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Kate Bell, Program Manager

Picture a carbon-neutral city of the future. What do you see?

As you glance around, you might notice electric vehicle charging stations in every parking spot. Corners where gas stations once stood might instead host smart shelters for hydrogen-powered buses, where riders can view real-time updates through a robust Internet of Things (IoT) network that makes multimodal route planning seamless. Your favorite rooftop café may also be home to a distributed generation system of solar arrays providing clean, reliable energy to neighboring businesses and residences. In this world, next-generation technologies are everywhere you look.

Most conceptions of smart cities foreground technology. A healthy focus on technology makes sense; after all, high-tech solutions are necessary to meet today’s challenges in advancing our clean energy goals. But relying solely on the latest innovations will not be enough to realize a carbon-neutral future. Technologies that are not developed, deployed, and distributed holistically will only achieve incremental progress since there are areas of life that can only be touched by public institutions and policy interventions.

Smart cities of the future need smart technologies and smart governance to be successful. Collaboration between private industry and public institutions is key to ensure that promising next-generation technologies reach their full potential. While perhaps not as visible as the latest advancements in tech, smart policies at the local, state, and federal levels are just as critical to realizing an interconnected, carbon-neutral future. Let’s run through a couple examples of “smart policies” and how their absence would hinder the smart cities movement.

Smart Zoning and Planning

Smart cities require smart zoning and land use planning. As it stands today, even as individual households and businesses increasingly electrify their buildings and transportation systems, the gains in emissions reductions from these private choices are diminished—and at times negated—by urban sprawl. Making changes to cities’ zoning and land use codes to allow for higher density development by right can help combat this problem. Reducing sprawl not only curbs transportation emissions; it also increases building energy efficiency, as single family housing requires more energy to heat and cool than denser multifamily housing.

While industry leaders and utilities are increasing the capacity and accessibility of cleaner transportation and building electrification technologies, they lack the power to enact changes to land use and zoning codes that allow for the higher density development needed to mitigate the effects of sprawl. That power lies in city hall and with local zoning officials. Technologies to reduce transportation and building emissions are absolutely needed. However, smart zoning and land use planning policies tailored to meet the needs of current and future residents are equally necessary pieces to the smart city puzzle.

Smart Energy Policies

Smart cities also require smart policies regarding energy production and generation. Vehicle and building electrification are not enough to fully curb carbon emissions in those sectors if their respective charging sources come from nonrenewables. A state’s power mix must be considered when building smarter, cleaner cities. For Michigan, this means making a drastic pivot away from coal-fired generation. In December 2021, the state’s net coal-fired power generation clocked in at 3,107 thousand MWh—the highest by source for that month. Efficient, accessible, and reliable electrification technologies such as electric vehicle charging stations are excellent and necessary additions to a smart city’s landscape. However, they are not sufficient on their own. Smart policy and bold initiatives at the state level to increase and diversify the renewable energy generation mix is a critical component, as well. 

Forging Cross-sector Partnerships

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the coordinated efforts needed to fully realize a smarter, cleaner future for our cities. Additional practices such as smart infrastructure investment and subsidized research and development are also needed to ensure that the benefits promised by the convergence of next-generation technologies are distributed equitably among residents in cities of all sizes. Yet the examples shown demonstrate that the roadmap for creating smart, carbon-neutral cities is within reach. We cannot rely solely on technology nor solely on public policy to get us there: we must forge partnerships to maximize the benefits of both the public and private sectors.

At NextEnergy, we believe that smart cities are not merely those filled with futuristic technologies; they are also those backed by thoughtful urban planning, ambitious policy, and extensive cross-sector partnerships. If you are interested in learning more about our work in the smart cities space or would like to share your thoughts, please reach out to me via email at or on LinkedIn.


Join the discussion One Comment

  • Joseph Kristy says:

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