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Schneider Electric takes a bottoms-up approach to smart cities

Schneider Electric takes a bottoms-up approach to smart cities

Sophie James/Shutterstock

Some of the biggest names in high-tech are vying for a role in the emergence of smart city solutions driven by Big Data analytics and machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies.

But what good is collecting all sorts of information from water utilities, electric grids, municipal buildings or transportation departments if those systems are inherently inefficient in the first place?

That's the question posed by France's Schneider Electric, a global specialist in energy management and infrastructure operations that reported approximately $32 billion in sales for 2012.

The company has its hand in more than 200 smart city projects around the world, notably Beijing, Dallas, Grenoble and Rio de Janeiro. It offers a range of technologies toward this end, such as its new Building Analytics software and services, which pull information from building sensors, utility meters and control systems. It also is skilled in energy savings performance contracting, in which the company assumes the capital risk for building or infrastructure improvements in exchange for fees based on the money those investments save along the way.

On the face of it, that sounds a lot like the other companies scrambling for a piece of the smart cities buildout -- estimated at an annual $20 billion market by 2020. But while many of those companies advocate a top-down approach relying on some central command center shaped by IT management software, Schneider Electric's focus starts in a different place. Its main advice for smart city customers: fix the infrastructure first before you try to connect all the systems together.

"Our approach starts from the bottom and makes sure that the different departments of the city are efficient," said Jim Anderson, vice president for Schneider Electric's smart cities strategy in North America. "Then we take a look at the way we can optimize across the departments. … Generally, the conversation starts around how we can look at the pain points of a city."

A common theme: cities don't know where to start

As you might expect, the specifics of that conversation are different for every city. But all of them share one thing, Anderson said: "They have no idea to start, so it's our job to dig deep and help them understand what's going on."

Photo of Abu Dhabi by Sophie James / Shutterstock.

Although the company has "electric" in its name, the influence of its solutions certainly isn't limited to smart grids or intelligent building management. In early June, for example, the company released StruxureWare for Water. The applications collect data from process control points within water or wastewater infrastructure, including distribution motors and pump controls; chemical or biological treatment systems; and energy monitors. The company estimates that it can optimize energy efficiency related to these operations by up to 30 percent, while improving operational efficiency by up to 26 percent.

"This software suite is a major advancement in how water is managed across wide geographic areas," said Jokin Larrauri, vice president of water solutions for Schneider Electric. "StruxureWare for Water allows water managers to gather various data points about how they're using energy to move water and how they can use that energy efficiency more effectively."

Advice for smart city planners

When will smart cities become the norm rather than the exception? Anderson suggests that it will take decades. In that vein, here are five recommendations he offers for those in charge of planning -- and delivering on -- these efforts.

  1. Don't let anyone else set your priorities. Many larger U.S. cities have some sort of written plan for improving the sustainability of its operations, such as plaNYC 2030 or Sustainable Chicago 2015. Almost none of these roadmaps are heading for the goal from the same direction. For example, Austin, Texas, is concentrating on managing its grid more efficiently, including new SCADA controls at the municipal level. Chicago, on the other hand, is viewing sustainability's potential to stimulate economic development. So, prioritize what makes sense for your city's needs.
  2. Don't limit your research to large cities. While bigger cities may have bigger ambitions, some of the most practical examples of progress are coming from smaller ones, Anderson said. He points to Austin and Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is aggressively investing in fiber networking connections to help support future smart cities applications.
  3. Look to cloud-hosted applications. Energy management and analytics applications can be expensive, but many smart cities vendors are starting to host them in massive cloud data centers that are more equipped to handle the influx of information from M2M applications. This should make them much more accessible. "It will be much more affordable for cities to utilize these resources," Anderson said. "My point is that cloud computing will be a key element moving forward."
  4. Share what is working. Has someone tackled your particular problem before? Right now, many cities are taking rather provincial approaches to their strategy, discussing things internally, when they could be learning from early successes and mistakes. "There is not as much sharing of business practices as there needs to be," Anderson said.
  5. Be patient. One of the biggest obstacles any smart city planner faces is the issue of education and change management. It could take years to inspire the right sort of behavior changes, although the good news is that millennials appear to have more of an interest in sustainability issues than previous generations. "This isn't a technical conversation, this is a paradigm shift conversation," Anderson said. "There is a huge educational piece that needs to happen. Also, seeing is believing."

Photo of Abu Dhabi by Sophie James / Shutterstock.