When sustainability becomes a duty
Being smart means a lot of things to Annie Xu Hongyan, the senior vice-president for the Smart Cities initiative at Schneider Electric, a French energy management company that offers infrastructure solutions to new urban problems. It means not sacrificing long-term thinking for short-term wins, being pragmatic when it comes to managing the environment but also knowing when to get personal. “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children,” says Xu, referring to a well-known idiom to explain why sustainability matters to her.
An aeronautic engineer by training, Xu grew up in a mid-sized Chinese city that like many in the rapidly changing country has seen the impact of climate change first hand. Xu says the butterflies she once saw in droves as a child can now only be found in museums. But while the no-nonsense executive admits that sustainability is personal, it is also something she views as a duty.
“It’s the right thing for any company to do,” she says.
In keeping with that approach, Schneider is working with more than 200 cities around the world to improve the management of power grids, traffic mobility and water systems through the use of new software. “The end goal is to help cities worldwide become more sustainable, efficient and livable,” says Xu, who is based in Hong Kong.
She explains that, while cities make up only about 2% of the earth’s surface, they account for 50% of the world population, 75% of global energy consumption and 80% of carbon emissions. The challenge, she says, is to “tip the balance” between increasing urban capacity and reducing carbon emissions.
Schneider works closely with the European Commission’s smart city working group to help further its research and development. It is also engaging smart city projects in places such as Chicago and Barcelona, says Xu.
The challenge is getting involved with cities early. “We’re trying to promote a dialogue before the master plan even starts, to engage the technical players, because they can bring in their technical expertise to be part of the design process,” Xu explains. That requires a change in behaviour, from one where the public sector handles all city developments to one where officials seek input from private players.
It is also where leadership becomes important, says Xu, noting the need for government co-operation along with relevant policies that support smart cities and sustainable solutions. Support for the use of renewable energy, for example, would reduce production costs and make it more attractive for private sector players to invest in the industry.
“As a private sector player, we need to work very closely with the government to make sure we have a creative business model and a funding model behind that,” Xu says. As an example, she cites how buildings could use technology, such as more efficient heating, cooling and ventilation systems and low-energy lighting, to improve their power use.
Mass public transportation or tolling and congestion charges could produce a 15% reduction in gridlock, she explains. In Mumbai, Schneider’s traffic management system has helped reduce travel times by 12%, while smart grid solutions in Singapore have helped the power utility respond more quickly to electricity outages. Xu says there are at least 10 active smart city projects in the planning phase in China.
“The Chinese government is very good in execution,” she says. “That is the same story in Singapore. They are relying on the private sector to come out with a business model which will push the city or the country” towards sustainability.
In emerging markets, however, the risk is the lack of technical expertise to ensure that whatever sustainable solutions the government implements are integrated and can work, she adds.
Xu has plenty of experience to go on, having spent more than 10 years in Europe and also travelled to a range of urban areas – from mega-cities to cities so small their “entire population could fit in one mall in Hong Kong”, she says, laughing.
While there needs to be more discussion about the costs and benefits of sustainability, Xu says she sees more smart city activities, such as blogs and other initiatives aimed at spreading awareness – which is a good sign people are getting conscious about the need for environmentally focused growth.
“I think sustainability lots of times is about common sense,” she explains. “It requires creativity, again coming back to the point of having a dialogue, to really discuss what are the options and not be afraid to talk about that.”
Article from Guardian