The Envoy
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The Envoy

How Urban Tech Can Help the Climate Mobilization

Experts and practitioners converged on NYC to explore how tackle climate change through urban tech.

A composite image of the conference speakers and audience
Two snapshots of the summit. (Image courtesy of SCNY Urban Tech Summit)

Urban technology comes in many shapes and sizes, and they influence the lives of city-dwellers in myriad ways. Take, for example, your commute home from work: you can call a ride with an app on your phone, step into an electric vehicle when it arrives, and then use another app to turn on the heat in your apartment so it’s comfortable when you get there. These technologies have various financing mechanisms, lifespans, energy needs, and interdependencies. Together, they make up a slice of everything that’s required to keep a city operating and our lives moving, and to do so with fewer carbon emissions.

The 2022 Smart Cities New York Urban Tech Summit on October 24–25 focused on this topic with two packed days revolving around “The Climate Mobilization: Harnessing NYC’s Urban Tech Ecosystem.” Hosted and organized by Cornell Tech, the conference offered a convenient (and transit-accessible) way to reconnect in person with this community after several years of remote-only events.

Here are some themes that stood out:

The green transition will depend on new financial and financing models.

Supporting the coming generations of technologies and infrastructure requires making investments affordable and desirable across potential users — from households to businesses to governments. This will involve a combination of up-front and life-cycle incentives, payment plans, new ways to generate revenue streams, insurance that appropriately allocates risk, and structures that protect early adopters of rapidly evolving technologies. While recent federal legislation provides some of this, the green transition will need many more solutions and capital to occur at the required pace. Regional, state, and local entities — like green banks and even other forms of public banks — could become key players in this space.

Energy storage is a land use challenge.

Storage will be an increasingly in-demand use outdoors (on open lots), indoors (within existing buildings), and in garages (for vehicle-to-grid solutions). Cities need to resolve big questions around site selection and zoning, the type of leases that’ll be needed for this kind of long-term infrastructure, negotiating community perspectives and impacts, and more. Storage may also offer a solution to underutilized or lower-quality office space and real estate.

Building decarbonization will require integration to scale.

The design and construction industries are not vertically integrated, are fragmented among urban markets, and build buildings that are effectively bespoke. To achieve widespread decarbonization, there will need to be much greater integration across all of these dimensions to scale solutions and reduce costs for both new construction and rehab.

A growing number of organizations are entering this space.

There was very strong representation by venture capital firms like Perl Street, Third Sphere, and Blackhorn Ventures, some of which focus exclusively on green transition technologies, and a plethora of startups like Enerdrape, Just Air, Hydronomy, and Ninedot Energy. While Cornell Tech itself is now 10 years old, the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning had several staff attend and talk about a new urban tech degree it is launching, demonstrating an appetite for this field by universities and students. Philanthropic intermediaries like CIV:LAB, a co-sponsor of the conference, joined to present about their impact models. Lastly, there was intriguing representation from consulates and trade missions. Representatives from Canada, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, and London attended. Canada and Switzerland have New York City-based accelerator programs (the Canadian Technology Accelerator launches a smart cities cohort on November 8), and Sweden has a Sweden-U.S. Green Transition Initiative that will heavily intersect with the tech world.

Composite image of workshops and break-out groups and people having discussions.
The summit included several workshops with break-out sessions. (Image courtesy of SCNY Urban Tech Summit)

Despite the many panels, workshops, and substantive conversations that took place, the summit could have explored two areas more critically.

There was limited coverage of workforce challenges and opportunities.

Despite a dedicated panel, the event seemed to only scratch the surface of this issue and could have done a stronger job providing a more comprehensive view of this area and more humanizing insights on user journeys and personal stories that demonstrate effective approaches. Perhaps this emerged more strongly in breakout rooms, but speakers could have focused on this more to explain where we are today, where we need to be in the future, and pathways from the former to the latter.

Panelists discussed many important challenges without questioning their fundamentals and the need to change human behavior.

A common theme throughout the conference was the need to manage the growing volume of deliveries and its impact on congestion, carbon emissions, waste, and more. However, speakers didn’t spend time digging into the root causes of this issue — how much and how inefficiently people order online — and focused instead its symptoms. Just as we have become comfortable questioning the need for car-centric planning and lifestyles, we should stop taking current modes of purchasing, delivery, and energy use — among others — as givens. Driving a car alone or ordering a single item online each have externalities that civically and environmentally-minded people should seek to address. Similarly, panelists discussed the aversion people could have to battery storage being built in city neighborhoods. We have come to accept some level of risk in our places and lives, like large SUVs speeding around the city, and should have conversations around accepting some new risks, like batteries, to prevent bigger ones like climate change. Ultimately, human behavioral change will need to accompany technological change in a more sustainable, less carbon-intensive future, and we should be comfortable discussing this directly.

Throughout the event, it was refreshing not hear to hear terms like “crypto” or “blockchain” bandied about as theoretical “someday” solves for very pressing, real challenges. This indicated a focus on tangible solutions as opposed to hyped-up tech. In fact, participants often returned to the idea of trains as the most undervalued but perfectly tested urban technology.

A greener future requires better signals and interconnections. Whether it’s policymakers establishing clearer signals through incentives and disincentives, communities expressing their preferences, investors and consumers pursuing the right solutions, and different technologies integrating with each other, the flow of preferences, information, and resources will need to evolve to shape a new urban paradigm. The Urban Tech Summit is a good start in this direction.

Views and opinions expressed are my own, and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer.

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Giacomo Bagarella

Giacomo Bagarella

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Passionate about policy, technology, and international affairs. Harvard, LSE, and LKY School of Public Policy grad. All views my own.