Cities on the Verge: How Data and Technology Will Accelerate Urban Sustainability

GreenBiz's VERGE Salon focused on next-gen buildings and cities

How can technology transform buildings and cities into spaces that can adapt to societal, economic and climate shocks? How can data analytics accelerate urban sustainability and create value for buildings and cities? How can infrastructure innovation move cities beyond the basic greening of Main Street business?
These are some of the questions that were asked at the recent VERGE Salon, "Next-Gen Buildings and Cities." Produced by GreenBiz, a media and events company focused on the intersection of business, sustainability and innovation, this one-day event in New York City gathered an international group of architects, entrepreneurs, urban planners, real estate developers, government officials and experts in sustainability, infrastructure, transportation, energy, urban development and public policy to discuss the sustainable future of cities. Specifically, the event highlighted how urban sustainability can be accelerated across sectors through advancements in technology, data and systems, as well as the business opportunity all this economic activity presents.
Imagine the entire population of Maine—1.4 million people—moving into the world's cities every week. It sounds unbelievable, but that's exactly what will be happening over the next two decades, says a major new report released by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Chaired by former President of Mexico Felipe Calderón, the commission is the project of seven countries—Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom—created to "analyze and communicate the economic benefits and costs of acting on climate change."{1} By their estimates, nearly all of the world's net population growth over the next 20 years will happen in urban areas, with the global area of urbanized land tripling by 2030.{2}
Considering the extraordinary pressure on the environment all that additional human activity will create, it's no surprise that the battle for sustainability will be won or lost in the world's cities. As a recent Scientific American headline put it: "Climate change will be solved in cities—or not at all."
But preparing for a sustainable urban future won't just help the global environment—from supporting biodiversity and public health to reducing carbon emissions and pollution—it also makes economic sense. By reducing sprawl and creating cities that are more connected, more compact and served by efficient and easily accessible mass public transport, an estimated USD 3.4 trillion can be saved worldwide over the next 15 years.{3} And of course, as New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio recently asserted when he unveiled his overhaul of the city's energy-efficiency standards for public buildings, "There's a moral imperative to act."{4}
In many ways, the global climate fight makes more sense on a city level than a national level. For one thing, so many cities are situated on a coastline and are susceptible to sea level rise, as New York found out, much to its surprise, during Hurricane Sandy. But it's not just urbanites who should be concerned about what happens within city limits: cities account for around three-fourths of global energy use and global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.{5} In addition, it may be easier to combat climate change on the city level, as mayors have a more direct policy control over such things as pollution reductions from cars, buildings and waste management. According to research by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40), a network of the world’s megacities taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, existing city commitments could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 13 gigatons C02e by 2050, in addition to any national-level policies.{6}{7} "C40 currently has membership of 69 cities, 15 of which have publicly committed to 70 percent emission reductions or more by 2050," said C40 research director Seth Schultz.
As UN Under-Secretary-General Dr. Joan Clos asserted during his keynote speech in January at the United Nations Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, "The battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities."{8}
Jack Nyman, executive director of the Steven L. Newman Real Estate Institute at Baruch College, City University of New York, which co-hosted the event with GreenBiz, sees this challenge to the world's cities as a defining moment. In his introductory remarks, he said that the "vision of urban crowding and strained resources gives us an opportunity to pause, rethink and redirect our effort." Later, as a keynote panel moderator, he noted architectural historian Vincent Scully's assertion that architecture is "a continuing dialogue between the generations." Indeed, for many of the event's presenters, part of rethinking the future of cities involves looking to the past.
Constantine Kontokosta, the deputy director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, who sat on a panel about America's urban future, recalled the late American-Canadian urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who, in her seminal 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, wrote that "lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves."{9} He also noted the "great opportunity…using these new tools of data and ways of collecting information that we can observe the city in ways that Holly Whyte could only dream of." Whyte, an American urbanist who died in 1999, was known for his pioneering Street Life Project, which studied pedestrian behavior and urban dynamics. (One wonders what Whyte—who saw the city street as "the river of life…the place where we come together, the pathway to the center"{10}—would say if he saw today's urban pedestrians constantly engaged with their smartphones.)
