Pittsburgh, USA, the steel town whose blast furnaces helped fuel the country's economy for decades and which suffered crippling decline when more competitive imports and changing market economics closed them1, does not spring to mind as a city in the vanguard of an environmentally smart revolution.
But in 2018, just months after its socio-economic challenges were held up by the President as one reason why the US could no longer be part of the Paris Agreement on climate change2, Pittsburgh joined five other cities in pioneering a new data-driven approach to tackling global warming. It's using Google to help forge a new future out of digital stats, not dirty steel.
Speaking at the recent HSBC Smart Cities of the Future conference, Cristiana Fragola, Director of Partnership and Government Relations for the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy (GCoM), said finding innovative ways to plan the 'adaptive capacity' of communities like Pittsburgh using robust, evidence-based tools, would trigger 'the next wave of smart cities'.
With 85 per cent of population growth predicted to take place in urban areas over the next decade and cities accounting for 40-70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions4, those tools can't come soon enough. Just creating an inventory of where emissions occur costs an administration between USD250,000 and USD700,000 and takes from one to two years to complete, according to the GCoM. Not surprisingly, of the 9,100-plus cities that it represents worldwide, including Pittsburgh, 65 per cent have yet to take that first step towards fulfilling their joint pledge to take 1.4 billion tonnes of carbon emissions a year off the global heat map by 20303.
That's why the Environmental Insights Explorer (EIE) software, which Google is helping to develop for Pittsburgh, matters. It will hopefully address the gap between carbon-cutting aspiration and delivery at a local level by dramatically expanding the data available to policymakers, publishing it on a public portal and speeding up predictive analysis that turn pledges into action.
"I definitely think that collaborations, not just between public and private, but also much better multi-level dialogue and effective regulatory frameworks, that back up cities' borrowing capacity for instance, a revenue-generating capacity, is really critical," says Fragola.
The smart city journey will 'be very much about harnessing all this technological innovation and incorporating it even better into city governments', she says. It is here that GCoM sees the real progress towards a low-carbon economy taking place.
Because while the new smart citadels of Neom in Saudi Arabia and Silicon Park in Dubai, have sustainability wired into their DNA, it's on the grimy, congested streets of our old cities that the majority of the world's population still lives. They must unpick years of legacy and change their culture to effect real global change.
For Victoire de Margerie, Vice Chairman of the World Materials Forum, successfully retrofitting cities like Pittsburgh for a smart future needs the 'collective intelligence' of man and technology brought to bear on the inherent tension between maintaining existing infrastructure and introducing new ways of living and working.
"I love my Paris Metro, for example. We know we need to retain it, but we need also to develop car sharing and autonomous cars," says de Margerie. "Technology enables solutions and people make the solutions really effective. Focus on collective intelligence first and when you have prototypes for solutions, create light regulation to speed up implementation," he said.
Dr Mikei Ieong, Chief Technology Officer at the Applied Science and Technology Research Institute in Hong Kong, agreed.
"A lot of cities are facing challenges when trying to deploy smart city projects. On the one hand, the city might not need to invest so much on large-scale transportation infrastructure but on the other (it) ought to invest in car sharing and automatous driving. It needs to pay attention to all of this."
Ieong believes intelligence in the form of AI and big data, connectivity (for example which read Internet of Things) and trusted technologies, such as blockchain and cyber security, will combine to make cities more competitive and meaningful to citizens.
Meanwhile, devices that transact on behalf of customers – allowing, for example, a smart phone to talk to their car which talks to their bank to automatically file expense claims – doesn't just make life simpler, but it also takes cost and manual tasks out of the system, changing the very nature of the financial infrastructure, which is just as important as the transport network and the energy grid.
Pittsburgh is in many ways a poster boy for urban transition. Its 300,000 or so citizens who found themselves washed up by a receding 'old world' economy can now see for themselves how above-average building emissions from industrial premises are contributing towards a projected increase in daily temperatures that match present-day LA, six degrees to the south6.
They have been smart enough to see their future does not lie in their past. Now they've just got to figure out a way to get there – collectively.
Their public policymakers will be instrumental in creating the framework for collaboration that emerges from the public debate, believes Niall Cameron, Global Head of Corporate Institutional Digital at HSBC.
"That may be fostering some wider infrastructure that can only be provided by government or it may be creating a legal data environment in which they can collaborate effectively," he said.
Either way, as de Margerie believes: "There is a role for everybody in the smart city. Everybody can bring something."
4HSBC Cities of the Future report, 2018