Why Smart Cities Have Always Been About People

The skyline of uptown Charlotte, N.C. PHOTO CREDIT : SHUTTERSTOCK

In Charlotte, N.C., providing people with data is leading to real transformation.

The city of Charlotte, N.C., has, of late, been billing itself as possessing the most sustainable urban core in the nation. This claim isn’t being made lightly — and the city has vast amounts of data to back it up, thanks to an initiative called Envision Charlotte.

Leveraging the latest in smart grid technology, Envision Charlotte aims to reduce the city’s “uptown” energy consumption by 20 percent over the next five years. The project is also working toward reducing the amount of water consumed and waste generated, and improving the city’s overall air quality.

To achieve those goals will require more than just technology, said Envision Charlotte Executive Director Amy Aussieker. The idea, she said during a Feb. 10 webinar hosted by Meeting of the Minds, was to “to see if information could change behavior.”

Testing that theory led Envision Charlotte to focus on commercial buildings 10,000 square feet or larger in the city’s uptown district. Presently, 61 buildings are participating in the program, committing to reduce energy usage by 20 percent.

Visitors to any of these 61 buildings will find interactive kiosks in the lobbies that display real-time data about that particular building’s energy usage and consumption.

Those close to the Envision Charlotte program, which has been under way for the last four years, describe it as an ambitious effort to transform the city center.

“With the urbanisation of cities and strains on resource, technology’s role in managing energy and water becomes increasingly important,” said Russ Vanos, a senior vice president at Itron, a smart grid and smart distribution solutions provider and Envision Charlotte partner, during the webinar. “City leaders and citizens need the tools and technology that’s now available to take information and turn it into something useful and to take action.”

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Aussieker said Envision Charlotte is working because it was created through what she called a public-private-plus partnership, meaning that it’s not just local government and a private-sector partner collaborating, but a consortium of partners that includes companies like Itron, Cisco and Verizon, as well as local utility Duke Energy and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

Since its inception, Envision Charlotte has yielded an 8.4 percent reduction in energy use among the participating buildings, the majority of which is directly related to behaviour changes spurred by data visualisation.

The gusto with which Charlotte citizens have embraced the program has been one of the biggest surprises, Aussieker said.

“The most interesting thing about the data is that people actually genuinely care,” she said. “I’ve been very surprised in Charlotte. When you look at data through a smart city, just educating consumers, building managers, you don’t have to pay them to be more efficient with water and energy. They genuinely care.”

To make it even easier for people to be engaged, Envision Charlotte and the University of North Carolina last year implemented what they term “energy roundtables,” in which professors and students meet with property managers to analyse energy usage data and give unbiased information about how to reduce energy consumption. UNC Charlotte has also begun to offer courses for property managers to learn about their IT systems so they better understand their buildings’ energy usage.

Along with engaging the public, better energy data is resulting in positive financial news for the city, making it relatively easy to involve city leadership and local business.

“It’s been about economic development,” Aussieker said. “When you can point to the results we have – $10 million in savings – that gets city elected officials’ attention. If it is cheaper to do business in Charlotte, then more businesses will move to Charlotte.”

Envision Charlotte is about using data to change behaviour. Cumulatively, many small changes in behaviour add up to big-time energy savings. Aussieker shared one anecdote about a particular building in the Envision Charlotte program.

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“Some of the data revealed we had one building where the CEO had 20 years ago set the thermostat to drop at 10 a.m. in a particular board room every day,” she said. Over time, this very ordinary thing became a $40,000 expense that has now been identified and corrected.

On the waste side of things, a recent audit found 44 million pounds of waste were leaving uptown Charlotte buildings annually. Envision Charlotte worked with IBM to analyse waste data and discovered buildings were collectively paying to have $100,000 worth of recyclables taken away every year.

Defining what makes a city smart depends on who you ask. Envision Charlotte seems to believe a smart city is one that uses data to create a more-informed citizenry. And when people have better data at their disposal, they tend to make better decisions – to be smart, in other words.

“If you can truly visualize data … I’m interested to see how that can change things and makes sense to people,” Aussieker said. “When people are aware, their behaviour changes.”


This feature originally appeared in GovTech by Chad Vander Veen.



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