On the Verge: Key Topics and Trends at the 2013 VERGE Conference
A few weeks ago I was fortunate to attend VERGE, a conference hosted by GreenBiz.com in San Francisco exploring the convergence of buildings, transportation, energy, and the latest in technology. Technologists of any ilk, from corporations such as eBay and Dell, to up-and-comers such as Nest and SolarCity, were on hand to explore new business models, macro trends, and promising signs of success. As we often hear, buildings and transportation make up a majority of carbon emissions in most cities, owing to their use of energy, so the conference topics seemed particularly relevant to future cities.
Some themes that arose throughout the event:
- The sharing economy – As consumers and businesses are gradually being weaned away from product ownership to service-based models of value (eg. Software as a service, streaming video, and leasing solar panels), the next step in the progression is the sharing economy or collaborative consumption. As Airbnb, Zipcar, Uber, Liquidspace, and otheres explore networks of trust and maximizing value from fixed capital, new efficiencies will be possible but in the process also transform how people interact with property, often requiring city policies to catch up. For example, how should lodging and rented business space be taxed, or how to regulate transportation network companies as they compete with taxis? How cities interact with these new business models will have large impacts on sustainability as well as the viability of these businesses.
- The distributed future – It is clear that the proliferation of distributed renewable energy as well as electrified automobiles create more inputs and outputs on the electric grid, which will need to find new ways to handle these flows. Cities will be at the center of this, from the incentives they award, the permits they approve, and the utility services they operate. Furthermore, flows of goods are fundamentally changing, from the rise of mobile dining and food trucks to the advent of same-day package delivery provided by the likes of Amazon and Google. As the bricks-and-mortar retail model evolves toward brakes-and-motor, cities will be challenged to adapt short-term policies as well as long-term planning.
Stated another way, there seem to be three significant spheres at the center of this technology and sustainability convergence:
- Data, big and small – As pundits pontificate about whether machine to machine networks (M2M) and the internet of things will be realized, it is clear that significant, sustained growth in how and where data physically flows will affect how cities grow and change in the future. The data “air traffic controllers,” such as mobile telecom companies, WiFi providers (eg. municipal WiFi systems), and networks of Bluetooth and mesh-based devices will be key players in this space. One panelist remarked that AT&T’s mobile data volumes grew 30,000 percent in the course of five years. The smart devices that will populate our smart cities will clamor for the ability to communicate, whether they be electric vehicle charging centers, bike sharing stations, irrigation controllers, or smart electric meters. Not to mention the copious amounts of data then need to be distilled, interpreted, and actioned, which will demand a new breed of information & communications technology management. Currently some cities have created offices of civic innovation led by chief innovation officers, who may soon have to double as chief information officers. They will need to tackle challenging questions about data ownership and security which can prove to be potential barriers to nimble and scaleable progress in this field, particularly when it comes to accessing or sharing data between entities.
- Energy, grids, and virtual power plants – With more than half of last year’s U.S. energy development in renewables, utility companies are at a significant crossroads. They face several challenges, with one being the control of the orders of magnitude increase in energy inputs to the grid through renewables such as solar and wind along with distributed generation. Smart microgrids may become the new mini-utilities at the neighborhood level that balance inputs & outputs in the local grid. In some cases, companies that manage and aggregate demand reduction programs with end useres, like EnerNOC and Constellation, as well as solar energy providers such as SolarCity and Sungevity, will begin to scale and act like power plants themselves. Utility companies therefore must cope with the increased variability in their distribution systems, as well as the rapidly shifting competition from these new energy sources. One panelist noted that hundreds of billions of dollars have been invested in new generation on the German power grid, yet none of that has been captured by the utilities.
- Mobility networks – Mobility in cities faces interesting changes both in how transport is powered to how it is managed and offered. In addition to new waves of electric vehicles requiring infrastructure for charging, which may look fundamentally different from the collection of gas stations we are used to, there are now new models of sharing, access, and availability. GPS-enabled smartphones now have a multitude of apps that add layers of information to commuting, such as Roadify which aggregates public transit data from the tangled systems that exist across cities and transit districts and also helps display it in public locations such as stadiums, shopping centers, and other high-traffic areas; the Waze app that crowdsources traffic and route information which could become a rich source of traffic flow data for regional planning purposes; a proliferation of ridesharing solutions in a multitude of flavors; and even Volkswagen is now seeking to manage mobility services in China. How about gamifying traffic flow? Sweden’s “speed camera lottery” has been incredibly effective at reducing average car speeds by 5 miles per hour by entering everyone who passes the camera at or under the speed limit into a lottery for the proceeds from the fines.