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Digital Technologies to Accelerate Smart Cities: Part 1

For all of us in the climate movement, history has shown that COP 15 in Copenhagen failed to deliver on its promise. In 2010, my co-author, the famed environmentalist and climate activist, Hunter Lovins, and I travelled to Cancun for COP 16 to spread the message that climate action can be profitable and less than a year later, our book Climate Capitalism was published.

In the book we highlighted profitable solutions to climate change across key industries such as energy and energy efficiency, buildings, transportation, and agriculture.

What has changed since the publication of Climate Capitalism in 2011? We have seen some progress on multilateral action including the Paris Accord in 2015 as an outcome of COP 21. More companies have embraced net- zero targets while skepticism about climate science seems to have waned.

But something even more powerful has also emerged as a major enabler of accelerated climate action. Marc Andreesen, the founder of Netscape and the famed venture capitalist noted, also in 2011, that software had started to “eat the world.”  While Hunter and I were focused on climate action, Marc Andreesen was focused on the disruptive impacts software was having on every industry from movies (e.g., Netflix compared with Blockbuster), commerce (e.g., Amazon compared with traditional brick-and mortar retailers), music (Apple and Spotify overtaking traditional record and CD distribution), and more.

Since then, digital technologies have only gained in prominence in every industry. Furthermore, new enabling technologies have emerged such as cloud computing, blockchain Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, and big data, which are also accelerating transformation across all industries and have the potential to accelerate climate action.

In this multi-part series, as we head towards COP 28 in Dubai, I will explore how digital technologies are poised to “eat” climate change too! That is, we will explore the emergence of digital tools, and the companies building or deploying these solutions, to accelerate the low- carbon economy.

Given the growing urbanization around the globe, coupled with increased recognition that much of the climate fight needs to be waged in cities, this series will focus on how smart cities can leverage digital technologies to move towards net zero and become hopefully regenerative, helping reverse climate change through nature-based and carbon capture solutions.

Being the first post in the series, this will include a brief review of how local governments are already leveraging digital technologies on their net-zero journey. The last two posts will explore decarbonizing logistics and transportation through digital technologies and decarbonizing energy and buildings with digital technologies.

Smart Cities Embracing Digital Technologies for Net Zero

Smart cities as a sector was born in the late 2000s. In the 15 years or so since the start of the smart cities movement, there has been substantial experimentation and technology development, with thousands of pilots around the world tackling a vast array of challenges such as smart waste management, smarter traffic systems, smart and energy efficient buildings, and more.

We have yet to see many successful city-wide deployments of smart city solutions, although in recent years we have seen some fascinating greenfield city developments starting to take root from Masdar in the UAE, NEOM in Saudi Arabia, and Xiongan in China.

Below I will highlight some exciting applications of digital technologies to accelerate low-carbon smart cities.

Digital Twin Technologies

Digital twins of urban infrastructure have gained traction in recent years as a pathway for smart cities to better plan for and simulate population growth and new infrastructure projects. Increasingly cities are embracing digital twinning technologies for achieving their climate mitigation and resilience strategies. Three key benefits of digital twinning technologies for net zero smart cities include:

  1. Assess the current situation and better understand local greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, air quality, and more.
  2. Prioritize strategies by simulating climate action scenarios and analyzing their impacts on KPIs.
  3. Monitor progress and communicate key climate action plan initiatives with stakeholders through user-friendly web and mobile applications.

This latter utility in particular can be greatly enhanced with the introduction of metaverse applications making it easier and more engaging for residents to immersively experience and interact with proposed infrastructure to help the city better plan for a low-carbon future that citizens will embrace. Dubai has been an early pioneer, committing substantial resources to turning the city into a destination for metaverse applications and teams.

IoT and Big Data

IoT and big data were among the first digital technologies embraced in early adopter smart cities initiatives. Whether it was sensors in street lights to detect everything from traffic congestion to air contamination or the use of sensors in hillsides to mitigate the impacts of flooding in the favellas of Rio, Brazil, IoT and big data have been ubiquitous tools for the sector. Yet, more data is only useful when it can be digested and factored into benchmarking and decision making.

I recently discovered a company called ClimateView in Sweden that has deployed their ClimateOS in more than 50 cities across the US and Europe. They leverage a range of data sources from the city, combined with supporting the integration of administrator’s climate ambitions into a dashboard, which enables easy tracking of progress towards net-zero objectives. ClimateView goes further to combine all this data into climate action plans complete with robust methods to project costs and co-benefits of the integration of the climate action plans through simulations and advanced analytics.

Other Cross-Sector Digital Solutions for Smart Cities

AI, IoT, big data and more are also increasingly being used in smart cities to help with energy and grid efficiency, accelerating modal shift and enhancing multi-modal transit systems and of course helping to achieve green, net-zero, and even regenerative buildings.

In the next two posts we will take a deep dive into how these digital solutions are being deployed on public and private infrastructure to accelerate the net-zero economy.

About the Author

Boyd Cohen is CEO and co-founder of Iomob, which is building the Internet of Mobility network and WheelCoin Move2Earn to gamify green mobility, and is a contributor on ReFi to CoinDesk. Since obtaining his PhD in strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado in 2001, he has spent the past two decades focused on accelerating the path to a low-carbon sustainable economy. He has published three books, multiple peer-reviewed articles, and started a handful of ventures in the smart cities and sustainability arena.