage gigabit speeds to achieve transformative impact in areas ranging from health care to public safety. These investments include new awards to US Ignite, Inc., and the Mozilla Foundation to create “Living Labs,” or communities of practice that facilitate the participation of citizens and community organizations, as well as idea and application sharing, across cities and regions. US Ignite is a public-private collaboration spanning over 40 cities and communities across the Nation. The Mozilla Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting openness, innovation, and participation on the Internet.
  • $10 million in new Cyber-Physical Systems Program research awards focused on Smart and Connected Communities. These awards support research in the integration of computing, networking, and physical systems, such as in self-driving cars and smart buildings. The research awards being announced today help to establish the foundation for Smart Cities and the “Internet of Things.” One such award, to Kansas State University, will fund research on novel approaches to integrate distributed power sources, such as rooftop solar panels and storage batteries, with the existing electric power grid.
  • $7.5 million in proposed FY16 spending for urban science that will support research that integrates advanced digital tools with the physical world to improve quality of life, health and wellbeing, and learning in communities.
  • $4 million to support academic-industry collaborations to translate innovative research and emerging technologies into smart service systems, such as smart energy services and on-demand transportation.
  • $3 million for the University of Chicago to support the creation of the Array of Things in Chicago, the first such network to serve as an infrastructure for researchers to rapidly deploy sensors, embedded systems, computing, and communications systems at scale in an urban environment. Comprised of 500 nodes deployed throughout the city of Chicago, each with power, Internet, and a base set of sensing and embedded information systems capabilities, the Array of Things will continuously measure the physical environment of urban areas at the city block scale and unlock promising new research trajectories.
  • $2.5 million for researchers to participate in the 2015 NIST Global City Teams Challenge, which supports “high-risk, high-reward” research on the effective integration of networked computing systems and physical systems to meet community challenges.
  • $2.5 million in new research awards to support improvements in the design and operation of interdependent critical infrastructure, such as electrical power and transportation systems, ensuring they are resilient to disruptions and failures from any cause.
  • $2 million in new Smart and Connected Health research awards with a focus on Smart and Connected Communities. The awards being announced today will support the development of next-generation health care solutions that leverage sensor technology, information and machine learning technology, decision support systems, modeling of behavioral and cognitive processes, and more.
  • A new Dear Colleague Letter encouraging Early-Concept Grants for Exploratory Research proposals, as well as supplemental proposals to existing grants, to grow a Smart and Connected Communities research community and pilot early-stage efforts.
  • Advancing outreach and collaboration on connected and automated vehicles. On November 4-5, 2015, the University Transportation Centers (UTC) research program will host a conference on the impact of connected and automated vehicles on transportation – to include, planning, policy, land use, design as well as smart cities areas of interest: operations, freight movements, and transit.New Multi-City Collaborations to Support Smart CitiesMore than 20 city-university collaborations are launching the MetroLab Network, with more than 60 Smart City projects in the next year. Supported by a newly announced grant of $1 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the MetroLab Network will leverage university expertise to address challenges facing cities and regions across the country.  The Network will provide a platform upon which established and emerging city-university relationships can share successful projects, coordinate multi-city, multi-university research efforts, and compete for research and project funding.  The founding members have collectively committed to undertaking more than 60 projects over the next year, which will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure and services in our cities and communities and increase the productivity and competitiveness of our regional economies.  Communities and their university counterparts signing onto the network with a joint letter to the President include:
    • Atlanta, with Georgia State University and Georgia Tech
    • Boston, with Boston Area Research Initiative
    • Chicago, with the University of Chicago
    • Cuyahoga County, with Case Western University
    • Dallas, with Texas Research Alliance
    • Detroit, with Wayne State University
    • Houston, with Rice University
    • Madison, with University of Wisconsin-Madison
    • Memphis, with University of Memphis
    • Minneapolis & St. Paul, with University of Minnesota
    • Montgomery County, with University of Maryland and Universities at Shady Grove
    • New York City, with New York University
    • Philadelphia, with Drexel University and University of Pennsylvania
    • Pittsburgh, with Carnegie Mellon University
    • Portland, with Portland State University
    • Providence, with Brown University, College Unbound, and Rhode Island School of Design
    • San Diego, with University of California San Diego
    • San Jose, with San Jose State University
    • Seattle, with University of Washington
    • South Bend, with University of Notre Dame
    • Washington, DC, with Howard University, Georgetown University, and George Washington University

It’s wise, smart even, to facilitate and incentivise collaboration between city governments and universities. Both in the US and in the UK this has been happening but perhaps ad hoc and now the bigger carrots Obama is dangling is encouraging more to step up to the plate in the US. It helps prove the concept works and more cities in Europe, South America, North America, the Middle East, Far East, Russia, China, India et al should embrace this approach. It could be the single biggest contribution any university could gift the city that allowed it to grow and succeed.

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.

What has open council data ever done for us? | CityMetric

What has open council data ever done for us? 

In a recently published piece, By Marc Ambasna-Jones, writes: It’s been nearly a year since Eric Pickles, the UK’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government issued a policy statement  requesting that local councils open up their data to the public.   

Since then, progress has been slow – but there has been progress. A number of cities (Manchester, Leeds, Cambridge, London) have published open data sets. But without a common access point, or a declaration of available data like theOpen Data Census in the US, it’s hard to know how many.

The big question now is: is transparency enough?

Boris Johnson thinks so. In October this year, London’s mayor, a keen advocate of municipal open data, launched London’s second data store. At the time, he said it would provide “a wealth of material that the world’s brightest minds will be able to use to develop new insight and apps that can be used to solve the big city problems”. The inference is that if you open the data the developers will come.

In truth, the expectation that Town Halls, many of which are facing huge funding cuts – particularly in those northern cities where the opportunity to exploit open data is so great, really haven’t embraced this fully. A few notable examples of cities that have taken this on have largely been backed by the belief that it will really stimulate local economies or they have been effectively subsidised by initiatives such as the Future Cities programme.

Now, as the need for innovation, efficiency and economic stimulus is at its most acute our Town Halls are, arguably, at their most cash-strapped. Overcoming this hurdle is key. It’s not enough to require, as Eric Pickles did, Town Halls to open up their data. Support, stimulus and subsidy to generate a significantly bigger pool of leaders in this field is needed. That way our municipalities, local enterprise partnerships and local authorities will be left behind.