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Smart cities | Fred Ellermeier interview

Black & Veatch smart infrastructure head Fred Ellermeier

Black & Veatch smart infrastructure head Fred Ellermeier on building momentum and the need for visionaries.

Global understanding of what a smart city is, along with the foundational role of the smart utilities that serve it, is coming into sharper focus. That’s the clear finding of consultant Black & Veatch’s 2016 Strategic Directions: Smart City/Smart Utility report.

Smart, integrated infrastructure is the new big thing. It has the power to make cities more liveable in,  more sustainable and more resilient. Black & Veatch’s report details the growing awareness that technology can reshape service delivery and raise the quality of life, while better managing energy, connectivity, consumption and our finite supply of water. It applies to major metropolitan areas and small communities; large-scale power suppliers and municipal water districts. 

And it is fair to say one of the driving forces behind it, Fred Ellermeier, is pretty passionate about it.

“We’re resetting the way we look at the world and we see data infrastructure as a new world of infrastructure,” he says. Ellermeier is a Black & Veatch vice president and managing director of its smart integrated infrastructure division. He has 20 years experience in energy management, energy optimisation and sustainable design.

“What we see emerging is it all being connected: packaging of data through our apps and the world of ubiquitous telecoms – that’s the nexus of what we’re looking at,” he says.

To many it all seems fanciful, or scary, or both.

“We’ve watched our clients go through the process and there are three different phases,” explains Ellermeier. “We see many still in the realm of ‘OMG, what do I do with all this data? I can’t get my arms round this.’

“But we do see a lot of municipal customers moving to the next stage where they now know what it is and can tell what to do with it.

“But there is a stage that goes beyond that; the ‘I need more data – more sensors in my tunnels; more sensors in my pipes’ stage. That’s the exciting part.” 

We are not there yet – Black & Veatch’s report shows that.

It is built on a survey of almost 800 municipal governments and utility companies across the United States. In this year’s survey, the third it has carried out, more than 90% of government and municipal respondents said they viewed smart city initiatives as “transformational” with the potential for long-term positive impacts on cities globally. Yet, more than half of respondents said their organisation did not really understand the smart city concept.

“This is the third year we have put together the report,” he says. “We can start to see how the thinking is changing. Now over 90% of survey respondents believe they are living in an era where they are working in smart cities. Today, people accept that they can’t avoid it.

“But at the same time, the survey shows that more than half are sitting on the sidelines, not taking action.”

This points to the importance of municipalities, smart service providers and industry groups converging on a smart city definition and more effectively communicating examples and best practice from successful smart city programmes.

And, crucially, says Ellermeier, they must accept the importance of strong and visionary leadership.

“As people, we’re just really hard to convince that [smart technology] is going on around us, right now: whether it’s Über or Hive or any other app,” he observes. 

“People talk about being scared of Clouds when pretty much everything on their iPad is in the Cloud already. It’s happening quickly and I don’t think people are willing to acknowledge it.”

“We’ve got very involved in learning about what’s going on globally. It all begins with a visionary leader. That’s the driving force. It isn’t enough to stand up and say ‘where are the tech companies?’, ‘where are the smart utilities?’. It takes that person – and often it’s a mayor, a governor, or – in the case of India – a prime minister to show leadership and vision,” he says.

India is the most fascinating example and is arguably the world’s most ambitious application of smart integrated infrastructure.

The government is seeking to facilitate the creation of 100 smart cities through the Smart Cities Mission. The process has identified 98 areas for Smart City Mission funding, including 24 state capitals. In November 2015, each of these 98 areas submitted a detailed smart city proposal to the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD). The first 20 cities to receive money were named in January. A further 40 recipients of central government funding will be announced in 2017, with the final 40 being named in 2018.

But there are other visionaries. “We see a visionary leader in Barcelona,” says Ellermeier. “In the UK, London and Birmingham have them.

“Here in the US, Kansas City is one example where we are involved where the mayor is going to use it [smart technology] for resiliency and efficiency and the whole city is rallying around.

“No single city is way out in front for actual development. It is in a nascient phase. Some are better at promoting what their plans are, but the reality is we are in the early stages,” he says.

Early stages; and still very cautious.

Nervousness holds them back, as do worries around costs.

It is notable that fewer respondents to Black & Veatch’s survey this year believe smart cities will become a widespread reality in the US in the next one to five years. More believe it will be in the six-to-10-year or 11-to-15-year timeframe.

Ellermeier believes this is likely because reality is taking hold: as more municipalities move beyond the hype to building masterplans and consulting with stakeholders, they realise there is the need for more infrastructure, resources and funding than they originally contemplated.

But these barriers will be overcome, says Ellermeier.

“It really is old thinking that it is going to take six to 15 years before we see major developments in smart cities,” he says.

“There is an issue around the pace of development of technology and when do I jump in. And also available funding is very limited and restricted,” says Ellermeier. “But innovation around financing is coming.”

He cites New York City, where Black & Veatch is involved in the Google-backed LinkNYC project where every phone booth is being replaced with a connected kiosk that will provide WiFi and will enable a host of other smart things – smart parking, smart traffic management.

“It is completely funded by the advertising that will come from it,” enthuses Ellermeier.

Clearly not every town and city is going to attract the attentions of Google. “Every city has its constraints,” he accepts. “Smaller cities will say they don’t have the revenues.”

But in smaller cities this kind of move can be funded by creative financing plans, explains Ellermeier.

“First, there is the idea that infrastructure provides its own revenue stream. So, instead of investing in a street light that is a net cost, you can use the pole as a distributed antenna, for digital signage, or for a photovoltaic panel. There are ways to generate revenue off of infrastructure that would support something else.

“Look at a roadway – again instead of it just being a cost, install embedded technologies such as advanced GPS and inductive charging. These are real technologies available today,” he says.

But there is a long way to go, and some hard lessons have already been learned.

“Investment in renewable energy has grown; has been subsidised a bit; but what hasn’t been realised is the full benefit,” explains Ellermeier, “because it started on its own.

“The electric vehicles, the charging infrastructure, energy storage through lithium batteries weren’t there. It has all got to work together to make distributed renewable energy work,” he explains.

“Take the island of Hawaii. It has enacted a law that by 2045 it will be 100% renewable energy. Today, its grid cannot handle that. Things like electric vehicle infrastructure will be a big part of how that works,” he explains.

And engineers clearly have a huge role to play in making a vision like Hawaii’s a reality. And Ellermeier certainly feels that engineers must be alert to the challenge.

“This isn’t another area we could go work in: this is an area we have to go work in,” he says.

“This is a new frontier; this stuff hasn’t been around before and is going to replace a lot of what we have done before,” he says.

“And so if we want to be a sustainable business, we have to go work here,” he insists.

Getting people with the right skills and mindsets remains a challenge. Ellermeier explains Black & Veatch’s strategy: “We attack this from three different angles,” he says.

“There was a push to use some of our core competencies and apply them to this. Then we had to go and challenge ourselves to create a competency that is data. The third is to go and challenge university systems to provide us with people conversant in connected infrastructure and data.”

That’s going to be an evolving story. Meantime, as Ellermeier concludes in the report: “The question is not if, but when and how, smart programmes will work. What is happening today, and needs to continue, is the development of a better understanding of what the key smart programme pieces are and how they come together.”

As smart grids, building energy management tools, smart water meters, and other data-rich technology deployments and upgrades generate more relevant and targeted data in real-time, it is clear from Black & Veatch’s survey that municipal governments recognise that analysing and using these new insights will substantially improve city decision-making.

The challenge is to make it happen faster.


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