Smart Cities: Getting Greener, and Making Money Doing It


Another week, another smarter city conference. “It’s the creation of a new industry!” Cisco’s chief globalization officer, Wim Elfrink, exclaimed on stage last night at the opening of Global Green Cities of the 21st Century, this week’s stop on what is rapidly becoming a conference circuit populated by mayors, architects, academics, consultants and financial types all struggling to understand just how we’e going to build (and make money building) smarter, greener cities on a scale that’s practically unimaginable–according to a recent study from the Lincoln institute, humanity’s urban footprint is set to double in just 19 years. (Full disclosure: Fast Company is the conference’s media partner.)

The scope and scale of what’s on the drawing board in places like India–which expects to grow at 9-10 percent for the forseeable future while urbanizing 350 million villagers–was hammered home during the opening session by Amitabh Kant, the CEO of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor Corp., which is planning to build not one, not two, but twenty-four “smart, sustainable” cities of as many as 2 million residents each lining a freight rail corridor between India’s largest cities. “Cities don’t happen in ten years,” he said blithely. “They happen in 25 or 35 years,” or considerably longer. “But if you build them in phases, you can build the first phase in seven years…” So think of it this way: the world is currently in phase one of an urban transformation.

Once the speakers waded through the headline stats–humans are officially more urban than rural; consumption of just about everything is projected off the charts–these challenges were quickly reframed as huge opportunities. “It’s all up for grabs,” Elfink told me beforehand, outlining the broad areas on which he and the world’s largest networking firm (whose ambitions I’ve written about at length) are focused on: thought leadership (hence this conference), smart regulation, and global standards. “Cities that pioneer these concepts will create a new industry,” Elfrink told me.

Speaking to that point was California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, who proclaimed “this is the job creation issue of our time. There isn’t a sector like the green-tech sector. It is the one outperformer out there in a state with 12 percent unemployment.” A billion dollars invested in a coal plant created 890 jobs, he said, citing a recent study. A nuke creates 1,500. But retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency creates 7,000. “This is our ticket to broad-based economic growth,” he said. In addition, it creates skills exportable worldwide. “When I go to Shanghai, it’s like homecoming,” Newson crowed. “All the architects are from San Francisco.

The other words on every speaker’s lips was “public-private partnerships,” i.e. private sector investment in infrastructure in exchange for a future cut of savings or revenue. India in particular hopes to raise $500 billion from private investors. Indian parliament member Rajeev Chandrasekhar briefly described plans to fund public services in Bangalore that way. (Cisco’s most recent smarter city deal, this one with Barcelona, is also structured as a public-private partnership.)

But the most interesting story was Singapore’s, which suggests what it really take to save the world isn’t new financial instruments or technology, but really, really good marketing. How else will you convince people to save water by drinking from their toilets? “First off, we don’t call it toilet-to-tap,” muttered the CEO of Singapore’s Public Utilities Board, Teng Chye Khoo. Oh, but it is. “NEWater,” introduced in 2002, is wastewater, i.e. sewage, which undergoes triple filtration, including reverse osmosis through General Electric’s ZeeWeed membranes. The result is technically cleaner than Singapore’s other sources of drinking water, but try selling that to the public. So they bottled it instead, requiring public officials to drink it in public and rave about the taste. They also opened a children’s museum to teach people how reverse osmosis works. Nearly a decade later, Singapore produces 30 percent of its potable water this way.


“We’ve turned water from a strategic weakness into a strategic strength,” Teng said. It’s also made Singapore a world leader in water recycling. “We turned it into an industry.”

[Image by Stephane Martin]

About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world.