The Vision of Smart City Collaboration

Grant Ervin, Chief Resilience Officer & Assistant Director, Department of City Planning, City of Pittsburgh

What are the current market trends you see shaping the Smart City landscape?

At the City of Pittsburgh, we believe that the combination of smart city and electric utilities will pave a better way towards making the dream of a smart city, into a reality. However, there are a lot of discussions going on around the concept of the smart city, and we are focusing on the overlap of the technologies associated with other service areas to improve performance. Energy efficiency is one such area of focus in our smart city objectives.

​ Technology is not the be-all and end-all; its human interaction that is important to solve the challenges  

What are some of the widely prevalent challenges you notice in the Smart City landscape?

Working across different sectors and the cross departments is one of the areas where these issues of smart cities start to confluence. We need to find ways wherein various departments and agencies can work together. One of the things that we have worked closely with is, our electrical utility both in terms of providing platform and data and intersecting that with policy. For instance, just like all other cities, at the City of Pittsburgh, we are also facing an issue of energy benchmarking and disclosure policy. The commercial building sector is providing utility data to the city to understand those performance trends and opportunities for energy efficiency. This has been a close collaboration within our local utility to start to aggregate data and making that available to all type of buildings, which happens because of the collaboration that we have with our local utility partners.

Could you shed some light on the approach that you follow while choosing the right solution provider?

My approach is to always find partners with whom we have a common interest. Let’s say we are working to solve a challenge on the city side of the ledger, but that might also be a shared challenge with a utility partner or with a developer. So we are looking at the common causes that we can collaborate on to solve the problems. Also, one of the challenges I see is that the focus is all driven toward how technology can benefit a solution versus finding a solution that can better the technology. At the end of the day, we need to focus on the city—or the customers, in the case of business—and how we are working to improve their lives. So always keeping people at the forefront of whatever solution we are trying to develop is critical. Technology is not the be-all and end-all; its human interaction that is important to solve the challenges. Hence, looking for a partner with a common cause and collaborating with them proves to be the best approach.

What are the strategic points that you go by to steer the company forward?

Goals set your way to success, and it’s been our fundamental principle. We set our goals and are bound to work toward them until we achieve it. In the smart city front, we are working around climate mitigations, reduction of carbon dioxide, and look for aligned key performance measures that might go along with that. In addition to carbon reduction, we also need to focus on job creation, air quality improvement, and that helps guide the technology decision. For example, on analysis for the city performance tool, it started with how do we take our climate action plan and look at carbon reduction targets (which will be 50 percent by the year 2030). But that also started to create a technology roadmap for us in terms of what some of the systems were—whether it be building technologies, district energy, heating systems, or microgrid technologies—identifying renewable systems which will give us air quality benefits and potential, creates economic development, or job creation benefits. So it’s the common confluences of what is the KPI and matrix we can work for; not just as a city, but also with our industry partners to create the common outcomes and objectives that we are all looking for.

How would you see the evolution a few years from now with regard to disruptions and transformations within the arena?

As professionals in the smart city space, we have to be able to be literate across different sectors. My background is in public policy and not in technology, but I have understood the challenges and benefits from a technology perspective in improving public policy decisions. Likewise, I think it’s important for industry folks on the technology side to understand how public policy and governments work. Thus there is a need for literacy amongst the different perspectives of different professions. Whether it is utilities or road network or a city forester at one point of time, they are going to have to intersect with one another. So having the ability to navigate across organizations is going to be critical, just like for the interoperability of the technology.

What would be the single piece of advice that you could impart to your colleagues to excel in this space?

It’s important for folks to be willing to build a bridge across the sectors and not to be afraid to step out of their silo because in many cases, different departments and agencies could have a common cause. So finding these common causes can also lead to some of the best innovative solutions.

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