EnLit: Smart Cities, Innovation, and Climate Change

EnLit is a new blog series that explores energy literacy topics and important conversations on science, innovation, and entrepreneurship. In this edition, we explore how cities are deeply linked to the fight against climate change.

The Promise of Smart Cities

In 2010, 80.7% of the US population lived in urban areas on only 3% of US Land. And those 214 million people in urban areas use a lot of energy. According to C40 large cities like Chicago consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and are responsible for over 70% of CO2 emissions. So if we are serious about addressing climate change, then cities and urban populations are going to be huge parts of this puzzle. Cities are also a huge opportunity. Because cities are denser, a given resource goes farther and affects more people than it would in a rural area. This means that investments in improving the carbon footprint of cities cost less and help more people.


People come to cities because of the opportunities that they provide. So the biggest challenge in tackling climate change is innovating to reduce environmental impact while still increasing the quality of life in that city. By rethinking how to move around cities, how and when to use resources, and how communities are structured cities can follow through on their promise of opportunity in an environmentally responsible way.

A Smart City is one that use connected technologies and urban planning to make the city work for its population. By taking advantage of low-cost sensors and increased data understanding, cities can leverage technology to create communities that are far better to live and work in while doing so in a sustainable manner. For example, the Chicago Array of Things project is creating a network of sensors across the city to measure heat, humidity, air quality, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels, light and noise levels. This data is then going to be made publicly available to encourage solutions through engagement with data scientists, developers, and entrepreneurs.

Data creates an unparalleled understanding of cities and how we can improve it. The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technologies (CNT) just unveiled AllTransit, “the largest source of transit connectivity, access, and frequency data in America.” This gives city officials, community advocates, researchers, and most importantly residents the ability to demonstrate where new transit infrastructure would be most effective. An MIT study of building data showed a new way of targeting buildings for retrofits that would be most effective in lowering a city’s energy usage.


building efficiency

I recently talked with Karen Weigert–Senior Fellow on Global Cities at the Chicago Council on Global affairs who recently served as Chicago’s first Chief Sustainability officer–about the incredible opportunities that Smart Cities provide.

She was most optimistic about the confluence of resources springing up to build cities that help its citizens lead more fulfilling, easier, and more sustainable lives. She pointed to the massive variety of public and private programs utilizing and creating data in cities including:

  • Retrofit Chicago is helping reduce building energy use and greenhouse gasses while creating jobs
  • Chicago NEXT is convening Chicago technology business leaders to foster innovation and develop sustainable solutions.
  • ComEd’s Smart Grid is helping transform our grid to reduce power outages and provide more data on energy usage to residents.
  • NextChallenge: Smart Cities program is a collaboration between Wells Fargo, NextEnergy, DENSO and DTE Energy to accelerate the growth of technologies benefiting urban areas.

These are just some of the most visible solutions to problems of urban living and climate change happening in Chicago.

So what is the next step?

Ms. Weigert pointed out that cities are in constant need of innovation to be able to keep up with the growing challenges of climate change. This requires fundamental research money like President Obama’s Smart Cities Initiative. The initiative pledged “$160 million in federal research and leverage more than 25 new technology collaborations to help local communities tackle key challenges such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of a changing climate, and improving the delivery of city services.”

Cities also need to support startups and entrepreneurs as they take the ideas that come out of research projects and turn them into viable businesses. Ms. Weigert noted that cities can be great locations for larger scale beta tests, research collaboration, and sources of funding. For example, Sidewalk Labs–a division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company–is proposing radically redesigning entire sections of cities and rethink the way they are connected to technology. All of these different approaches are important ways that cities can be a part of transforming the way that we live.

Cities will be the center of the fight against climate change. Success will depend on the ability to utilize data to foster innovation.

By Alex Foucault | May 18, 2016