Friday, March 15, 2013

The Autotrophic City

BU, IBM, and the City of Boston co-hosted an amazing workshop yesterday on "Smarter Cities".  Here's my take: The biggest Smarter City challenge of all is to transform our cities from fossil fueled heterotrophs to self-sustaining autotrophs. Climate scientists give us no more than a few decades to get this done, which means we need a Manhattan Project - sized effort with all hands on deck.

Key to this transition is a transformation of our infrastructure: from being delivery based systems supplying resources from far distant sources over vulnerable supply lines - to self-sustaining systems feeding on local and regional sun, wind, water, and waste. Homes and businesses must become sites of production and sharing, and more efficient sites of consumption. The good news is that we can morph our existing life support infrastructure systems rather than start over: renewable gas from our local waste streams can be fed directly into our local gas pipeline network or can generate electricity, allowing us to draw down the need for distant, dirty fossil gas and oil. Solar, tidal and wind power can supplement the existing electrical grid, and electric vehicles can buffer supply intermittency by diurnal peak shaving and valley filling. In Boston, enough rainwater falls on the city to potentially serve a third of its water needs, providing resilience against single pipeline failures (like happened in Boston on May 1, 2010; just google "aquapocalypse" for a lesson in irresilience). For food, we'll need to supplement rooftop and community gardens with big organic from farther away.  Efficiencies of scale in food production can mean low carbon costs, even from longer distance, and we should embrace them, while still valuing the resilience conferred by local redundancy in food production.

Dovetailing the autotrophic city is the efficient city.  LED light bulbs, for example, provide ample light for a fraction of previous power.  My IBM colleague David Bartlett, who shared a panel yesterday with me, has shared some stunning statistics on the opportunities for efficiency gains.

Think the autotrophic city - even an autotrophic planet - is crazy?  Some pretty bright people at Stanford don't think so.  

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