Can IT help build smart cities?

In a panel at Fortune's Brainstorm, leaders see potential but also a need for the IT industry to change its business model and more.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
2 min read

A panel of tech and policy leaders takes on the topic of building "smart cities" at the Fortune Brainstorm: Tech conference on Wednesday. Ina Fried/CNET

PASADENA, Calif.--Technology has the potential to help build smarter, greener cities, but whether it will is another matter.

That was the take-away from a panel discussion Wednesday at Fortune's Brainstorm: Tech conference here.

The need for cities that use less energy is clear. Although cities occupy just 2 percent of the world's geography, they account for 75 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emmissions, according to Clinton Climate Initiative Chairman Ira Magaziner. Cisco Systems CTO Padmasree Warrior noted that there will be 100 new cities with populations of more than 1 million people by 2025.

But while technology has the best potential for allowing society to maintain its standard of living in a sustainable way, the industry isn't necessarily set up to provide such technology.

"We're not there yet as an industry," said Sun Microsystems CTO Greg Papadopoulos. "Our business models are built on complexity."

Technology is also built based on frequent upgrade cycles and getting value from disposability of products. "There's a tension there," he said. "It's going to be a lot harder than you at first think."

Papadopoulos pointed to home automation as an example where the tech industry has failed to recognize the different standards needed in new markets.

"We've failed pretty miserably at that so far," he said. "The are complex and they don't work well. If we follow that model we will fail and we will be cursed."

Hara CEO Amit Chatterjee said that the focus now should be on changes that can be made without major technology shifts, giving solar and other low-carbon technologies a chance to mature.

"There is a unique opportunity to focus on lo hanging fruit or fruit that's on the ground," Chatterjee said. "That is where we need to start. Insulation is a huge win for the U.S. well before we get to solar panels."

Composting locally, he added, creates compressed natural gas that can fuel vehicles.

Chatterjee said that going after the "quick wins" could cut 30 percent of our carbon footprint.

Cutting energy use can also create jobs, the panelists agreed. But only if the right economic incentives are there, such as putting a price on carbon use.

Magaziner said awareness of the issues are improving, but that that isn't enough.

"What we really need is action," he said. "The next three, four, five years are going to be critical."