Q&A: Jesse Berst, Smart Cities Council Chairman

Technological innovation in the water/wastewater sector is vital to improving operational efficiency. Municipalities that utilize state-of-the-art technology such as GIS, SCADA systems, modeling software, etc., are truly leading the way in creating the modern, connected utility.

To get a unique perspective on cities using smart technology, UIM sat down with Jesse Berst, founder and chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Berst’s career experience comes from the smart grid space where he was one of the pioneering thought leaders and the chief analyst of SmartGridNews.com, the internet’s oldest, largest and highest-ranked smart grid site.

Briefly, what is the Smart Cities Council and when and how did it form?

Formed in 2012, the Smart Cities Council is the trusted advisor to equip cities with smart technology to solve their most pressing problems: expanding populations, shrinking budgets and failing infrastructure. It includes the sector’s foremost firms and independent experts, two dozen leading companies advised by six dozen of the world’s top universities, national laboratories, standards bodies, climate advocacy groups and development banks.

What is a smart city?

A smart city uses information and communication technology (ICT) to enhance its livability, workability and sustainability. Smart cities collect information through sensors and communicate that data using wired and wireless networks. That data is then analyzed to improve efficiencies and make smarter decisions. In short, a smart city uses technology to optimize every aspect.

What are some of the goals of the Council?

The Smart Cities Council’s goal is to help cities achieve our three core values: livability, workability and sustainability. We do that by supporting and educating cities with technology counsel, financial advice, policy best practices and tools for citizens.

What are some of the water companies/organizations involved in the council? How does membership in the Council benefit those groups?

The Smart Cities Council is led by an Advisory Board which includes organizations such as the Smart Water Networks Forum, Water Alliance, the International Water Association, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Advisory Board membership is available by invitation only to acknowledged experts from academia, non-profit advocacy groups, research laboratories and municipal governments.

On the private sector side, many of our member companies have been involved in cutting-edge smart water projects around the world, including ABB, EDF, IBM, Itron, Microsoft and Schneider Electric. These companies become members to join voices and share costs to help educate cities about best practices for smart city implementations.

Like any industry, new technology is helping improve efficiency in the water/wastewater utility sector. How does the Council view the importance of technological development in the water/wastewater industry?

Smart water systems can make dramatic improvements to the cost, safety and reliability of urban water supplies. They can also get more out of existing assets, predict and prevent problems and remotely diagnose issues. Technological advancements such as sensors to detect impurities and green water systems are already transforming the water/wastewater industry.

Globally, at least 30 percent of the water that is pumped, filtered and treated never reaches its destination due to leaks and theft. When you think about the many regions coping with water shortages, it seems almost criminal to throw 30 percent of the water away when we have the technology at hand to detect leaks and diversions the moment they occur.

Based on the Council’s initiatives and information gathered by your involvement in the water sector, what do you see as the biggest water infrastructure challenges cities are facing?

Beyond the physical landscape challenges, the Council has identified four realities that affect when, where and how a city should approach the transformation of its water system. First, smart cities must close the loop around local watersheds, reducing the import of water and giving preference to locally available water. Second, water is unquestionably a regional issue and smart water systems require collaboration between cities and all stakeholders. Third, smart water requires smart policies that mandate results but not a specific technology. Cities should work with advisors and suppliers to determine the best way to achieve that result. Finally, smart water calls for creative financing and adequate skills from personnel to run sophisticated systems.

What are some of the solutions the Smart Cities Council offers in response to these challenges? Any notable accomplishments to date?

The Council supports and guides city leaders who want to apply ICT to improve their city’s livability, workability and sustainability. Our website, newsletters and various other resources help them track the latest technologies and trends. Our tools assist with engaging citizens, financing, policy frameworks and creating roadmaps. Recently, the Council launched a Readiness Guide that presents a detailed and comprehensive vision of a smart city and what it takes to get there, including more than 50 case studies. The water and wastewater chapter showcases successful ICT-enabled water projects from Tianjin, China to Long Beach, California to Sanford, Florida and elsewhere in the world.

In April, the Council launched a Financing Guide that outlines 28 of the most promising financial tools for urban infrastructure enhancements, including some techniques that do not require any upfront money from the city. In the future, the Council will continue to build tools and resources for cities, ranging from videos to infographics to eBooks to webinars and peer groups for knowledge exchange.

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