So what is a “smart city”, anyway?

ImageThe planning and tech worlds alike have taken up the mandate to build “smarter” cities. However, there seems to be a wide array of definitions regarding what makes a city smart. When we talk about smarter cities, what are we talking about?

In his thesis, Tuan-Yee Ching (MCP ’13) provides a framework to consider the different ways that cities view themselves—and their initiatives—as “smart.” In a six-city study that includes interviews with officials in Boston, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Singapore, and Rio de Janeiro, Tuan-Yee discovered four different ways that cities consider themselves to be smart.

A city may call itself smart because it adopts new technologies and adapts itself to their use, as with Rio’s deployment of a suite of advanced weather sensors to better track and respond to local weather impacts. A city may also be smart for adopting new collaborative processes to work with stakeholder communities in innovative new areas, like San Francisco’s “Unhackathon” that crowd-sourced ideas to optimize taxi service with technological improvements. Cities may be smart because of a commitment to learning and adaption informed by lessons from other cities and the use of performance metrics, as in Boston’s participation in the G7 network of American cities that offers a forum for idea-sharing between municipal Chief Information Officers. Or cities may call themselves smart because they make investments in the technology sector that promise future returns, as with Singapore’s “Living Lab” fund, which offers public sector support for ventures in clean energy, urban mobility, IT, and public safety.

Tuan discusses the implications for these four very different notions of what a smart city really is, and he provides a series of recommendations for policymakers to keep in mind as they try to make their cities smarter—whatever that means to them. Read more in his thesis.

Preparing for the Storm: Contingent Climate Adaptation in South Asian Mega-Cities

1755814917_09ecb0f051_oSouth Asia’s coastal mega-cities are at risk. With staggering populations and high probabilities of flooding related to climate change, these cities face an extreme adaptation challenge. Distressingly, these cities often lack formal processes for enhancing climate resilience, focusing their planning efforts instead on broader economic development goals. What steps can these cities take to enhance their resiliency and increase their safety from the effects of climate change?

Madhu Dutta-Koehler (PhD ’13) examines this problem in her dissertation. Madhu looks closely at the capacity for adaptation planning in Dhaka, Bangladesh and Kolkata, India. She finds that these cities are remarkably constrained in the resources and attention that they are able to dedicate to climate adaptation efforts explicitly, but that they have nonetheless implemented a series of tangible projects related to enhancing resilience.

The cities have done this by aligning adaptation efforts with broader development goals. As part of a comprehensive effort to improve Dhaka’s future water supply, for example, planners have taken steps that will also mitigate the impact of climate-related flooding in the city. These “no regrets” moves that embed climate planning within broader policy goals have allowed the cities to make progress on climate adaption even though it is not being an explicit planning priority.

Madhu provides a helpful way of thinking about adaptation efforts like this, labeling them as “contingent planning.” Contingent planning postulates a loose approach to climate change mitigation. It builds gradually towards long-term adaptation goals, but allows the details of implementation to conform to overall development goals. This sort of informal climate planning may not be ideal, but it might just be what saves the coastal mega-cities of South Asia. Read more about Madhu’s work in her dissertation.

Where Will San Francisco Get its Water Now? Analyzing a Failed Water Transfer Deal


Cities have a massive thirst for water, but their needs must be balanced against those of agriculture and the natural environment in
determining how fresh water will be allocated. In California, an emerging market for water transfers allows various water districts to negotiate for additional supplies. In theory, areas with unmet water needs will contract with areas that have surpluses.
As Keith Tanner (MCP ’13) notes, however, this market-based system of allocating water resources does not always operate efficiently. Keith analyzes a failed negotiation between the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Modesto Irrigation District to transfer water supplies from agricultural to urban use. Though initially promising, the deal fell apart. The press blamed the intervention of a stakeholder coalition opposed to transferring long-term ownership of water outside their agricultural region.

Keith attributes the failure of the deal to the interaction of three overlapping spheres of conflict that combined to make the deal politically infeasible. First was internal conflict within the Modest Irrigation District. Newly elected board members staunchly opposed the deal. Second, several of the district’s contractual partners—including the City of Modesto, which threatened to sue to block the deal—imposed barriers of various kinds. Compared to these concerns, the opposition of the stakeholder coalition—though present—was a relatively minor factor in scuttling the MID boards’ willingness to pursue the deal.

The case of the failed San Francisco deal raises concerns about the ability of the water transfer system to operate efficiently in California. Keith reports that the city has moved on to pursue a similar deal with another regional irrigation district, while MID has turned its attention in-house to better defining its strategy and preferences in the water market. Read more about California water transfers and the failed deal to add to San Francisco’s water supply in Keith’s thesis.

How Small Towns Think About Big Gas

Thanks to technological advances in natural gas exploration, many rural American towns are now confronted by a puzzle with which they have little experience: how to regulate gas drilling in their backyards. The reactions of local jurisdictions to natural gas have varied widely, as officials have considered the tradeoff between economic rewards and environmental risks. What explains the disparity in the approaches that local governments take to gas drilling? How do they decide about local policy?


Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA by Nicholas A. Tonelli

Jessie Agatstein (MCP ’13) takes on this question in her thesis, which looks at local responses to natural gas drilling in three communities—Erie, CO, Washington County, ID, and Dryden, NY—all with populations under 20,000. These localities have adopted markedly different approaches to natural gas exploration. Erie has pursued negotiated agreements with specific developers, Washington County has utilized special use provisions to define where and how drilling may occur, and Dryden has banned the practice all together.

Much of this difference, Jessie notes, can be explained by two things. The first is the delegation of regulatory authority over natural gas exploration in many states to local governments, producing a wide array of policy approaches across countless jurisdictions. The second is what Jessie terms “problem diffusion.” It results from differences in how gas issues are viewed on the ground in different geographic contexts. Instead of copying the policies that other nearby jurisdictions have taken, local officials respond mostly to the problems that their neighbors have encountered and formulate policies that are intended to counteract these difficulties.

Jessie also notes the high level of sophistication with which local officials in the communities she studied with have approached natural gas exploration. Contradicting the stereotype of outmatched and incapable small town governments, officials have deftly navigated many complex issues. In some cases they have charted new policy territory. She cites the wealth of public information available online about natural gas impacts and local regulatory policy as strong contributors to the effectiveness of local officials in dealing with natural gas.

What insights can you share about how communities have reacted to natural gas exploration? Post a comment below, or read more in Jessie’s thesis.

Use Only What You Need: Strategies for Water and Stormwater Conservation

BusBench_imgMunicipal water agencies find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation. In many jurisdictions, water supply and infrastructure are reaching their limits as both population and demand for fresh water continue to grow. Conservation is an obvious goal for water agencies, and many have begun to experiment with innovative ways to address growing water consumption.

Zach Youngerman (MCP ’13) catalogues these efforts and assesses their impacts. He combines water conservation policy tools into three categories: regulatory approaches which restrict the allowable uses of water, particularly in times of drought; financial approaches that use price signals to reduce demand; and community-based social marketing approaches that encourage the adoption of new norms and behaviors to save water.

Zach finds that regulatory approaches can work reasonably well for water conservation, but have minimal or negative effects for reduced stormwater use. Similarly, incentives and pricing signals have been an effective—if somewhat adversarial—means of achieving conservation in some cases, through the inability to meter stormwater use can make their application difficult. Social marketing approaches—such as encouraging the use of rain barrels or an advertising a lawn care aesthetic rooted in more natural landscaping—seem to have been highly effective, though water bureaus must overcome entrenched norms about water use and have encountered many obstacles in the course of conducting a campaign.

In practice, water bureaus often employ a variety of these three approaches in encouraging water conservation, and Zach offers a set of best practices for agencies to consider for each. Read about these recommendations in Zach’s thesis, and share your own thoughts on successful strategies to encourage conservation below!

The Role of the Political Scientist

In an ideal world, environmental management policy would follow directly from scientific research, which would spell out clear courses of action for decision-makeImagers to adopt. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The policy-making process is notoriously messy and science may be interpreted differently by multiple audiences and actors, severely diminishing the impact that scientific knowledge can have on policy outcomes. In this frustrating context, how can scientists ensure that their work is contributing positively to sound environmental management practices?

1748687107_4bdbba89eb_o In her thesis, Erica Simmons (MCP ’13) looks at three ways in which scientists have attempted to influence the political process in the case of the management of the San Francisco Bay-Delta. The first was the CALFED Science Program, which in the early 2000s adopted an approach of political neutrality, emphasizing instead the strengthening of relationship between scientists and policymakers of all perspectives. This was succeeded by a partnership between scientists at UC Davis and policy researches as the Public Policy Institute of California, which from 2007 to 2013 took on the role of political advocate and advanced explicit policy recommendations informed by scientific research. Most recently, the San Francisco Estuary Institute partnered with KQED, a regional public radio station, to develop a package of radio and interactive web content to educate the public about environmental management issues in the Bay-Delta.

These three approaches offer very different ideas about how scientists should approach policymaking, whether as a non-biased researchers, data-backed advocates, or public informers and educators. As Erica notes, these efforts have built upon one another and addressed the weaknesses of prior models: the UC Davis-PPIC partnership was purposely more politically assertive than CALFED, and the SFEI-KQED collaboration more actively drew the public into the policy discussion.

In the end, there is no blueprint for how scientists should approach policy issues, and the issue does not appear to be getting any easier. Still, scientists must adopt a strategy for how to interact with the policy discussion, and the methods they adopt can have important implications both for policy outcomes and for the public perception of scientific research. Read about these issues and more in Erica’s thesis.

As discussed in Erica Simmons theses, do you think it is possible for scientific findings to retain enough of their legitimacy inside the scientific community when they are being tailored to communicate and influence the broader populous?

