Making Cities More Resilient to Climate Change

The UN recently concluded its climate talks in Geneva with an 86-page document that will be refined before the next round of talks in December. One of the takeaways from the discussions is a new emphasis on local response to climate conditions. Specifically, how to make our local infrastructure more resilient in response to adverse events and ongoing strain.

Climate-change pressures are local

This emphasis recognizes that while local government has little input over macro-climate policy, it falls to local government to manage the brunt of climate and environment conditions. From hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, to California fires and Boston-area blizzards, local constituencies would be better served by a more resilient infrastructure.

Ironically, while disruptive costs frequently exceed preventative investments, it’s hard to get public support for something that may happen. It’s only after we suffer a climate event that the economics of prevention become persuasive.

Incremental improvements through closed-loop infrastructure management

If massive undertakings are risky and hard to implement, local governments must look at more incremental methods for improving infrastructure. The manufacturing industry already uses an approach for improving quality, while reducing costs: closed-loop systems engineering. This is an approach that can be adapted for managing public infrastructure.

Closed-loop infrastructure management would start with smart, connected infrastructure monitoring systems. Monitoring environmental indicators, sensors produce data that inform necessary improvements, and continue to monitor the results. Cities can also evolve these monitoring systems to actuate responses in related smart, connected systems.

Leveraging monitors and sensors offers a two-fold advantage. Data will help inform and direct larger scale infrastructure improvements, such as where to improve flood protection or reinforce public transit. These same sensors can also be used to implement smaller scale changes and policies, such as when to use water bans, or notifying commuters about poor air quality. Monitoring not only helps identify environmental stresses as they are occurring, it also detects the man-made inefficiencies creating environmental and economic waste.

Key environmental indicators that can be tracked with smart, connected products

With cheaper, more effective wireless protocols that can be used at longer range, sensors can accurately measure specific environmental conditions, including temperature, relative humidity, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. These can be used to in urban locations to monitor air quality conditions cause by traffic or industrial output; in rural areas they can be used for early forest fire detection. Water levels, direction and throughput can be used to measure rate of drought or flood.

Additionally, big data can start to measure correlations between multiple sensor inputs to look at historical trends; much in the same way manufacturers can use closed-loop data to track and predict maintenance to prevent machine failure, municipalities can start observing related trends that may inform preventative behaviors to lessen the impact of stresses like heat, drought, traffic, and melt rates.

Something as simple as capturing and tracking temperature data in urban areas can help direct more effective solar panel implementation, so that smaller investments get bigger returns. Smart, self-powered waste receptacles like Boston University’s Bigbelly implementation reduced average trash pickup from 14 times a week to 1.6 times. Smart rerouting of public transit systems help relieve the stress caused by outages.

In the event of a disaster, such as a flood, fire, or blizzard, these monitors can be used with a GPS-enabled notification system, to help direct people to safety, shut down vulnerable parts of power grids, and accelerate a response.

Technology and expertise required is not out of reach. Students at a recent hack-a-thon built a smart, connected flood response system designed to save lives.

These are simple examples of existing Internet of Things technologies that can be implemented flexibly over time to make our infrastructure more resilient and reduce our carbon footprints, while providing some cost justifications.

Closed-loop infrastructure management will help existing cities transform into smart-cities. By capturing the wealth of invisible data all around us, local governments can determine the most effective methods for making our living spaces more resistant to the effects of climate change.

Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images