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Sustainability & the city

Battelle is a global research and development organisation committed to science and technology for the greater good. Melony Rocque puts questions to Dr Dominie Garcia, Lead of its Smart Cities Programme.

Dr. Dominie Garcia
Dr. Dominie Garcia

Dr Dominie Garcia leads Battelle’s Smart Cities Programme, where she focuses on the organisation’s central role in the Smart Columbus project, as well as bringing Battelle’s full suite of capabilities in transportation and mobility, health and environmental sciences, data analytics, and cybersecurity to bear on smart cities projects around the country. She holds a Ph.D in systems engineering and organisational design from Georgia Tech, as well as an MBA from Babson College and BA from Vassar College.

SCW: What are the common misconceptions about sustainability in a smart city space?


Dr Garcia: One common misconception about sustainability in a smart city is that it is only about climate change or environmental impact. That’s definitely a large part of it, and can be more of a focus in areas that have been affected by extreme weather (like coastal cities or cities located in floodplains), but there are other important components to sustainability as well. To truly be sustainable is to have the built environment and the natural environment in sync. It’s having a built environment (including infrastructure like roads, bridges and buildings) that is designed and operated in a way that is more in tune with the nuances of the natural environment. People have been thinking about sustainability in cities in this holistic manner for quite some time, but the difference now is that we have cost-effective technologies that can help planners, engineers, and public policy leaders address things like congestion, air quality, and health and safety in ways we haven’t been able to before.


Another common misconception is that sustainability in smart cities has to be done on a massive, expensive scale, which can be overwhelming. The truth is that technology can be used in more focused ways, through smaller, more incremental projects, to help make cities more sustainable.


SCW: Do you think sustainability is high up enough on the smart city agenda, or is it all too often, a happy by-product of technical efficiencies?


Dr. Garcia: I think it’s shifted. When the smart city movement first started in the U.S., sustainability was lower on the list of priorities. The number one driver, in the beginning, was increased economic efficiencies – how to save money, how to reduce traffic and congestion, etc. As these early-stage projects and technologies are beginning to be deployed, cities are starting to realise that sustainability and economic efficiency often go hand in hand, and the technologies that help them save money can also make their city more sustainable. Now, we see more and more cities looking at smart cities initiatives both as a way to help their cities cut costs AND become healthier and more resilient in the long-term.


SCW: Which are the stand out cities as far as you’re concerned, where sustainable practice is key to successful smart city initiatives?


Dr Garcia: Chicago was an early adopter of sustainable smart city technology, through their Array of Things program and their lakefront water projects. Washington, DC is also using smart city technology to address issues the city has with wastewater and runoff. Many coastal cities have been on the forefront of sustainable smart city initiatives, including Miami, New Orleans, San Diego and Los Angeles. Seattle and Portland have long been sustainability leaders, so it’s natural to see them incorporating more and more technology solutions.


The Rockefeller Foundation is doing good work with cities to help share best practices and providing grants. They have a list of 100 Resilient Cities that is quite impressive. Globally there are many other examples – cities in Europe and Asia that are much further along than we are. And many additional cities in the US are actively developing and implementing resiliency strategies and projects.


SCW: Is the link between sustainability and economic well-being understood enough?


Dr. Garcia: No. Researchers and experts who work in this space are aware of the link, but for the general public, the explicit connection between sustainability and economics hasn’t fully been made. That being said, there are encouraging signs and cities that are beginning to demonstrate the economic benefits of things like increased productivity, improved air quality and safety, but more work is needed. There is also quality of life benefits that should be measured. Since this is an emerging movement, we really need to provide the evidence that the economics works so we can change systems and practices to those we know will reap the most benefits.


SCW: How can sustainable actions help cities to become more resilient?


Dr. Garcia: The broad definition of resiliency is to be able to predict and mitigate against the negative impacts of major, unforeseen events. Sustainability is a critical part of that. Cities are looking at not only how infrastructure fares in the event of extreme weather, for instance, but how people fare. This means cities must plan for not just the best case scenarios but also the worst case scenarios. Sustainability initiatives are now more holistic, designed to help cities improve their ability to withstand events they hope never happen.


SCW: What further developments would you like to see on the sustainability agenda?


Dr Garcia: More work needs to done on the question of economics. We’re on a wonderful trajectory of science and technology innovation with new discoveries and breakthroughs coming very quickly, but questions about who pays and how we pay keep coming up. We need to develop new financial models that work for everyone. That means financial modelling and experimentation, as well as research to quantify the benefits of sustainable smart city initiatives to make these projects more attractive to private investors and others who can help with deployment.


SCW: Is sustainability a question of education?


Dr Garcia: Yes - if people don’t understand what that word means, why it’s needed, and the benefits that come from sustainable efforts – all those things come from education. It’s a matter of education in a very broad sense.


SCW: Are you optimistic for the future?


Dr. Garcia: I’m extremely optimistic about the scientific and technological advances we’re making. We have the capabilities and we are beginning to see the will needed to solve some of our cities’ most pervasive problems. I’m hopeful that the public sector enthusiasm to facilitate the adoption of the great ideas and technologies we have at our disposal will only continue to grow.


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