Event Review: Smart Cities
• German Aerospace Center (DLR)
• German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI)
Urbanization, globalization, demographic shifts, and climate change are major issues that will affect the way we live in the coming decades. At the same time, these challenges offer society the opportunity to design better, more technologically advanced cities – or “smart cities”— to create new concepts that will shape urban life to become healthier, more mobile, and more efficient.
On Dec 9, 2014, the German Center for Research and Innovation (GCRI) in New York hosted an evening discussion on this exciting topic. Speakers from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the United Technologies Research Center (UTRC) convened to provide thought-provoking presentations and to participate in a lively discussion with the audience on smart cities.
After the moderator Dr. Joann Halpern, Director of the German Center for Research and Innovation, provided an introduction to the evening’s topic and speakers, Prof. Dr. Jan Wörner, Chairman of the Executive Board of the German Aerospace Center, then gave a brief overview of the DLR’s work, which focuses on the fields of aeronautics, space, energy, transport, and security. Prof. Dr. Wörner spoke in more detail about current and future global challenges, which he divided into the following categories: climate change, mobility, communication, energy, demographic development, shortage of resources, health, quality of life, as well as conflict and catastrophes. Prof. Dr. Wörner noted that the same challenges need to be addressed when discussing smart cities and that for a city to be called “smart,” it must consider all of these points simultaneously.
Prof. Dr. Wörner argued that the best way to prepare for smart cities in the future is not by trying to predict what exactly the cities will be like, but rather by making way for different possibilities. Referencing the quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry, he explained: “As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.” The DLR therefore monitors activities and innovations in many different fields and is involved in a variety of projects. While the DLR’s main objective is the development of technology and science, it also considers ecology, economy, and society as important fields. Focusing on the latter areas, Prof. Dr. Wörner said that he is quite convinced that a top-down business model will not be the right approach to innovation in technology and science in the future. Rather than this model in which businesses and institutions impose new inventions on society, he instead supports a bottom-up model. “We first have to take the expectations and demands of society into account,” Prof. Dr. Wörner emphasized.
After Prof. Dr. Wörner presented a more general introduction of the DLR’s work, Prof. Dr. Barbara Lenz, Director of DLR’s Institute of Transport Research, built on his presentation by focusing on the connection between smart cities and transportation. Prof. Dr. Lenz began her talk by pointing out that many people are already experiencing what it is like to live in a smart city today with regards to mobility. Using mobile devices to look at maps and to plan trips is already very common, for example. This shows that transportation is a field that is very open to smart city elements and also points to the underlying factors of economy, environment, mobility, and society as well as information and communication technology (ICT). ICT, in particular, is a key element in today’s transportation systems, according to Prof. Dr. Lenz because it has enabled the seamless connection between and integration of different means of mobility. “This integration has created new forms [of transportation] in the last two or three years,” she explained, naming car sharing and the car service Uber as examples.
While these new options for mobility showcase the importance of integrating the public in transportation systems, Prof. Dr. Lenz also stressed that another factor not to be overlooked in smart cities is sustainability. In summary, the perfect transportation chain is affordable, convenient, easily accessible, and efficient. But Prof. Dr. Lenz also warned of overly high expectations with regards to smart technologies. The DLR and many other research institutions are currently in a testing phase and one cannot yet know the final implications or consequences of mobility innovations, such as whether car sharing and electric vehicles have had a major impact on reducing carbon emissions.
William Sisson, Director of Sustainability at the United Technologies Research Center (UTRC), began his presentation by looking to the future in which he predicted that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will be urbanized. He is especially concerned with the ways this development will affect buildings. Mr. Sisson stated that we should expect the world’s building stock to increase by 25% in the next decade due to tremendous population growth and urbanization. In addition, he mentioned that buildings currently consume 40% of the world’s energy and are responsible for roughly one-third of carbon emissions worldwide. Therefore, Mr. Sisson not only stressed that buildings need to become much more efficient, but also that an immense unrealized potential for energy savings and thus financial savings exist. He predicted that as more and more market leaders realize the potential and benefits of energy-efficient buildings, they will increasingly compete to be the best in energy efficiency and sustainability measures; in turn, the most successful companies in these fields will attract new business and talent.
According to Mr. Sisson, ICT plays a principle role in increasing the transparency of energy efficiency in buildings. He illustrated this point by citing the example of people’s widespread knowledge about their car’s yearly gas mileage in comparison to a prevalent lack of knowledge about their annual personal home energy consumption. The integration of ICT in buildings could change this reality, as information about energy consumption and energy efficiency in buildings could be gathered, accessed, and communicated more easily. However, Mr. Sisson also argued that ICT is not the only relevant component, as buildings not only need to be efficient, but also to be comfortable environments in which to live.
The speakers’ presentations on smart cities raised many questions, which led to an engaging discussion moderated by Dr. Halpern. Some of the key issues addressed were whether a city can be too smart, how cultural differences may influence a country’s stance on the need for energy efficiency, how smart city services can best be integrated and accepted by society, and how our acceptance of these services changes in different environments.