John Gilbert, COO and EVP of Rudin Management, one of the largest privately held property management companies in New York City, looked even further back in history. "You have to go back to the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 to really begin to envision what the modern city was going to become," he said. A symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism, the fair played an important role not only in the development of modern art and architecture, but also modern sanitation, particularly through the Lawrence Experiment Station, the world's first trial station for sewage treatment and drinking water purification, presented by the Massachusetts State Board of Health.
But surely no one in the room (or on the livestream) was expecting any of the presenters to go as far back as did architect César Pelli. (Known for designing some of the tallest buildings in the world, such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Pelli made a rare appearance with architect Rafael Pelli, his son and fellow partner in the firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.) When Nyman recalled Mies van der Rohe's assertion that "the origin of architecture is when two bricks are laid together well," the elder Pelli quiped, "I believe that architecture starts much earlier. When Adam walked out of a cave and it started raining, he picked up a large leaf and put it over his head. That was architecture."
But while protection from rain may have been the mankind's first inspiration to design his environment, today's urban planner must solve a vast array of challenges: water, energy, waste, transit, housing, retail, office space, green space. The list goes on. Where to start? "It helps to see challenges for their systemic nature," said Elaine Hsieh, VERGE Program Director and Senior Analyst at the  GreenBiz Group, in her introductory remarks. "When you see systemic challenges, you can come up with systemic solutions." Several of the presenters zeroed in on this systems-based approach.
Schultz—who sat on a panel about information, resiliency and the need for a new city executive, the Chief Resilience Officer (CRO)—noted the City Protocol Society, a global non-profit community of cities, corporations and academic institutions working to "harmonize information and data so that it can more easily flow between cities."
While some panelists discussed systems that connect cities, others underlined the growth of systems within buildings. Rafael Pelli noted the decentralization of power and waste systems from the city's infrastructure to the building. "In our own buildings we're putting in waste treatment plants to treat the water," said the younger Pelli, who was credited by his father for being the firm's early champion of sustainable architecture. "We find this now partially because you have outdated infrastructure or cities have outgrown their infrastructure; partially there's an efficiency to doing infrastructure at the scale of a building."
Gilbert pointed out the importance for next-gen buildings to have computer-based systems that can not only collect and analyze data, but offer prescriptions for reducing a building's operating costs and ecological footprint while keeping its occupants comfortable and safe. "If your iPad or your iPhone has an iOS, then why doesn't a 2-million-square-foot building?" he asked, as he introduced Di-BOSS (Digital Building Operating System), a next-generation intelligent building software that gives building engineers predictive and prescriptive information based on real-time data analysis, and which has already had a positive impact on Rudin properties. "The difference between a smart building and a dumb building is whether you learned from what happened the day before," Gilbert said.
While a systemic analysis of sustainability must ultimately involve a computer-based approach, sustainable infrastructure expert Ed Clerico reminded attendees of the power and beauty of nature-based systems. "I like the image of a tree," said Clerico, who is the CEO of Natural Systems Utilities, a New Jersey-based distributed water infrastructure company. "Instead of building linear systems, we should build metabolic systems that behave like trees. They recycle, they recover, they grow, they adapt, they're resilient. Our infrastructure systems—I'm talking about water and energy together essentially—can be distributed like trees are and we can build a forest of trees that provides us with a much higher efficiency, much more able to innovate quickly."
In terms of next-gen architecture, Rafael Pelli also sees the value in thinking about the natural world. "There's sort of an analogy emerging about how we've evolved as biological organisms incredibly adapted to heat conditions, to light conditions," he said. "Our pores open or close, we sweat, our pupils expand and contract. There's an incredible amount of adaptability in biological organisms and the sensor technology is just starting to allow buildings to have a little bit of that feedback loop where there can be a real-time adaptability." 
