Navigant Research Blog

A Small Car for the Smart City

— January 31, 2012

Last week saw the official unveiling of the Hiriko electric car in Brussels, in front of the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso.  A trial manufacturing run of the vehicle is set to begin at Vitoria Gasteiz, outside Bilbao, next year and the first models are expected to reach the market in 2013.  Several cities have apparently already shown interest including Berlin, Barcelona, Malmö and San Francisco.

Developed by a consortium of seven companies based in the Basque region of Spain, Hiriko Driving Mobility is taking forward a design for a CityCar first produced at MIT.  The Hiriko has several city-friendly features, but the most striking is its size and the fact that it folds up to fit into the smallest of urban parking spaces.  At only 2.5m (100 inches) in length unfolded, when crunched up for parking it takes a measly 1.5m (60 inches) in space.  The vehicle’s wheels also turn at right angles to help sideways parking in tight spaces and the lack of conventional doors mean that you can still get in and out the vehicle.

The transport challenges facing city leaders were the subject of some of the most interesting sessions at last November’s Intelligent City Conference, in Hamburg.  Amongst lengthy discussions about multi-model transport strategies and the pros and cons of road charging schemes, several presenters raised the importance of rethinking the role of the private car within our cities.  This is not only about the need to encourage EVs, or to accelerate the shift to public transit systems, but also to foster new thinking about car design.  We need to design cars that meet the needs of cities, several speakers declared, and move away from shaping our cities to accommodate cars.

That’s the basic idea behind the Hiriko (which means “urban” in Basque).  The developers say that it’s well-suited to electric car-sharing schemes, similar to those already in place in San Diego and other cities.  Other options might include the use of advertising to pay for the car rental, or sponsorship by hotels, restaurants or other local businesses.  Operators and city transport authorities might also consider time-of-use pricing or incentives to encourage the use of alternative pick-up and drop-off points during busy times.

The Hiriko may horrify lovers of classic car design, but for anyone interested in the future of urban transport it offers some intriguing possibilities.

 

Victory for Greenpeace as Facebook Un-Likes Coal

— January 10, 2012

The release last month of a joint announcement by Greenpeace and Facebook marks the end of one of the most interesting green campaigns of recent years.  Greenpeace first targeted Facebook 20 months ago, after the social media giant announced a new purpose-built data center, which it turned out would depend on electricity mainly generated from coal.  Facebook cited its commitment to building an energy-efficient data center, but Greenpeace argued that ignoring the prime source of energy for the site undermined other green elements of the strategy. 

According to the new statement, Facebook is now committed to using renewable energy in future data centers and also offers to promote this approach to other companies:

Facebook is committed to supporting the development of clean and renewable sources of energy, and our goal is to power all of our operations with clean and renewable energy.  Building on our leadership in energy efficiency (through the Open Compute Project), we are working in partnership with Greenpeace and others to create a world that is highly efficient and powered by clean and renewable energy.

A number of specific activities are also mentioned in the statement.  Facebook has committed to adopting a siting policy that states a preference for access to clean and renewable energy supply, and funding research into energy efficiency that will be shared through the Open Compute Project.   The company will also “Engage in a dialogue with our utility providers about increasing the supply of clean energy that power Facebook data centers.”

Greenpeace, meanwhile, will help support for the Open Compute Project, by encouraging companies to join in, use the technology, and share their own efficiency innovations, and will encourage utilities to offer ways for customers to get their utility data.

Purists may decry the lack of specific goals or actions relating to existing data centers, but the statement clearly marks an acceptance by Facebook of Greenpeace’s basic argument.  The biggest irony of the campaign of course is that Greenpeace used the facilities of Facebook to campaign against Facebook.  More than 700,000 people signed up to the organization’s Unfriend Coal page on Facebook (which now includes a timeline description of campaign).  Now that same platform (though not necessarily that page) will be used to encourage energy efficiency and to convince other companies to adopt clean energy sources.

