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Seoul CUD conference: urban climate change solutions

21 May 2009
Seoul CUD conference: urban climate change solutions

By Molly Webb, Head of Smart Technologies, The Climate Group.

Seoul is welcoming 200 delegates from 24 countries to the Connected Urban Develoment conference hosted by Cisco this week. Companies like Cisco, Arup, Gail international, cities like Toronto, Lisbon, Amsterdam are all here showing off how they will be winners in the low carbon economy.

90% of Seoul's emissions come from buildings and transportation sectors, says Sangbum Kim, Assistant Mayor of Seoul. Their aim is to reduce GHG emissions by 25% by 2010 against 1990 levels. They are also aiming for 15% energy efficiency by 2010 and 10% renewables by 2030. Citizens of Seoul are concerned about transport for both health and environmental reasons, so bike paths and extensions of the public transport systems are planned. In transportation alone, Seoul officials expect to have 35% reduction in GHG emissions by 2020, faster than expected.

The main thing you notice when walking around Seoul is that you can't cross the street - you have to go underground (long steps!) and come up on the other side on main intersections (that, and the fact that your hotel room comes with a mobile phone). It is very car friendly. Will this change much due to the new policies? It will likely take a while, though it looks like they are installing 111 more crosswalks by 2011. Other policies might help a bit, ie. citizens are also given a reduction in auto taxes if they choose not to drive 1 day per week.

What's the theory behind all this? Carlo Ratti at MIT is the brains behind SENSable cities lab at MIT. We've come along way since 1993 when the first browser was launched, he reminds us. We are connected (virtual) and getting more urban (physical) than ever - broadband did not cause cities to die as Gilder predicted in 1995. Are we on the way to an 'internet of things' where the virtual and physical are more fully merged? MIT says yes, and demonstrates this by using mobile phone data to track how citizens are reacting to events like the world cup. But what we need is 'real time feedback' so citizens can see movements through the city and make decisions accordingly. Can a city behave like a 'real time' control system? Sounds like Foucault with a digital interface. But MIT calls it citizens who are 'actuating'.

MIT are piloting real-time well designed bus stops that give you exact times for bus arrivals (not rocket science but they make it look beautiful). In Copenhagen in December (for COP 15), they will be showing bicycle traffic and how technology can increase bicycle traffic even more. Sensors on bikes show how much you're exposed to pollution, and show your position through facebook so you can calculate your personal footprint and track your 'green miles' throughout the year. Carlo claims Obama and others will be riding the bicycles during the summit! Hope they wear their helmuts.

This afternoon we'll visit Seoul's transportation unit, TOPIS, to see transport data in action...

San Francisco Environment Department Director Jared Blumenfeld launched the urban ecomap today. The main aim is to allow citizens to reduce transport, energy and waste by zip code, comparing between zip codes and between cities (it is only in SF and Amsterdam at the moment). It allows you to 'shame people' into not using SUVs. And imagine if you could compare SF with New Delhi? We'd have a totally different view of our actions.

This is the first tool that allows you to see aggregate action on climate change in the city. Getting data is crucial to making this work, and relies on partnerships. This helped SF learn that they should focus on solar thermal rather than photovoltaics, because gas use for heating hot water was not being reduced.

Ludger Hovestadt, E-Planet Initiative, is an architect and computer scientist is to interface technologies to an everyday context. He hates the 'threat' message and believes the power of computing, science will lead to abundance in energy production.

But making the vision a reality has its hurdles. In a breakout session on modeling and services we get into the detail of the difficulties of gathering bottom up data. I don't know if this type of activity will take more or less time than we think - ie 3 years or 12? In Switzerland, they already have trasnport completely connected so that people can track their routes easily. In the UK, every home will have a smart meter by 2020. So it might be less about the data and more about the interfaces with the data that allow easier decision-making.

Earth science modeler from Nasa, Steve Hipskind, has a secret: He has lots of data that is a little-known but is a publicly available resource. Satellites, high altitude unmanned aircraft plus sensors on the ground coverge to provide very high resolution data. The modeling and ecological forecasting (TOPS) work they are doing is a mashup of all this data with energy, weather and climate models using the 3rd-fastest super computer in the world to give you real time maps of environmental impacts. Info on drought impacts, agricultural productivity etc can be regionalised or localised. What you see is that - surprise surprise - water is the next big thing. Nasa can show projections of soil moisture for the California vineyards (by plot, not only by vineyard!) - god forbid our wine industry is ruined by climate change! These tools will be crucial for adaptation. I hope we can apply it to mitigation soon enough.

Mayor of Toronto David Miller is passionate about connectivity and smart grid. He shows what look like the same photo in summer and winter but which is in fact two photos, one of Moscow and one of Toronto, to highlight his point that similar solutions may be posssible if we can communicate across citiies in the right way. He's also a fan of entrepreneurship and creativity, which is what they'll have to do if they hope to meet their ambitious emissions and waste targets.

One such application may be Cisco's planetary skin. This launched in March officially, but will take a number of years to get to the point where it is most useful. It addresses the third in the following key needs for tackling climate change:: (1) pricing carbon (2) unlocking financing for mitigation and adaptation and (3) developing the institutions around monitoring reporting and verification (MRV) infrastructures that allow 1 and 2 to be operationalised. Planetary skin is about allowing decisions to be made based on all the data Nasa collects. What will this look like in practice? In a rural area, this might be ecosystem modeling of carbon so priorities in financing can be more easily agreed. Nasa also got US stimulus funding to blanket California with sensors and create a 'water skin' to assess threats of drought and options for climate change mitigation.

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