Cisco Pits San Francisco vs. Amsterdam in Race to 21st Century Sustainability

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Cisco is harnessing a new power in the fight against global climate change: a potent mix of hometown pride and rivalry.

Two major announcements came out of its Sustainable Cities session with officials from San Francisco and Amsterdam yesterday. First, the tech giant is partnering with San Francisco to develop a joint vision for a Sustainable 21st Century San Francisco. Second, Amsterdam is launching its own version of Cisco’s San Francisco Urban EcoMap.

With the EcoMap, the two tech-savvy cities will share and compare their data — everything from recycling rates to energy use — and they will work together to find ways to reduce their carbon footprints.

Already, the EcoMap comparison should be enough to make San Francisco’s notoriously competitive Mayor Gavin Newsom cringe.

In cities with nearly identical populations, Amsterdam’s CO2 per capita is less than half of San Francisco’s: 3.4 tons in Amsterdam compared to 8.2 tons in San Francisco. "Together, we can strive to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions to 2 metric tons per capita," the EcoMap site proclaims.

Both announcements are part of Cisco’s Connected Urban Development plan (CUD), which grew out of the company’s commitment to the Clinton Global Climate Initiative.

Cisco has already been working in San Francisco on its Urban EcoMap, so the new partnership is not a huge surprise, although it will be interesting to see what, if anything, materializes from the effort. Newsom seemed fired up again — back to his old self after a few months in which he was criticized for sulking over his dropped bid for California governor.

The announcements were made from a hotel in San Francisco’s newest sister city, Bangalore, near Cisco’s globalization center.

The globalization center itself is built as a "city of the future," in Cisco Chief Globalization Officer Wim Elfrink’s words. The campus of 5,500 employees showcases the company’s Smart + Connected Communities technology, their umbrella term for a suite of "smart" technologies that keep everything from the electrical grid to the healthcare system better connected to one another and to the people who use them. A tour of the campus is supposedly what sparked Newsom’s interest in bringing Cisco onboard in San Francisco.

“We have a very specific tangible regulatory framework, but it’s an absolute fact that we give no thought to the issue of technology in that respect,” Newsom said, a surprising comment from the mayor of a city so closely connected to Silicon Valley.

What Newsom was referring to was not the number of technology companies in the city, but the use of technology to connect all of the systems and services required in a city: healthcare, transportation, education, security and energy.

The vision for a 21st century San Francisco is that by connecting all of these programs, cities could cut down on inefficiencies and provide better services for less money and energy than they do now. Patients could speak easily with virtual doctors and have their records immediately available online, educators could give virtual lessons and connect better to colleagues and students, a smart grid would better connect utilities to residents and businesses and automated building systems would help everybody save energy.

In San Francisco, it sounds like Cisco will specifically be looking at the redevelopments of the Hunters Point Shipyards and of Treasure Island, which are already planned to be some of the world’s most sustainable communities if they ever actually get built (both projects—one to revitalize an industrial shipyard and historically impoverished part of San Francisco and the other to turn a decommissioned military base into a sustainable mixed-use development—still face bureaucratic and financial hurdles). In speaking about the partnership with Cisco, Newsom gave the example of a gunshot going off and a security camera immediately notifying police, with video.

The second announcement, of Amsterdam’s EcoMap, may eventually have more impact.

Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen ribbed Newsom about the cities’ friendly competition:

"I’d just like to point out that, ah, if you look at Amsterdam’s numbers, we are clearly beating San Francisco already," Cohen noted.

"Hey now!" Newsom responded with a forced smile.

"Alright," Elfrink broke in. "The competition has already begun!"

Beyond the bantering is a real opportunity for these two cities to learn from each other. Or, perhaps more accurately, for San Francisco to learn and benefit from Amsterdam, which has far more ambitious climate reduction goals (40% below 1990 levels by 2025, compared to San Francisco’s 20% reduction goal).

Newsom hates to lose, so the competitive nature of the project could spur him to move some initiatives along more quickly in San Francisco.

More importantly, it’s a great start to cities in different parts of the world sharing real information with each other. As Cohn pointed out, 70 percent of people will live in cities within a few decades and cities already are responsible for 75 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, so they have to play a key role in curbing climate change.

The first step in getting a city to where it wants to be is measuring where it is now.

“We all know as business people that when you make things measurable you have a 10 percent improvement and everything that gets measured can and will be improved,” Elfrink said.

The project will hopefully spark interest and collaboration with other cities as well.

“Once you see that other cities have those figures, you know you can get them,” Cohen said.

He hopes to see other cities use similar tools to compare their progress, not just with San Francisco, but with cities around the world.


See also:

Carbon Disclosure Project Turns Up the Pressure on Cities

Four Months In, Cisco Moves to Dominate Smart Grid

Learning to Battle Rising Seas from the Dutch

European Water Gets Smart

Keeping Up With The Joneses to Save Energy


(Graphics: Urban EcoMap)