Planning Beyond Coal

Our nation’s energy infrastructure is at the beginning stages of a massive transition as we come to terms with and address the implications of our reliance on fossil fuels. The first stage of this transition will be the retirement of AdiNochurmuch of America’s fleet of coal plants, due both to more stringent environmental regulations and the increased competitiveness of natural gas. Beyond environmental and climactic benefits, the shutdown of these plants creates an interesting planning opportunity to consider how lands previously used for energy generation from coal can be redeveloped and put to new uses.
Adi Nochur (MCP ’13) confronts these questions in his thesis. He considers the cases of three Massachusetts coal communities—Salem, Somerset, and Holyoke—that must make decisions about plant shutdown and reuse, with a primary focus on the ways in which the planning process has or hasn’t opened up opportunities for concerned stakeholders and the public to get involved.
There has been little consistently in the ways that Massachusetts towns plan for the transition from coal, Adi finds. Salem has been a leader among the three, as town officials have aggressively considered options for reuse and have given environmental advocates and the public seats at the table. Adi also notes differences in state leadership and the level of funding granted for reuse planning efforts amont the three towns. He presents Chicago as a model for Massachusetts coal communities to follow. Officials there have emphasized stakeholder engagement and strong government leadership in coal plant transition planning.
In general, Adi’s thesis raises questions about the appropriate uses of former coal sites. Often, as will likely be the case in Salem, shuttered coal plants get a second life as natural gas facilities, though this outcome may not be in the best interest of communities that have long dealt with the local health and environmental consequences of fossil fuel energy production. Adi is hopeful that Massachusetts and other states will consider a broader range of ideas and stakeholder views as they make plans for a post-coal energy sector. Read more about Adi’s findings and conclusions in his thesis.

A Business Model for a Constrained World

Our natural systems are increasingly threatened by climate change, droughts, increasing population, and related crises. These coming crises will have massive economic impacts, and firms will soon need to learn how to operate in a setting where resources are constrained and old business models are no longer competitive.Image

Aleyn Smith-Gillespie (MCP/SM 2001), now an associate director at Carbon Trust, recently contributed to an Economist report on the future of business models in a constrained world. Aleyn notes that, for many products where the cost of ownership is high and the rate of utilization low, businesses have an opportunity to recognize resource constraints by shifting away from an ownership economy and towards a sharing or subscription-based one.

Many proactive businesses have already begun to move in this direction, by emphasizing shared ownership of under-utilized resources (like cars and industrial machinery) and advertising services over products.

As these new business models succeed and resource constraints continue to strangle the old economy, Aleyn expects this shift to become more pronounced. Read more about Aleyn’s take on his guest blog at the Economist, or download the full Economist report, Supply on Demand.

Can Sustainable Jobs Programs be Sustained?

Green JobsOne often-cited benefit of a sustainable economy is the creation of a new class of green jobs, but creating these jobs has proven to be difficult. First, there’s no clear consensus on what makes jobs “green.” Second, efforts to encourage green jobs are complicated by the need to satisfy both environmental and economic objectives, which often conflict.

Louise Yeung (MCP ’13) evaluated two green jobs programs—the Oakland Green Jobs Corps and the Baltimore Center for Green Careers—to see how they were handling the tension between these policy priorities. She found that they were taking significantly different approaches.

In Oakland, the Green Jobs Corps takes  a supply-oriented approach to filling jobs by partnering with unions to move green jobs through existing employment pipelines. The Corps trains workers in a broad set of environmental practices, and then inserts them into traditional trade positions. While this approach has given the Corps good access to new positions, the resulting jobs are not always as “green” as might be hoped. Because of union partnerships and other constraints, the program places a high emphasis on employment priorities.

The Baltimore Center for Green Careers, meanwhile, takes a demand-oriented approach. It has encouraged the growth of a new green industry—home energy efficiency contracting. This has led to a somewhat smaller programmatic impact, and the program is dependent on other policies that offer generous incentives for energy efficiency.

The varying tactics that the two programs have adopted—and the pros and cons of each—demonstrate continued uncertainty in how best to fashion green jobs policy. Read more about these programs and the lessons that they offer in Louise’s thesis.

A Blueprint for a More Resilient Grid

While our electric power system is generally regarded as a major tool for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, it is, itself, vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. More frequent and more extreme heat, drought, and storms are putting serious strains on our electric system, and we must find ways to ensure that we have a resilient, reliable grid without waiting for disaster to force the issue upon us.

5945923642_ab28b5758a_zMelissa Higbee (MCP ’13) looked closely at the ways in which American electric utilities are preparing for climate change by conducting a survey of 26 utilities and developing in-depth case studies of three. She finds that some utilities are indeed preparing by looping climate change projections into their existing risk management and capital planning efforts. The main way that utilities have acted so far is by reinforcing their transmission and distribution systems, for example by adopting “smart grid” technologies or by moving important power lines underground.

But Melissa also notices the uneven pace of progress. The preparations that utilities make for climate change depend on their business models and the mood of their state and local regulators. She encourages regulators to require adaptation planning on the part of utilities and notes the useful role that governments can play by providing accurate and consistent forecasts of expected climate impacts. She also notes that, in the face of uncertain climate conditions, utilities would be wise to plan for a range of possible outcomes by incorporating scenario planning methods into their adaptation efforts. Read more about Melissa’s findings and recommendations in her thesis, here.


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