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10th Annual Sustainability Conference Sparks In-depth Conversation About Smart Cities

By Laura Almendinger

The 10th Annual Sustainability Conference, co-hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers – Pittsburgh Section; the Environmental and Water Resources Institute – Pittsburgh Chapter; Metro21: Smart Cities Institute, Carnegie Mellon University; and Sustainable Pittsburgh/Champions for Sustainability; was held Wednesday, March 6 at the August Wilson Center in downtown Pittsburgh.

Titled, “Smart Cities: Transforming Cities for a New Era,” it covered a broad range of subjects exploring the relationship between technology and smart city planning, including their impact on the three tenets of sustainability. Presenters discussed how they and others in the Pittsburgh region are implementing smart tech for energy grids, transportation, air quality, and more in order to achieve increased cost savings, public safety, social equity, and environmental quality.

Keynote speaker Dr. Donald Carter, Director of Remaking Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, set the stage with an overview of the prevalence and advancement of tech, from the chronology of mobile devices to the trade-off between convenience, safety, and privacy that it introduces. He touched on case studies of existing smart cities without sugar-coating the difficulties, both in planning and practice, that they’re facing. His words and the topics clearly sparked people’s interest, with many comments and questions from the audience on issues of privacy, equity, ecosystems, and how individuals can engage in the conversation as governments and corporations are making decisions that affect all of us.

Grant Ervin, Chief Resilience Officer at the City of Pittsburgh, emphasized the need to address our aging infrastructure stresses, saying that if we don’t, “they often and immediately become shocks.” He also outlined recent efforts by the City to be smarter about development and redevelopment, focusing on performance, not just appearance; these include using the EcoDistricts Protocol to implement high level strategies at the district level, such as in the Uptown EcoInnovation District, and the plans for the UPMC Vision Rehabilitation Hospital, which will see significant reductions in energy use intensity over similar buildings.

A panel discussion on the same topic followed, with local experts from the electricity distribution and research sectors explaining some of the current work on smart grids and how behavioral changes can reduce emissions, such as driving electric vehicles.

An earlier point about the world population shifting to urban areas was reiterated by Karen Lightman, Executive Director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. This is important, she stressed, because urban areas produce the majority of the world’s greenhouse gases annually, so smart cities have a vital role to play in reducing these emissions. This ties in with an increasing focus worldwide on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 70% of which can benefit from smart tech, according to Lightman.

The afternoon panel discussion further explored the roles of the SDGs and tech in the built environment and energy, emphasizing the importance of not leaving the public sector behind and sharing data and resources across partnerships. The final conversation focused on workforce development in smart cities and how, in Pittsburgh, it is currently being paired with efforts in land stewardship, innovation, and addressing youth unemployment.

Thank you to all the speakers and sponsors!

Laura Almendinger is serving as Sustainable Small Business & Community Program Coordinator at Sustainable Pittsburgh through an SCA Sustainability Fellowship. She has earned LEED Green Associate and EcoDistricts AP credentials, and is a mechanical engineer.