Friday, October 03, 2008

Connected urban development – the way to a sustainable future

By Nicola Villa of Cisco

Published: September 29 2008 15:00 | Last updated: September 29 2008 15:00

For the first time in history the Earth’s population is more “urban” than “rural”. An unfortunate side effect of this is that cities are now the largest contributor to energy consumption and climate change. The world’s 20 “megacities”, each with a population exceeding 10m, are responsible for 75 per cent of the planet’s energy use.

As a result, over the last 15 years, urban sustainable development has emerged as a major strategy and policy priority among policy makers and business executives alike. Attention has largely been directed towards three sectors: buildings, energy, and mobility.

Today, however, it is becoming evident that a fourth, equally important element must be addressed: information and communications technology (ICT). While ICT is part of the problem in its contribution to overall energy consumption and CO2 emissions, it is an even bigger part of the solution.

While traditionally, cities emerged because people needed to have access to resources – including information – and as a result moved closer to them, ICT now makes it possible to deliver information to people, with a consequent and direct impact on resources as well. Urban information and communication infrastructures can be used as a platform to improve the flow of knowledge, people, traffic and energy within and between cities.

Why should this be of interest to businesses? ICT is already producing radical change in the way we work. According to the Confederation of British Industry, the proportion of the working week spent in the office fell from 55 per cent in 2001, to just 18 per cent by 2008. Frustrated by worsening traffic congestion and pollution, and in search of a healthier work-life balance, today’s talented professionals are increasingly expecting their employers to respond to their needs.

There’s also a strong economic imperative: rocketing energy prices and an increasingly uncertain global property market mean that large corporate offices are now seen as liabilities, not assets, to the business. As a result, a new approach to managing work – and the people who do it – is needed.

Which is where Connected Urban Development comes in. This is Cisco’s commitment under the Clinton Global Initiative to identify some of the solutions to these issues. The programme initially involved three pilot cities: San Francisco, Amsterdam and Seoul. These were selected because each possessed or planned to implement a next-generation broadband infrastructure, had buoyant technology sectors, significant traffic congestion issues, and visionary leadership. Since then, Madrid, Lisbon, Hamburg and Birmingham have also signed up.

With the programme currently in its first phase, we have teamed with the partner cities to implement innovative ICT solutions to reduce CO2. These solutions are taking various forms in different cities:

San Francisco is implementing among other projects the Connected Bus, a landmark prototype for green transportation that was developed by Cisco and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority (SFMTA). The bus includes wireless hotspots, a Global Positioning System (GPS) giving commuters updated status of bus routes and connections, displays providing information on emissions and automated engine management. If deployed broadly throughout transit systems, the Connected Bus could significantly reduce carbon emissions in cities around the world.

Amsterdam has started to focus on transportation virtualisation and innovative work practices by introducing Smart Work Centres that enable local residents to work in neighbourhood community centres without having to travel long distances to get to work. We recently opened a Smart Work Centre in the satellite town of Almere which brings extremely powerful Telepresence technology within easy reach of local residents, in addition to childcare, dining, banking, hot-desking and meeting facilities.

In South Korea, Seoul is planning to implement a Personal Travel Assistant (PTA), which will enable passengers to plan their journey in the minutest detail, from their PC, a kiosk or even their mobile phone. It’s the first service of its kind to provide green route options, and interfaces with business applications such as calendars, so professionals ensure they never arrive late for important meetings.

Most importantly, the system provides the local transport authority with vital intelligence on which routes are most heavily used at which time, helping them continuously improve the transport system.

Although only in its second year, CUD is beginning to have a tangible impact on the cities which have joined the programme. While the projects start delivering results, we are beginning work on a blueprint for the sustainable city of tomorrow. These insights may also help companies determine their estates strategy for the future.

There are other areas, too, for businesses to show leadership. Businesses are starting to join the CUD programme as thought leaders, as solution delivery partners or as participating partners in the projects. For example, IBM and HP recently joined Amsterdam as first corporate customers of the Amsterdam Smart Work Center programme.

Projects such as the Personal Travel Assistant or the Smart Work Center are true examples of successful public private partnerships. Political drive from local governments combines with the entrepreneurial flair of the private sector to bring these novel projects to life.

CUD’s main aim is to prove the concept that intelligent use of ICT based on pervasive broadband connectivity – at a city-wide level – can have a hugely beneficial impact on the way people live, work, play and learn. We are a long way from finding the perfect formula, but we hope that the lessons learned thus far will help create more sustainable urban blueprints for the future.

Nicola Villa is Global Director for Connected Urban Development at Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group.

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