The New Metropolis: The New Urban Pioneers

June 13, 2014, 2:29 PM UTC
Michele Taylor pick up. VTN Consulting created a 3D InfraWorks model of the above- and below-ground infrastructure in Las Vegas to help with city planning. Courtesy VTN Consulting

A small group of innovative, urban pioneers, operating in different spots around the world, are making their cha- otic cities not only more sustainable, but more vital and interesting places to live. They are, in effect, creating a template for the metropolis of the future. These forward-thinking government officials, academics, and executives have many characteristics in common. They think long term and plan out what sort of future their city might strive toward in a multitude of ways, including new ways of measuring and managing traffic, energy, and information.

As Adie Tomer and Robert Puentes, fellows at the Brookings Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative, put it: “It all starts with cities making a concerted effort to understand who they are and where they want to go.” Singapore, for example, first drafted its plan in the 1960s, and it has been followed so closely and created such an economic powerhouse that the city-state now exports its urban know-how, hosts conferences about planning, and assists cities around the world with their infrastructure issues—for a price. The plan, in other words, has created an economy unto itself.

For another approach to planning, visit Edmonton, Alberta. Its City Vision 2040 program breaks down city planning into six categories (finance, green, grow, live, move, and prosper), and then looks at what works and doesn’t work. City Vision’s growth initiative is instructive, for it considers all aspects of expansion, from the impact on Edmonton’s neighboring municipalities to current patterns of development, transportation, and land use. The Municipal Development Plan is debated publicly, which means different views and more ideas are brought to the table. More important, such transparency makes it easier for the public to buy into a plan for their city’s future.

The builders of smart cities have also learned that rather than treat the entire city as one big, expensive petri dish, Robert Moses–style, a single building or neighborhood might serve as the best test bed for trying out ideas. Boston’s Innovation District is one such example. There, 1,000 acres of South Boston waterfront has become its own talent draw, providing affordable office space, services such as Internet and office supplies and networking events.

A crucial point about these special districts is that they can exist and thrive in cities large and small. In fact, in smaller urban areas, businesses often grow even faster than they would in a vast metropolitan region, where they are one among many.

As we’ll see, some of the best and smartest cities are creating master plans, developing big-data mapping systems, and investing in Internet infrastructure and intelligent transportation systems. Here are a few examples of some of the smartest cities on the planet and the pioneers who are making it happen.

Chattanooga’s high-speed internet king

Harold DePriest, CEO of EPB.

Harold DePriest is CEO of EPB, a company currently operating the fastest public Internet network in the Western Hemisphere, fully 100 times faster than the national average. EPB stands for Electric Power Board, and it serves the greater metropolitan area of Chattanooga—from city center on out into rural farmland some 600 miles square. EPB was an electric company for 61 years before it started in on telecommunications. Today it is responsible for creating an estimated 1,000 jobs since its Internet service launched in 2009. Chattanooga’s citizens (or, at least, its marketers and boosters) now call it Gig-City for its gigabit-per-second speeds. 

Gig-City is about a lot more than fiber-optic wires. It has a startup accelerator called, of course, Gig-Tank (named after the TV show Shark Tank). Many of the new jobs have come about because small businesses, after going through Gig-Tank, relocate, drawn by the high, high speed. Most companies that end up in Chattanooga have businesses that deal in very large files that normally take hours to send over the Internet. Of the 11 teams participating in Gig-Tank this year, seven work with 3D printing and three are in health care. The 11th company does smart grid analytics—which is how EPB became an Internet provider to begin with.

During the 1980s and ’90s, the electrical grid in Chattanooga, like most grids in America, was outfitted with computers that couldn’t talk to each remotely—you had to send a technician out into the field to look at the problem and fix what was wrong. When, say, a gust of wind blew down a single tree branch onto a power line, EPB’s technicians were great at reacting and maintaining the grid. However, as DePriest put it, “we’d done all the things we could as far as tree trimming and response time goes.” It was all about getting to the problem area and rerouting the power quickly, as quickly as possible. Speed was essential. The line of thinking led DePriest back to those computers out there in the field: What if they could talk to one another? He decided that the best thing, long term, for a faster response would be to build himself a network.


An EPB technician installs fiber optic communications lines for a residential customer. Courtesy: EPB

First he had to work on changing the state law. He lobbied for one that would allow EPB to be both an electric and a communications company. In 2000, EPB launched a small telephone company. “It was a mess and took six years to get in the black,” DePriest said. “It was a pretty complex business to learn, but we learned it.”

The Tennessee Cable TV Association and AT&T lobbied against it, as did Bell South. Comcast, among others, sued. Their issue was that big government was homing in on their business or, as DePriest put it, “taking advantage of these mom-and-pop businesses”—the mom-and-pop businesses being the big telecoms. The irony was that, according to both DePriest and representatives of several telecoms, Chattanooga was uniquely positioned to undertake this task, mostly because it was so far down the list of cities where the big telecoms planned to lay high-speed fiber-optic cable.

So EPB laid its own: 8,000 miles of fiber connecting 170,000 electric meters that, via the network, send data about the grid back to headquarters every 15 minutes. Chattanooga spent $330 million on this network: $220 million in bonds, and $111.5 million in federal stimulus dollars, which it received in 2009 as part of the a wave of investments in infrastructure in the wake of the financial crisis. The next year, EPB launched a fiber network that could deliver a gigabit-per-second service for its customers, making it one of the fastest in the world, at least twice as fast as Google’s network in Kansas City. It costs about $70 a month for the gigabyte service.