Others presented a more psychological, even poetic, perspective on buildings. "Great architecture is a reflection of the potential and the greatness of the human spirit," said Scott Horst, senior vice president of LEED, who presented the LEED Dynamic Plaque, a building performance monitoring and scoring platform developed by the U.S. Green Building Council.  "But great architecture isn't great if it's simply not reflecting what's happening inside the building or reflecting the humanness of the organism of the building, the organism that reflects who the people are." Nyman offered another, perhaps more aspirational, kind of feedback loop: "Buildings tell us who we are and what we want to be."
While the climate crisis may have inspired a new kind of Armageddon movie (and even a genre: climate fiction, i.e. "cli-fi"), for innovators and entrepreneurs, the road to sustainability is lined with gold (hopefully of the responsible, conflict-free kind—if that even exists). The Global Commission report found that "over the next 15 years, about US $90 trillion will be invested in infrastructure in the world’s cities, agriculture and energy systems. The world has an unprecedented opportunity to drive investment in low-carbon growth, bringing multiple benefits including jobs, health, business productivity and quality of life."{11}
As Joel Makower, founder, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group, said during his introductory remarks, "Climate change is a huge business opportunity masquerading as an environmental problem." When Makower moderated the panel on resilience, he asked about the role of the private sector in harnessing the Big Data that impact a city's resiliency to natural shocks like earthquakes as well as daily stresses like traffic congestion. Schultz said that cities "need a lot more data scientists, business intelligence processes and private sector tools" to help make the right decisions. He added that cities are incredibly competitive, and "in an increasingly global marketplace, companies can do business almost anyplace they want. It really comes down to attracting the right location for the brand and the identity of that company as well as the talent and the people there. The talent is richer if they can get people to live in a city they want to live in…so there needs to be a very close working relationship between the long-term vision of a city as well as the corporate identity they want to have."
Cliff Majersik, the executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation (IMT), who sat on a panel about the impact of data transparency in real estate, also saw the connection between data and the private sector. "Not so long ago, the market had no information about the energy efficiency of buildings," said Majersik, who helped craft Washington, DC’s Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008 and its Green Building Act of 2006. "It's critically important that we have this information, that we have this transparency. Information is the lifeblood of markets. Information is oxygen for markets. If markets don't have it, they won't value it, you won't get the outcome you want."
Market value was a primary theme during Verge Accelerate, the salon's fast-pitch competition for early-stage startups. Introduced by Emily Wheeler, the deputy director at New York City Accelerator for Clean and Resilient Economy (NYC ACRE) at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, which helps clean technology and renewable energy companies in New York City grow, Verge Accelerate allowed each of six presenters just two minutes to make their company's elevator pitch. The startups included: Ontodia, an open-data solutions firm that has developed the Pediacities, a "platform to curate, organize, and link data about cities"; Radiator Labs, which has developed a "smart, low-cost, drop-on retrofit that saves 30-40 in building heating costs"; Rentricity, which has developed a pump for "drinking water, industrial water, and wastewater operators to reduce energy costs, create resiliency, and establish smart and sustainable water grid infrastructure"; Bloc Power, an online marketplace that "connects impact investors to institutional networks of energy efficiency projects in churches, synagogues, non-profits, and small businesses in underserved communities"; Hevo, a wireless charging solution for electric vehicles; and Bandwagon, a taxi cab-sharing app.
One of the more unexpected themes of the day was the issue of urban homogeneity. Cities, said Gilbert, "constantly have to evolve. They have to morph. They have to ultimately remain relevant to what the forces are within that region." But American-led globalism has taken its toll, as can be attested by the spread of multinational brands like Starbucks, Coca-Cola and McDonald's across the world's cities.
It has also happened in architecture. The elder Pelli said that there is a lack of "any sense of character in a city...because architects all over the world look at the same magazines, read the same ideas, and the buildings that they design all over the world look the that cities are rapidly losing character. I used to love going to a different country because the things you would find in the shops are totally different. Today, you find exactly the same things whether you are in New York, Paris, London, Rome. The same is happening with our buildings. We are starting to lose character. I think that's a huge loss for humanity at large."
"Jane Jacobs said one of the most interesting aspects of a city is the element of surprise," noted Vishaan Chakrabarti, the director of the Center for Urban Real Estate (CURE) at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, who sat on the panel about America's urban future. "The problem with a lot of urban planning mechanisms she criticized that are still in place today is the idea that a city should be predictable...If you want to live in a city, you should welcome a certain level of unpredictability. And if you don't, there are lovely exurbs outside of Sacramento where every single house looks the same."
Nyman spoke of a "global paradigm shift that is changing how we view our environment and our relationship to our planet that...will lay out a plan for understanding how tomorrow's buildings and cities can be an important part of combating—and hopefully reversing—climate change." He framed this shift as a tale of two dreams. "The 20th century brought us the American dream of upward mobility, but it morphed into a wave of conspicuous consumption and consumerism that has led in great part to the crisis of climate change and income inequality," he said. "A new century demands a new dream. The time has come for a 21st-century American dream that will allow us to move from a mindset of hyper-individualism to one of shared social responsibility."
The shift can also be framed as a tale of two cities: the one that will thrive, and the one that will die. As the inaugural VERGE Salon made abundantly clear, there is hope. But achieving a sustainable future will likely require getting a bit uncomfortable in the process. At the start of the salon, Hsieh challenged the audience: "You guys are industry decision-makers and practitioners and entrepreneurs. We want you to fully engage in these solutions-driven discussions. We want it to be valuable for your work. Push yourselves to dive deeper into areas outside of your general comfort zone. Mingle with people who you wouldn't necessarily meet on a day-to-day basis. Explore topics that are new for you. That's going to help you grow and influence your thinking."
How can a sustainable American dream be developed and made a reality? "Fortunately, our millennial generation recognizes the evolving definition of the American dream," said Nyman. "They realize we must move from a focus on the individual to a focus on community."
Jane Jacobs would likely have agreed. "Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody," she wrote in The Death and Life of American Cities, "only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."
1. The New Climate Economy - About. Accessed October 6, 2014.
2. Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. "Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy Report." September 16, 2014. Accessed October 5, 2014. p. 28.
3. Ibid., p. 43.
4. Matt Flegenheimer. "De Blasio Orders a Greener City, Setting Goals for Energy Efficiency of Buildings. The New York Times. September 20, 2014. Accessed October 4, 2014.
5. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. ADP Technical Expert Meeting: Urban Environment. Statement by Renate Christ, IPCC Secretary. June 10, 2014. Accessed October 5, 2014.
6. C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, et. al. "Global Mayors Compact Shows Unity and Ambition to Tackle Climate Change." September 23, 2014. Accessed October 5, 2014.
7. To keep temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius, climate scientists warns that human activity can release no more than another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050. See: Climate Consent. "Target Concentration for CO2 in the atmosphere." Accessed October 5, 2014.
8. Keynote Speech by Dr. Joan Clos. Seventh Session of the General Assembly Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals. UN Habitat. January 6, 2014.
9. Jane Jacobs. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 1961.
10. William H. Whyte. City: Rediscovering the Center. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press; Reissue edition,  2009). p. 7.
11. New Climate Economy. "Economic growth and action on climate change can now be achieved together, finds Global Commission." The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. September 15, 2014. Accessed September 22, 2014.
image: The High Line is a 1.45-mile-long (2.33 km) New York City linear park/aerial greenway built on a section of a disused New York Central Railroad spur in Manhattan's Chelsea district. The vegetation was chosen to pay homage to the wild plants that had colonized the abandoned railway before it was repurposed. (credit: Beyond My Ken, Wikimedia Commons,