The Open Compute project mentioned in the statement was started by Facebook as a means of sharing its own work on energy efficiency in the data center.  While the initiative sought to counter some of the flack being received from Greenpeace, it also addressed an important criticism of many of the major Internet companies with regard to their secrecy over their data center operations.  The new sense of cooperation between Facebook and Greenpeace is likely to put more pressure on other Internet and cloud providers to increase their transparency in this area.  The campaign demonstrates the importance and visibility that is now attached to data center facilities and the fact that citing a low power usage effectiveness (PUE) rating isn’t enough to satisfy environmental campaigners.

The power of Facebook, Twitter and other social media is now becoming evident on a daily basis.  In our recent report Social Media in the Utility Industry, for example, we estimate that in 2011 more than 57 million utility customers worldwide will use some form of social media to engage with their electricity providers, and that number will grow to 624 million by the end of 2017.  As Facebook found, important conversations are already going on that will impact your business, whether you’re involved or not.

 

The Smart City – From Vision to Reality

— January 9, 2012

The news that the 2012 TED Prize has been awarded for the first time to an idea, The City 2.0, is further evidence of the importance of cities in addressing global issues of sustainability, economic development and technology innovation.  The TED Prize is linked to the acclaimed TED conferences and video series promoting ground-breaking technical, scientific and cultural ideas.  According to the prize director, the idea behind the award is to challenge the TED Community “to embrace radical collaboration on one of the most pressing issues we face: how to build sustainable, vibrant, working cities.”

The TED announcement is just one of series of new studies, events and initiatives all focused on taking sustainable urban development programs to the next level.  Eric Bloom has already covered the recent IBM-sponsored smart city gathering in Rio de Janeiro.  He highlighted the innovative projects in Rio that are addressing systemic challenges and preparing the city for the arrival of the World Cup and the Olympic games.  The UN has provided another useful example of how major events can propel new thinking about city design and development.  It has pulled together lessons for sustainable cities drawn from the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, which had  the theme of Better City, Better Life.  The Shanghai Manual, A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development, provides a 300 page overview of the opportunities for cities to take new approach to issues such as economic development, transport, building, waste management and the use of ICT.  The manual is part of the UN’s attempt to educate and train city authorities around the world on how they can make their cities a positive force for economic development and environmental sustainability.

The core themes of the UN study were also the common topics of conversation at the Intelligent City Expo, which I attended in November.  Over three days in Hamburg – European Green Capital 2011 – city managers and political leaders, not-for-profit organizations and suppliers debated the way forward for cities.  There was general agreement that a smart city is one that combines a commitment to sustainability with continued economic and social development supported by the innovative use of technology.  Much of the discussion focused on the practical challenges of developing the political leadership, citizen engagement, and new operating models that enable the transformation to a smart city.

One of the biggest challenges is how to provide the financial underpinning for that transformation.  In fact, the first question asked at the conference to the opening panel was “Who pays?”  I chaired the panel that addressed this topic on the second day of the conference, comprising representatives from European investment bodies, including the European Investment Bank, and also from the private equity sector.  In Europe at least, investment funds are available for trials and pilots, but taking projects to large-scale deployment is still uncharted territory in most cases.  It’s also clear that the private sector is eager to find new ways to work with city authorities but they need to find the right service and right business models.

One area of growing interest is the value of information and data assets in helping to reimagine the way the city operates.  This issue has been taken up by The Climate Group, in a new report on smart city economics, Information Marketplaces: the New Economics of CitiesThe report, produced with the help of Accenture, Arup and the University of Nottingham, examines the potential for cities to use untapped data and information assets to improve decision making, make better use of city infrastructure and develop new forms of  cooperation with the private sector and with citizens.  It’s a useful contribution to the growing debate as to how city data and information assets can provide a technical and financial basis for smart city transformation.   The challenge for cities is to understand what data they should make available, in what form and above all what partnerships they need to forge to ensure that that hidden value is realized.

 

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