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Cities: Emerging Technologies and Impacts After COVID

Updated: Mar 7, 2022

Cities as we already know, are complex, they will become home to 60% of the global population by 2030. Cities are already the epicentre of some of the largest environmental impacts carbon emissions, transport resources, and hence present some of the biggest opportunities for impact. So what must we consider? Could we look at cities from an emerging technologies perspective? How can disruptive technologies and advancements help us tackle emissions waste or transport? And what are cities already doing?

Rohan MacMahon has spent over 25 years in commercial and Not For Profit fields with deep expertise in strategy, technology, reputation and sustainability.

His experience includes management consulting at Accenture, executive roles at Telstra Australia and running an ICT start-up. More recently in Aotearoa he was strategy director at Crown Fibre Holdings, the New Zealand Government’s broadband investment agency (now Crown Infrastructure Partners). In 2017 he formed Wollemi Consulting which provides strategic planning, commercial due diligence, digital technology and sustainability advice to a variety of clients.

In 2020 he took up a role as a founding partner at the Climate Venture Capital Fund, a new fund aiming to provide capital towards firms which are developing low emissions technologies, to accelerate emissions reductions and help mitigate climate change.

Rohan has a longstanding interest in conservation, works on several projects to manage mammalian predators such as rats and stoats which are damaging New Zealand’s native species, and likes planting a tree or twenty in his spare time. He also chairs the Auckland social services agency Lifewise, and is director of the Auckland Street Choir.

Climate & Cities

Cities are obviously big sources of emissions, and greenhouse gases and all kinds of pollution. But they're also sources of fantastic opportunity. Because of the fact that people are in such density in cities, they allow us to do things in new ways. And they can be the places where innovation starts. So in many ways the climate crisis has to be resolved in cities just as urgently as it does elsewhere.

An emerging technology lens applied to cities could help us solve climate challenges. For example, the idea of a sensing environment or the Internet of Things. Now we have three or four devices per person. And obviously a whole lot more than that, per household. We can sense our local and natural environment through small chip style devices, whether it's on light poles, whether it's on bus stops, on small cells for telecommunications, in walkways and streams, on beaches, or major buildings. These sensors can give us a lot of great information on, for example, pedestrian traffic, vehicular traffic, and climate indicators. Whatever the technology, from the point of view of sustainability and climate, it's going to generate a whole lot more data about what's around us. And when we have that data, if we use it the right way, we can make more intelligent decisions in terms of the design of our cities, and the operation of our cities - for future planning and risk mitigation

The right data management that's going to interrogate those data sets that are being generated by this sort of sensing environment, can help us make effective decisions for city planning. I do think it's worth noting that there's some real downsides to that as well, there's certainly major privacy and security issues associated with a lot of this sort of data. And we're only at the very beginning of teasing out some of those issues. The smart city concept is the start. Real impact emerges from the actions and initiatives that result out of the data and insights. Cities are not particularly effectively run, they are run as a bit of a tragedy of the commons. Once road infrastructure is built there is no mechanism to reduce congestion as there's no additional cost to you in being the second car and the third car and the fourth car. And so eventually the road gets clogged up. So a congestion pricing or demand pricing model for roading networks would give us a more efficient transport network. It would also if it was done the right way, it could encourage people to use mass transit, whether it's train or bus wise or the like. And you could build into that view of what the impact on carbon emissions would be. In Auckland the Harbour Bridge was shut down due to high wind and so trying to integrate the information about the weather conditions into the transport networks planning is important.

The Visual Capitalist has a great infographic that presents IoT applications in a Smarter City Context:

A Digital Twin of a City

Can data build a picture of a city with proper governance and proper security? This digital twin will really help us view the city from a systems perspective. But questions remain on how that could work out in a city, like Auckland or other cities around New Zealand for several reasons. We have separation between our local and central government authorities. Here in Auckland, for example, we also have separation between a local council and the council control organizations that run our water network and our transport network. So there's some bridges to be crossed there. I also think there's a really important divide between public data and private data. If you're thinking about transport, for example, how much interesting data is held by Uber? How much interesting data is held by other private organizations? And would they wish to participate in that scheme? What would be the benefits for them? And if they chose not to, could you get a true integrated environment across those different parties? And I think you're going to bump into very, very quickly, you're going to bump into privacy issues and security issues, once you're trying to, to achieve that, so that the digital twin idea is really interesting. A utopian data future is not upon us just yet. And that we're probably more likely to muddle along for a little while longer.

Cities and Waste

New Zealand is not performing well on waste. For a very simple reason at the moment, it's simple. too cheap to pollute. And so a lot of waste is going into landfill because that's just the cheapest and best option for it. And in fact, the problems got worse a couple of years ago as China refused to accept waste exports from other countries. And so we now have more and more of our own waste on our doorstep, which of course, is where it belongs. From the composting environment. Auckland Council, for example, is starting curbside compost collection next year. So that will be important for consumer compost, which is a big source of methane emissions in landfill is obviously a very carbon unfriendly climate unfriendly thing to have happening right through to the less organic side of the waste streams, where things like building waste is disposed of, in New Zealand at a very high rate, and we need to become more efficient at that. Waste to energy type projects are starting to come on stream. On the other hand if the infrastructure is set up for them, then waste elimination or circular solutions are not incentivised.

Cities and Habits

Covid 19 has pushed us back from cleaner better habits. One example is COVID restrictions did not permit people carrying their reusable cups into cafes. Single use plastic is back with a bang, mainly for safety and hygiene conditions. But this is where we need to look at better options as some of these concerns are probably going to be with us for a few years. It's good to encourage our suppliers and our retailers and indeed the government to keep helping us to find better options. So to take the example of plastic it's it's very cheap and convenient. But there are alternatives and there are people working on biodegradable packaging that would be just as COVID friendly as your plastic gum container but have a much lower environment environmental footprint. So hopefully we can explore some of those things. On the topic of habits and remote work -- because remote working has been possible, and in many cases, pretty easy, for at least 20 years, probably quite a lot longer. The technology has got a whole lot better but more importantly the culture around it has changed. So some of that change towards more remote working will be permanent, not all of it, because we're a sociable species, and we don't get quite enough out of our zoom calls.

Cities with a culture for innovation

The best cities are probably ones that have the right sort of design principles and the right ethos in their people. And those principles, if you like, translate into a goSome of the Scandinavian cities, for example, it's probably not a coincidence that they're known to be technologically innovative places. So culturally, they have a lifestyle, that term that is often reasonably green. And their culture is that they don't mind innovating, they're happy to use technology along that pathway. So we saw that technology is an enabler, but it's not a thing of itself. Can we be doing that more here in New Zealand? I absolutely think we could. Why aren't we doing more of it, I think it's just a combination of a whole range of things that are getting in the way. New Zealand's always a busy place in terms of things that are happening to cities, we've had earthquakes and terrorist events and weather events and the like. So it's a huge challenge. Our built environment is a good example where we have ended up with a housing stock that's relatively low quality, we've got a lot of endemic health issues amongst our people, because we haven't insisted on the right standards of insulation and heating and the like. And so what's the role of technology and helping that? Well, there are absolutely technologies that are out there that are looking to improve the quality of housing stock as a retrofit, but also can be used to, you know, to help accomplish what a number of New Zealand cities are trying to do, which is to go up rather than out.


Listen to Rohan's podcast here:

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