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In conversation: sustainability and the city

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Experts discuss the future of cities through the lens of sustainability.

Experts gathered at The Plaza hotel in New York City earlier this month to discuss the future of cities through the lens of sustainability.

The talk, organized by enterprise software company SAP, looked at challenges, models and successes through the viewpoints of policymakers, city planners, energy companies and others.

Below, highlights from the discussion and a roadmap for what cities need to consider as they plan for economic and physical growth.

A conversation with: Bruce Katz, VP and founding director of Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program

"This is an incredibly disruptive moment coming out of this recession," Katz said. "We both need to envision a different growth model for this country and ground it in the cities and metros that are the engines."

The future, according to Katz, is:

  • Powered by low carbon.
  • In an economy that's "fueled by innovation, because innovation is always a catalyst for growth."

But the primary focus should be the interplay between energy, technology and the city, Katz said -- especially because of the "fiscal overhang" in many municipalities.

"There's a competitiveness aspect from many sectors of the economy, especially manufacturing," he said.

More broadly, the U.S. really isn't the vanguard in applying current tech; rather, it leads in developing future tech, Katz said. Highlights include Seattle and other West Coast towns, which have "enormous traction" with green tech and clean IT.

How cities build out clusters have "a dramatic effect" on sustainability and jobs, Katz said.

On the policy front, Katz said the U.S. "stands apart" because "we don't have a strategic framework."

"We have to make markets," he said -- not just building on the scale of a single firm but on the scale of a city or metropolitan area.

"We run the risk of falling behind not just Germany and mature economies but China and some of the rising economies," he said. "We want to be one of the vanguards of innovation."

A conversation with: David Bragdon, director of long-term planning and sustainability, City of New York

There are five roles New York City plays as municipality, Bragdon said:

  1. Unlike Austin or Seattle, the City of New York is not a provider of electricity or gas. But it's doing its part to green operations. For one, it's using its own portfolio of real estate and vehicles as an example through the PlaNYC program, which involves 200 different retrofit projects. It's also about looking at the solid waste stream "as something other than just something that needs to just be shipped away [500 to 600 miles]" -- using techniques to convert some of that energy for use.
  2. The city is a regulator -- not of energy, but of privately owned building stock. Thus it can grease the skids for sustainability through changes to the building codes.
  3. The city is a deregulator, "particularly with regard to renewables and being able to do things with rooftops." An absence from city codes is often automatically precluded, he said.
  4. The city is a financier. "We receive $37 million in recovery act funding dedicated to energy efficiency and have lodged that in a city corporation," he said.
  5. The city is a convener and advocate. It starts with "using the mayor's bully pulpit" on issues, such as participating in federal regulatory processes, e.g. new pipeline for natural gas coming into city. The city also hosts an incubator space on Varick Street dedicated to energy efficiency startups. There's also a solar map available that uses data from flyovers performed by the city; it includes mapping tree cover, identifying where wetlands are and is a side-benefit of data gleaned from law enforcement-related efforts.

A conversation with: Steve Corneli, senior vice president for sustainability, NRG Energy

NRG has 25,000 megawatts of generating capacity in U.S., Corneli said, and sees three "game-changers" for its business: technology, the global market and domestic policy.

In the technology space, Corneli said he sees "massive change" coming from electric vehicles. Twelve manufacturers having pure grid-enabled vehicles, he said, and more are on the way.

"While they cost a bit more than a comparable-sized internal combustion vehicle, they cost a lot less to fill up with fuel," he said. "It's radically less than the cost of using gasoline."

He added: "EVs will make customers aware that cleaner is also cheaper. And cooler than the way sustainable energy is seen now."

He also sees renewable energy cost reductions in next half-decade.

"When that happens, people will begin to think that I can get electricity that's not only cleaner, but cheaper," he said.

In the global market area, Corneli pulled no punches: with regard to oil prices, there is "complete and utter dependency of American consumer on stability or instability in Middle East," he said.

"Conservation shifts from an ideal to a broad awareness that sustainable products soon will be and are becoming cleaner, cheaper, cooler," he said. "At NRG, we want to be a part of that revolution."

But it's not coming from the top, he insisted. "We actually see this as a consumer-driven revolution that's coming in the next decade."

He added: "This whole idea of distributed generation is a new platform for energy."

Finally, in the policy category, Corneli said a helping hand is still needed.

"There's a very big need for a new wave of transitional policies -- whether it's on the state, city or federal level -- to help make these changes happen and happen more quickly."

A conversation with: Scott Bolick, VP sustainability solution management, SAP

Bolick kept things simple: "It only works if it's economically viable."

For SAP, transportation -- electric cars in particular -- is a big priority, he said.

But make no mistake: whatever the kind of company, the conversation comes back to energy.

"The first level is in data," he said, such as moving from a traditional electric billing system of 12 manual readings per year to 96 digital readings each day.

Data volumes are rapidly moving from gigabytes to terabytes, he said.

"All of that data has to be integrated into underlying systems so you can make decisions intelligently," he said.

A brief Q&A session with the audience followed Bolick's remarks.

The highlights:

Bruce Katz on urban growth and America's role:

  • "Those cities and metros that have strong clean economy clusters are growing more rapidly." "synergistic" effect between research institutions, firms, governments
  • "This is such a disruptive period, when you think about five years ago." "[When you think about where China, etc. are going,] we're at the sort of shallow end of the pool."
  • "The U.S. compartmentalized this conversation in ways I think will keep us behind."

Scott Bolick on the energy crisis:

  • "The plants get it" on large scale, he said.
  • "Everybody recognizes right now that we are at the beginning. The energy crisis isn't going away."

Bruce Katz on sustainability as the savior of the U.S. industrial base:

  • "We're competing on price, quality and differentiation."
  • "I'm not sure that the American public understands that the U.S. is still a manufacturing economy. We sort of bought this narrative that the U.S. is a post-industrial knowledge economy. The interplay between manufacturing, innovation and technology is very tight. If we don't produce more in the United States we're going to innovate less. We need to get our policy act together in the United States. We're competing against countries who themselves believe that sustainability can be a differentiator. We're in a complicated, fiercely competitive global economy -- without a policy, for that matter."

Bruce Katz on the three most exciting U.S. cities right now:

  • "New York stands out, frankly, in terms of the volume of jobs in the clean economy."
  • The trend continues for large, diverse metros such as Chicago and Los Angeles, he said.
  • Meanwhile, small and medium-sized metros that specialize in production or public sector-related jobs also have "high intensity" of clean economy jobs, he said. Toledo is emerging as a solar producer. Albany, N.Y. as well, thanks to a strong presence by General Electric.
  • "All parts of the country are playing with this, irrespective of the political discourse in their states."

David Bragdon on city collaboration:

  • Learning networks among cities are becoming increasingly developed, he said.
  • "Cities are self-selecting the things that are most relevant to them" since challenges and contexts are different.
  • "Interaction among cities is really very fertile right now and quite exciting."

Steve Corneli on EVs and the city:

  • "There are a lot of consumers in Houston who want to drive electric vehicles."
  • You can solve the range anxiety problem by building a private sector network in the city, he said. "Cities are incredible centers to try new business models."
  • "How can you get to the point where clean technologies are the technologies of choice for businesses?"
  • Global cap-and-trade should happen, he said, but it might not happen. No matter: cleantech doesn't need help to be cost-competitive.
  • As the old adage goes: "People don't really want to use electricity. They just want cold beer and hot water."

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure