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US Conference Highlights Economic Benefits of Smarter, Safer Cities

With urban upgrades a focus of everything from the Shanghai Expo to PRC government policy, one US-based conference has been looking at the financial rewards for cities that use new technology to tackle municipal challenges.

Photo: Cloud-enabled digital permits from Passport Parking.
Cloud-enabled digital permits from Passport Parking.
Photo: Cloud-enabled digital permits from Passport Parking.
Cloud-enabled digital permits from Passport Parking.

Smarter, safer and more efficient cities have long been the Holy Grail for many nations, both developed and developing. Indeed, the subject provided the over-arching theme for the Shanghai Expo 2010, one of the biggest trade/consumer events of the 21st century to date. It is perhaps only fitting then that the subject should merit its own dedicated event – the Congress of Cities and Exposition in Austin, Texas.

This saw political leaders, civil servants and business leaders gather to discuss the latest theories, technologies and techniques on offer from a range of service providers, all aiming to cut city spending and empower citizens. Overall, many at the conference were at pains to make a clear case for the economic benefits of fashioning a better urban environment. Such moves, it was said, don't just provide an improved quality of life for citizens, but also attract new residents and tourists, in turn attracting higher levels of spending and investment.

Kristi J Avalos, president and Chief Executive of Accessology, based in McKinney, Texas, works with local and national governments to produce and implement accessibility policy for disabled residents. Focussing on the importance of access-friendly infrastructure, she said: "All countries now have a minimum access standard. I do a lot of work for foreign governments, including writing Peru's disability legislation. One of the things that we tell our clients is that, if they are relying on tourism, the US alone has over 59 million people with disabilities.

"Once you make things compliant, you are then inviting that tourism market. It's easy to advertise to the disability community because they're honestly going to go wherever they're welcome.

"Right now, Disney World is the most accessible place on the planet. Disney World markets that, but you can only go there so many times in your life. So we work with foreign governments to help them understand the marketing opportunities."

Improving residents' experience of a city can, at the same time, help to cut costs for local authorities. David Singletary, a Sales Executive for Passport Parking, a North Carolina-based coinless parking meter service provider, said: "For the city, operating a digital platform in the Cloud is way less expensive than a coin meter. The business model that we implement involves no cost for a city. The way we make money is through a convenience fee paid by the parker per transaction.

"As a user, if you're parking, instead of having to carry around change, you can pay on a credit card linked to your account. You can extend your time remotely instead of having to get back across town to plug the meter with coins. You can then offer things like digital validation. This means a restaurant or a shop can pay for your parking retroactively after you've already started paying. For a parker, it offers huge convenience.

"Our biggest installation, right now, is in Chicago, which has 36,000 spaces. Toronto's going to come online in a few months with 55,000 spaces. Inevitably, someone will get into the Asian market, but our eye right now is on the US because it's wide open."

Passport Parking is not alone in prioritising the North American market for the roll-out of new technology designed to improve urban living. Proterra, based in Greenville, South Carolina, for instance, has taken an entirely new approach to battery-powered buses for urban transport.

Mike McKahn-Jones, Director of Sales for the company, said: "We're currently selling into the US and Canada, but plan to expand into Europe in the near future. Our buses have a higher capex but lower opex then conventional diesel powered units. Buses are typically run on a 12-year cycle – over that period we can save an average of US$365,000 over a standard diesel powered bus.

Photo: Proterra’s greener bus.
Proterra's greener bus.
Photo: Proterra’s greener bus.
Proterra's greener bus.
Photo: SeeClickFix: Remote repair reporting.
SeeClickFix: Remote repair reporting.
Photo: SeeClickFix: Remote repair reporting.
SeeClickFix: Remote repair reporting.

"Looking at most buses, they spend all night in the depot, then all day on the road. To build a bus with enough battery capacity to run all day would make it too full of batteries to be efficient, so we changed the concept, and put the charging points out on the bus route.

"It takes just 10 minutes for a full battery charge, with a five minute charge being enough to power a typical bus route. Charging, then, can fit in with driver breaks and normal usage, so there's no interruption of service.

"Performance is actually better than a diesel bus, with faster acceleration off the line – and, because there's no tail pipe, there's no emissions. Anything that still has a tail pipe is still going to give you emissions."

Another company reinventing existing technology to better suit municipalities and citizens is SeeClickFix, based in Newhaven, Connecticut. Explaining the concept, Tucker Severson, the company's Government Partnerships Manager, said: "SeeClickFix is a citizen relationship management platform. It is designed so that citizens, elected officials and city staff can use a mobile app to take a picture of an issue – whether that's a pothole, a broken street light or graffiti – and route it into the city. It then gets captured, and reported into the public space, ensuring that other residents can see what's already been reported.

"You are getting citizen engagement. For most municipalities, if you were to look at a pie chart of where service requests come from, probably about 70% of it is phone calls or walk-ins. After they roll out SeeClickFix, about 50%or more of the requests are self-service generated and it's usually a broader audience of people, not the same 20 reporting everything.

"It's hard to put a hard ROI on cost savings. The big time savings are for cities that have antiquated systems, where someone calls up and says: 'This wasn't fixed'. They then have to work backwards to work out what actually happened, instead of having a CRM that easily shows the status of things."

Managing the problems of urban decay and deliberate damage, such as graffiti or vandalism, can occupy a significant proportion of any city's budget. Javaneh Nekoomaram, advocacy counsel for the Graffiti Resource Council, headquartered in Washington, said: "A lot of cities don't have enough money to devote to law enforcement or to conduct surveillance. While lot of cities are not necessarily seeing gang activity, they could well have artists creating massive murals. The issue is that it's not legal.

"Some people like the murals and they think it makes a city more beautiful. The question is that we don't really want to get rid of it, but they could still be painting on a commercial property against the owner's wishes. Some cities now have mural programmes and they designate certain areas, ensuring that all the artwork goes into one place. Many of these programmes are very successful.

"Other cities try to place some responsibility on property owners. In that case, if it happens to your business, then you're responsible for cleaning it up within a week or two weeks. Then it's not a tax-payer problem. There are penalties associated with that, so if you don't clean it up within a certain amount of time then the city can and clean it up and send you the bill."

Some urban areas, however, suffer problems greater and more protracted than graffiti or potholes. The International Risk Group, based in Littleton, Colorado, takes a very different approach to regenerating so called 'blighted' properties. Brent Anderson, the company's Chief Executive, says: "Most people look at blighted property as a technical problem or a legal problem. For us it's a financial problem. It's a matter of how do you quantify qualitative risks and how do you figure out the right capital and financing stack to move properties from a blighted condition to a more productive condition. The goal is to take as much value as you can out of what's otherwise an illiquid asset.

"The US market has more uncertainty about who's responsible. What's the outcome of your entitlements going to be? By contrast, there was a plant we were working on in Switzerland, for example, a chemical plant. We cleaned it up, the laws were substantively the same as in the US, but what was nice about it was everything was controlled by one group, it was pretty much check the box or don't check the box, as opposed to a more subjective approach that sometimes get used in the US.

"I think China is a place where problems like these, they just haven't figured out yet, and they are coming in spades."

Photo: Congress of Cities: Putting right urban blight.
Congress of Cities: Putting right urban blight.
Photo: Congress of Cities: Putting right urban blight.
Congress of Cities: Putting right urban blight.

The Congress of Cities and Exposition was held at the Austin Convention Center, Austin, Texas, on 19-22 November 2014. More than 3,000 delegates representing local and regional governments from across North America were in attendance.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, Austin

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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