Why the Big Apple Can Be the World's First VERGE City

Why the Big Apple Can Be the World's First VERGE City

As if recent football results weren't enough to heat up the rivalry between New York, Boston, and San Francisco, add to the contest the quest for title of "greenest city."

At the GreenBiz Forum 12 in New York City today, this rivalry took the form of a panel question: Can the Big Apple be the first VERGE city in the U.S., or maybe even the world?

Of course, New York has a long history of leadership in finance, media, and fashion. But green? Why not Masdar, or one of the new built-from-the-ground-up green utopias, asked session moderator Andrew Shapiro, co-founder of GreenOrder.

The city's strength is partly its age, size and complexity. "The reality is that the majority of cities aren't green field opportunities," said panelist David Bartlett, IBM's vice-president of industry solutions during the session. "Old infrastructures are where the opportunity for innovation lies. I think that makes New York the best candidate," he added.

The city's aged infrastructure is more opportunity than obstacle, said panelist Steve Cohen, Director and CEO of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, pointing out that it's better for a city like New York to have an aged subway, in need of repair, than to have to build a new system from scratch, at nearly insurmountable costs.

"It'd be nice to have a computer controlled subway system, but I'd rather have what we've got, than to dig up the whole city today," said Cohen. That said, the city has a track record of committing to billion-dollar scale green infrastructure, from the 3rd Water Tunnel, to the 2nd Ave Subway line. "This city is used to spending billions on capital. We're not going to go through the anti-tax disinvestment cycle," that has taken hold in other areas of the country, said Cohen.

In New York, the political leadership starts with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has led a sweeping effort to ready the city for the stresses of climate change and an additional million residents expected by 2030. The resulting blueprint, PlaNYC (pronounced plan-why-see) points the way to increased building efficiency, higher levels of renewable energy, less waste, cleaner air and water.

The technology tools that will make possible this smarter, more efficient future are entering service today. "There's a huge proliferation of smart sensor technology where we can see -- with much better x-ray vision -- what's happening with our building, with our transport system, with our energy networks," said Bartlett. "Visibility, control, and automation, they're the heart of smart."

"No one is listening holistically to buildings," said Bartlett. There's automation device by device, or system by system, but no one is watching the sum of the systems, and doing do can deliver savings of 40 percent or more. "It's a concept I call 'the building whisperer,'" he said.

The city's competitive edge also includes its "brain base". "Boston is known as a college town," said Cohen. "But we have more students in New York City than there are people in Boston," said Cohen, implying perhaps this may be a reason the Giants will have an edge over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

The city is deepening its considerable R&D resources. Cornell University recently beat out Stanford University, winning a beauty contest to build a cutting-edge green campus for a new engineering school on Roosevelt Island.

Uptown, Columbia University is building a new satellite campus in northern Manhattan, which will be home to a brain and behavior research science center, along with additional capacity for engineering, business and continuing education. "The west side of Manhattan used to be full of factories and stevedores," said Cohen, "And now those stretches are filled with brain workers."

In many ways, cities offer more fertile ground for VERGE technologies to flourish than national or regional efforts. City mayors are "among the least ideological people around because the do real things: making sure the garbage gets picked up," Cohen said. "The best minds in the world want to be here," and even if they don't want to live here, "It's never hard to have a meeting here," he added.

The challenges facing cities mirror the larger test facing the nation. At the national level, pragmatism is painfully absent, and has led to the polarization of energy debates into debilitating over simplifications, most recently with the Keystone XL pipeline, about which Cohen writes at his blog at Huffington Post.

The issue we need to address is America's role in a sustainable global economy. How do we compete and protect the planet that sustains us? How do we ensure that other nations join us in an effort to achieve global sustainability?

"We're talking about a post-industrial way of living. It will require innovation and creativity," said Cohen today. "This is a little bit like arguing about landlines for telephones 20 years ago." Energy technologies now on the blackboard may make debates about pipelines quaintly obsolete in the near future.

The rivalry for greenest city continues next week, as the GreenBiz Forum 12 heads to San Francisco on January 30 to ask a similar question: Can San Francisco be America's first VERGE city?

My friend and GreenBiz impresario Joel Makower suggested the Bay Area may be the natural leader of the greenest city race, at least until the final minutes of the contest, when it fumbles away its lead to lose by a hair to New York.

No hard feelings from here in Giants land: At least in the green race, both cities can be winners.

Manhattan photo via Shutterstock.