The high speed is neat, but it’s also been an extraordinary business boon, and not simply for small businesses in the Gig-Tank accelerator. Last year EPB sold about $98 million in Internet services to households and businesses alike, which, DePriest said, is “more than enough to pay for what we had to borrow to get into the business.” Plus, the networked grid has helped EPB’s core business, which is still electric, considerably. The company has saved at least $1 million a year in employee overtime costs because technicians no longer need to go out into the field as often. Electricity prices for consumers would be 5% higher than they are today, DePriest estimates, all thanks to this networked grid.

DePriest said he believes the biggest difference between EPB and other telecoms isn’t, in fact, speed—it’s service. It shouldn’t be difficult to do better than the telecoms, seeing as Comcast and Time Warner Cable recently fell dead last in the American Customer Satisfaction Index, behind the likes of Bank of America and United Airlines. “I don’t think we’re atypical,” DePriest said. “Anything EPB can do, anyone else can do.”

And, indeed, cities are beginning to try. In Los Angeles, the Community Broadband Network is a grass-roots organization trying to compel L.A. to do something very much like Chattanooga, to “ensure that every Angeleno can enjoy the benefits of broadband,” and Barcelona’s “civic bandwidth” plan follows a similar model. The reality is that the Internet is a lot like electricity—businesses and households depend on it to function. And cities are beginning to notice and take matters into their own hands. 

The man who taught Helsinki bus drivers to save millions...

Michael Andersson the technical director at The Helsinki Bus Transportation Company.

Michael Andersson is the technical director at the Helsinki Bus Transportation Co. (Helsingin Bussiliikenne Oy), one of three bus lines operating under a contract with the city of Helsinki. “We have to make a profit. We have to make it on our own,” Andersson said. “But this is very low margin. The industry has been suffering a loss for many years.”

The biggest factor and the company’s greatest cost, Andersson found, was fuel, which is expensive in Scandinavia. He fixed on an idea for a system that bus drivers would not notice: one that would not require any new action by the drivers but would nonetheless track and improve their fuel consumption. “We didn’t want to put any more checkpoints on his list,” is how Andersson put it.

The Helsinki Bus Transportation Co

The Helsinki Bus Transportation Co. supplies its drivers with displays that track the G-Forces created when the bus starts and stops. Smoother driving helps save fuel and reduces accidents. Courtesy: The Helsinki Bus Transportation Company

A few years ago, Andersson began working with Joel Cherkis, the worldwide general manager of government and defense at Microsoft. Cherkis describes a lot of what he does as “new with less” and a “people-first approach,” which synced with what Andersson was looking for: something fast, cheap, and unobtrusive. Microsoft’s team built a data center for the bus company and linked a few buses—10 or 15—to send data in real time back to the building. The information was pretty basic: fuel consumption, of course, but also data about acceleration and g-force, both of which are related to fuel consumption. Slowly they added buses to the data stream until they built up to 300—not the whole fleet, but almost.

At first the drivers didn’t trust the data because they painted a picture of abrupt starts and stops. Those sudden stops and quick starts were wasting a huge amount of fuel, so Andersson developed a way to reward drivers who worked on adjusting their style by rolling into stops, pulling away smoothly, and staying off the emergency brake. Drivers received feedback once a week—a report on their driving style and fuel use. The results were extraordinary. Not only did Helsinki Bus Transportation Co. lower its fuel requirements by 5%, saving about $8 million in the first year, but customer satisfaction also rose and accidents decreased. A smooth ride, it turns out, saves more than simply fuel.

The next step, Andersson says, is to apply data collection not just to bus drivers but to intersections and traffic lights as well. By tracking and managing something as simple as the fuel consumption of its bus system, the rest of the city is now on its way to becoming more efficient and safer too. 

The 3D mapmaker: unlocking the secret of how cities work

Emma Stewart, Ph.D. in environmental science and management from Stanford University.

For the most part, we’re not very good at deciding what, exactly, makes certain cities smarter than others. The problem isn’t a lack of data or even how we go about gathering the data, but how we look at information and then decide what to do. Typically, the data aren’t flawed—we’re just looking at the information wrong. Emma Stewart, who has a Ph.D. in environmental science and management from Stanford University, teaches at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and is the head of sustainability solutions at design software company Autodesk, has a heretical viewpoint: that data and smart technology are very quickly rendered dumb by those tasked with interpreting it.

New York City can track and visualize their GHG emissions and energy and water consumption. This Autodesk InfraWorks 360 model shows how much greenhouse gas the city’s municipal building are emitting. Courtesy: Autodesk

VTN Consulting created a 3D InfraWorks model of the above- and below-ground infrastructure in Las Vegas to help with city planning. Courtesy: VTN Consulting 

We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. After all, we aren’t built to take in information the same way computers do. A lot of well-meaning technologists gather tweets and track park lights, water quality, and other information about cities, but often it’s out of context. If you were able to measure, say, all the mercury levels in a watershed, you’d still have no idea whether that level crossed a threshold or would cause mass fish die-offs. In other words, it’s one thing to collect data, but it’s an entirely different problem to try to understand what the information means.

Stewart’s idea is to create a new kind of urban map. One of the things she’s been working on in the R&D lab is virtual 3D city models that can not only understand sun paths, shadows, and weather patterns but also link up to models that will tell you what the watershed is doing or how climate change will affect the region. Better than a map, this 3D modeling could capture an entire environment—a whole simulated city—allowing business and government to test different scenarios.

Of course, such a simulation would be incredibly complex (and expensive). But real policy decisions could be made based on such a tool. In New York City, for example, officials could see exactly how the water will behave when the next Sandy strikes and could know for certain that rebuilding a tidal marsh that was there hundreds of years ago is the surest and most cost-effective means of absorbing the surge.

Welcome to the new metropolis.