VERGE Day 2: The city as startup, platform and organism

Editor's Note: To read highlights from the first day of VERGE SF on Nov. 12, click here.

Over the next 15 years, China will build enough buildings and infrastructure for 300 million people -- an amount that could service almost the entire U.S. population.

It’s a pace that reflects the staggering rate of global urbanization -- one that’s placed cities at the center of efforts for sustainable solutions. Currently, half of the world’s population lives in cities. Seventy-five percent of the population will live in urban areas by 2050.

The global migration and consequent rise of the world’s urban population point to the giant potential for gains at the city level.

“Cities need sustainability just as much as sustainability needs cities,” said Mark Lee, the executive director of SustainAbility,  on Tuesday morning at GreenBiz Group’s VERGE SF conference in San Francisco, Calif. The meeting aimed to further the conversation -- and accelerate the action -- around sustainable communities through the convergence of building, vehicle and information technologies.

Lee’s remark set the tone for the second day of VERGE SF -- a day focused on how cities have become the place to leverage gains in energy efficiencies, scale sustainability goals and develop more informed, revitalized communities. Through open data and the convergence of technologies, municipal governments, business, hackers and concerned citizens are working together to develop the “smart city.” It’s a place that uses data and technology as a way to predict and plan -- rather than react -- to events ranging from a daily traffic jam to a devastating natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina.

Photo of SustainAbility Executive Director Mark Lee (L) and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (R) at VERGE SF by Goodwin Ogbuehi, GreenBiz Group

One of the most inspiring examples of how city-level innovations are taking place with public-private partnerships was shared by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of online shoe company Zappos, who spoke at VERGE SF on Tuesday morning.

His company is leading a revolution of sorts in Las Vegas to revitalize the Fremont East downtown area oft-overshadowed by its glittery neighbor -- the Strip.

When it came time to plan a move from its suburban Henderson, Nev. offices to Las Vegas’ former city hall, Hsieh rejected the predictable path of replicating the corporate campuses he visited -- Google and Apple among them.

“[They] are great for employees but insular -- they don’t contribute to surrounding communities,” he said.

“Maybe we should turn this whole idea inside out and be more like NYU [New York University] in how it blends into the city,” he recalls musing. “What about instead of investing in ourselves, we invested in the city?”  

Zappos’ future corporate offices, Hsieh said, will be located just two blocks away from the Fremont East neighborhood. It’s already made strides to bring in small businesses and tech startups to the area.

All this work, Hsieh says, is driven by his company’s core values: Collision, community and co-learning.

The city of San Francisco is taking the lead in partnering with developers and entrepreneurs to create apps aimed at improving residents’ daily lives.

“We’re connecting the energy sector and the built environment,” said Melanie Nutter, the director of the city’s environment department, during a VERGE SF panel focused on “The City as a Platform.”

“We see the city as an R&D lab,” she said.

In tough economic times, Nutter said, the “drive to low-cost innovation” is key to reaching San Francisco’s sustainability goals.  The city has also come up with innovative financing methods through the PACE program, she said, which gives access to capital for building retrofits focused on energy efficiency.

Perhaps one of the most visionary collection of voices came from coders and developers steeped in the sustainable hacking movement. The hackers are working alongside city governments to leverage technology for more engaged communities.

It’s a perfect way to make progress in lean times, according to Steve Spiker, the director of research and technology at the Urban Strategies Council in Oakland, Calif.

“Hacking is doing things dirty and cheap. You can hack policy, data and institutions,” he said.

Residents of Boston, Mass. and Honolulu are using open data sets to increase public safety. In Boston, Code for America fellows developed an Adopt-A-Hydrant app which enables residents to keep neighborhood fire hydrants clear of winter snow and accessible to firefighters. And in Honolulu, locals committed to refresh the batteries of tsunami warning stations.

Code for America pairs developers for a year of public service with local governments and nonprofits to create applications for social good.

In Oakland, Spiker’s group is part of a project coordinated by Code for America -- a civic innovation project called Open Oakland. Its goal is to show how technology can change a city, he said.

“Government is one of the last industries not truly disrupted by IT,” said Jack Madams, a program coordinator with Code for America.

“When government realizes that they have this platform for enabling so much in their communities – we can do something bigger than the sum of the people working there,” he said.

Reporting contributed by Liz Enochs, Ambika Kandasamy, Hannah Miller, Aaron Tilley and Kristine Wong

See a Storify piece created by Hannah Miller from the VERGE SF session presented by Patrick Kennedy, CEO of OSIsoft: 

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