How technology can reduce consumption in cities

Sarah Murray
Journalist, Financial Times/Economist Group
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Key takeaways:

  • Consuming 75% of the world’s resources, cities are looking to technology to transform urban consumption.
  • Given that cities do not have direct control over all urban services, use of policy tools and collaboration with the private sector are vital.
  • Technology will enable far greater participation of urban residents in managing consumption of resources.

Using an environmental dashboard, citizens of Oberlin, Ohio, can track in real time the city’s electricity and water use as well as their own. The project’s designers want to show how technology can help monitor and manage urban resources. What the dashboard also demonstrates is that, as cities adopt everything from smart meters to web-enabled sensors, technology will demand a more decentralised approach to urban resource management.

Cities are big resource consumers. Occupying just 3% of the world’s surface, they consume some 75% of its resources, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. They also generate 50% to 80% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and half of global waste.

Keen to reduce this footprint while cutting costs and managing the demands of rapidly expanding populations, cities are exploring how innovative, smart infrastructure could transform resource productivity.

Reducing energy consumption is one priority. And here, technology offers a suite of powerful management tools, with smart-grid technology at their heart. Working with Entergy, a US energy company, the city of New Orleans has developed “SmartView”, an advanced metering infrastructure project aimed at optimising energy demand. The pilot programme has helped 4,700 low‐income consumers improve their energy management and reduce their bills through rebates for reduced consumption during peak periods.

Meanwhile, as part of Future City Glasgow—a $37.4m (£24m) technology initiative designed to show how technology might make cities smarter, safer and more sustainable—the Scottish city is looking at how it might turn derelict or vacant sites owned by the city council into mini solar farms that could feed energy into the grid. Sites being examined include the city’s former meat market, sites where sale by the council has been stalled by economic downturn and brownfield sites too expensive for redevelopment but with potential for solar installations.

The gains from technology deployment will go well beyond the energy sector. For the Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, sensors and intelligent meters are helping authorities distribute water more equitably and keep track of spikes in use, whether from leaks or illegal water use. The hope is to make a substantial reduction in water losses—currently about 45% of the supply—while improving revenue collection by more than 10%.

Upgrading of infrastructure for the digital age is no easy task. And the obstacles cities face should not be underestimated. Not only is it counterproductive to install technologies such as smart meters before ageing infrastructure—such as outdated substations—has been modernised, it is hard to turn off the power while upgrades are being installed.

In addition, municipal authorities may have only a limited direct influence over infrastructure. While about 75% of mayors have control over residential waste collection and city transit systems, for example, only 50-60% manage water supply and waste treatment and just 15% control city power supplies.

Cities, therefore, also need to encourage resource conservation through partnerships with the private sector or use of policy tools. Buildings, which generate about 40% of the world’s carbon emissions, are a case in point. While city authorities can use smart technology to manage consumption in public buildings, policy levers such as building codes or audit requirements are also needed to prompt investments by commercial or residential owners in the technologies that support efficient, green buildings.

Since 2010, for example, all New York City buildings of more than 50,000 sq ft have been required to enter their energy use—along with water consumption and other building information—into an online benchmarking system. In September of last year, Bill de Blasio, the city’s mayor, announced a plan to bring the threshold down to 25,000 sq ft, adding an additional 16,000 buildings under regulation.

Such regulations benefit both the city, which can encourage practices that lower the city’s environmental footprint, and developers and owners, who can charge rent premiums for green buildings that offer lower utility bills and can attract corporate tenants wanting to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability.

Technology may even allow cities to promote efficient resource consumption by changing the way its residents access services. Gartner, a technology research company, foresees a time when “citizens could hedge or auction through eBay, or other trading platforms, their energy and resource consumption or carbon emissions”.

Already, urban residents are playing a bigger role in resource management, partly by adopting more efficient lifestyles but also by contributing to the pool of environmental data city authorities can access. Take the Copenhagen Wheel, an e-bike add-on developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Senseable City Lab; this device helps cyclists capture and store the energy they generate. While cycling, the wheel also captures real-time data such as local pollutant concentrations and traffic information that can, in turn, be fed into a citywide database—helping the city optimise traffic flows and minimise associated pollution.

Meanwhile, Tel Aviv has combined its citywide free wi-fi with an app that connects citizens digitally to its city services. The service, called Digi-Tel, not only informs citizens about cultural events, sports facilities or road closures, it also helps increase use of public transport such as bike-share schemes and provides the city with a real-time digital map of the quality of services in the city—an innovation that won it the 2014 World Smart Cities Award at the Smart City Expo and World Congress in Barcelona.

For cities, all this means a change in mindset. Traditionally, municipal authorities have taken a centralised, command-and-control approach to resource management. The advent of digitally connected citizens empowered with real-time data and able to manage their own consumption represents a shift that goes far beyond technology.

This post first appeared on GE LookAhead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Image: A man walks past buildings at the central business district of Singapore. REUTERS/Nicky Loh 


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