An on-line roundtable this month targeted on how the cities of Austin and Houston are utilizing know-how, from 3D printing to blockchain and sensible grids, to deal with their greatest challenges.
Technology corporations that need to succeed within the sensible cities market ought to begin by asking mayors what’s preserving them awake at night time, mentioned leaders on a current webinar organised by consulting firm Ignite Cities and advocacy group the National League of Cities.
Too typically, distributors promise cities the solutions to all their issues with out truly asking what their ache factors are, mentioned Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who acted as moderator.
He urged corporations to start out by asking mayors what their most urgent points are.
“It’s amazing: you start that dialogue, and you start really solving problems, as opposed to trying to back into what the [vendor’s] solution happens to be,” he mentioned.
There has actually been loads for the mayors of Austin and Houston to lose sleep over these days, following winter storms that introduced the state’s infrastructure to its knees for nearly every week in February, on prime of the continued pandemic and longstanding fairness points.
In gentle of the looming local weather disaster, Sylvester Turner, Mayor of Houston, mentioned the onus is on cities to construct resilience.
After historic flooding in 2016 and Hurricane Harvey a yr later, Houston adopted resilience measures reminiscent of flooding sensors to allow real-time monitoring and early warnings. Recent occasions have been a reminder of the urgency of the work.
Speaking on the current storms, Turner mentioned: “Even here locally, we thought we had built in a lot of redundancy with generators just in case the power went out. But some of those generators did not kick in immediately and so that did not help our situation.”
Houston is exploring a microgrid which might assist guarantee energy continuity, and plans to deploy pilot programmes quickly.
Steve Adler, Mayor of Austin, famous that in his six-year tenure, the town has confronted three ‘100-year’ storms in addition to drought and extreme flooding.
“Who would have ever thought a city our size would actually have to boil water before we could drink it?” he mentioned, including that the most recent storm marked the second time in three years, following a flood in 2018 which introduced elevated ranges of silt.
“But the frequency with which these things are now happening is just incredible. And it is mayors in so many places around the country and around the world, certainly in our state, that are really leading the charge because we’re on the ground,” Adler mentioned.
Big questions have been raised in regards to the vulnerabilities in Texas’ deregulated vitality system and the US grid extra broadly in gentle of the storms’ affect. While Austin’s energy firm, Austin Energy, generated more power than it consumed during the event, contributing again into the grid, residents nonetheless suffered badly by mandated load shedding blackouts.
Adler mentioned: “When you only look to a deregulated system, you are never going to build into it the incentives to buy the expensive insurance policy that is weatherisation or hardening the system. So I’m happy that we’re going to take a more realistic look at how we do the power grid in Texas and fix some of those structural problems.”
Austin can also be sensible metering as a part of the long-running Pecan Street Project on the 711-acre Robert Mueller mixed-use improvement within the metropolis.
“That’s yielding great information about how people live, and how people use energy that we’re using to model for greater efficiencies in our system,” Adler mentioned, explaining that the purpose is to roll out sensible meters throughout the town quickly.
“If only we had that functionality [during the recent storms] then we could have created grids and turned on and off power at particular homes or particular locations. And not only that but [we would have been] able to monitor in a much better way who had power and didn’t, because we could have done it on a really ‘micro’ basis,” he mentioned.
Adler highlighted different resilience efforts in Austin reminiscent of a 100-year water plan and tackling homelessness, which he described as “our single biggest challenge”.
Austin successfully decriminalised homelessness in 2019 by permitting homeless residents to camp in public areas. Adler mentioned this has made the matter a “huge political issue” but in addition made it extra seen, galvanising the resolve to repair it.
One precedence for the town is enabling homeless residents to raised retailer and share important paperwork and medical data electronically.
Adler believes that distributed ledger know-how may very well be the reply since Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidelines would rule out a centralised database.
“You have a lot of different systems that people are wanting to integrate their databases with… which means it is a system that is just made for blockchain,” he mentioned. “That’s exactly the premise that Bitcoin is built on as well.”
A blockchain-based resolution for homeless residents in Austin is at present being developed.
Austin can also be exploring the usage of 3D printing to deal with homelessness. Local startup Icon has begun 3D printing homes at Community First!, a 51-acre improvement that goals to ultimately home 40 % of Austin’s homeless inhabitants.
Both mayors highlighted the significance of public-private partnerships (PPPs) to get issues achieved. Houston is working with Comcast, for example, to provide nine Lift Zones for free Public Wi-Fi in addition to collaborating with corporations reminiscent of Microsoft and Intel to upskill residents and accelerate high-tech startups.
One of essentially the most important PPPs in Houston is the Sunnyside Solar Project, a collaboration with Sunnyside Energy to transform the 240-acre closed landfill in Sunnyside into one of many largest city photo voltaic farms within the nation. As effectively as offering energy for as much as 5,000 houses, the scheme goals to deal with historic environmental justice issues, local weather change, and financial improvement in underserved communities.
Adler notes that Austin is tapping extra non-public sector innovation by transferring its know-how procurement course of away from issuing bureaucratic RFPs to a extra challenge-based strategy.
“We’re finding that we get ideas we hadn’t thought of, they’re less expensive and they’re being delivered in significantly less time,” he mentioned.
However, he mentioned the primary factor he’s in search of in know-how corporations is for them to be concerned in the neighborhood. He mentioned: “I want my tech community involved in the challenges I have in the city that go beyond the ones that they have a business purpose to talk to me about.”
George Burciaga, Managing Partner, Ignite Cities, concluded the occasion, saying: “At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be thinking about the shiny box on the pole, we should be thinking about the mom and three kids under the pole.”
He mentioned at any time when Ignite begins working with a mayor, they ask three key questions: What are your three main priorities? Where’s the weak level? What retains you up at night time?
“Because we want to resolve those issues, at no cost, pro bono, to help build an idea into reality that really changes the way we connect people moving forward,” Burciaga mentioned.
Replay the roundtable: