As I waited for the plane to take off in Denver, I realized it was going to be a long flight. It was a small plane and I sensed that the guy crammed in next to me could potentially be one of those plane talkers -- you know, the ones who can carry on a monologue for hours and hours. I guess I have a good sense for these things. I’m usually engrossed in reading materials or writing, no time to talk, but this time, I forgot to get the necessary materials out of my luggage before boarding, so I went with Plan B: the pretend sleeping method. I made it most of the way through the flight, but you can only pretend so long.

My downfall was that I like to peer out the window while the plane is landing. I also like the aisle seat, so this gives the person next to me the window of opportunity (brilliant pun, I know) he or she has been waiting for the whole time to get into the plane conversation. “So, are you from Pittsburgh?” my fellow passenger eagerly asked. This led to a brief conservation about where I’m from and learning about where he is from. “So, why are you going to Pittsburgh?” As I explain my research project about sustainable and technology-savvy regions, he looked puzzled. “Really? I don’t know why you’d pick Pittsburgh.”

Those types of responses are exactly why I’m here. People always think of Pittsburgh as the Steel City, but they need to pull back that steel curtain and look a little closer. There’s so much more behind it. As I traversed the red-foliaged hillsides and crossed the shimmering rivers during the two amazingly sunny autumn days I spent in the city, I found folks all over the place who are creating a region where sustainable and digital innovation thrives. Pittsburgh is a great example of how thinking regionally can help turn a steel city into a green city, which in turn is drawing people back to the town.

Looking at Pittsburgh sustainability—regionally

Sustainable Pittsburgh was the first stop on my list. This organization is seeking to bring sustainable solutions to a 10-county region of southwestern Pennsylvania. There, I found a person who had many fascinating insights into the link between sustainability and digital technologies at a regional level. It was like winning the interviewer’s jackpot.

“The way in which we focus our sustainable lives happens in regions,” said Court Gould, Executive Director for Sustainable Pittsburgh. “That makes sense because many sustainability issues can be dealt with through regional approaches. So we all know the term ‘watershed,’ but when we think on a regional basis, there are air-sheds, commuter-sheds, supply chain-sheds, education-sheds, economic-sheds and housing-sheds. And typically we have not, in American governance, focused on the region as the organizing unit for trying to get things right.”

After succinctly summarizing his views on the importance of looking at sustainability at a regional level, Gould dove into the connection between digital technologies and sustainability. For example, he noted, “The Pittsburgh region is just beginning to dabble with the idea that we have a competitive industrial base related to water issues,” he said.

I always thought about digitizing water in terms of measuring water quantity; Gould looked at it in terms of water quality, too. “When you turn on your tap at home, why isn’t there a meter right there that tells you the temperature, chlorine level -- that essentially runs the chemistry on it? We ought to be able to go online at any time and know the water quality in our supply systems, in our treatment systems, in our rivers. So the field of telecommunications for monitoring real-time data is going to be a huge growth area. Hopefully the Pittsburgh area, with its expertise among our universities and businesses, will be delivering leading-edge research and development in that realm. We’re looking to seed and bring to life a water innovation consortium that will look at on-the-ground demonstration projects.”

He also discussed the digital side of public transportation in Pittsburgh. For example, “Carnegie Mellon created Traffic21, which focuses on intelligent transportation systems. You can look at your mobile device to see what’s going on with public transport in real-time, where the bus is, how soon it will be your stop, what time it stopped at the last stop,” said Gould. “They’ve been developing an app and paying riders to enter the data to demonstrate this technology. They fully expect it to go viral, and eventually, no one will have to be paid. Everyone will just be on there looking and clicking, and sending out information about the bus schedule.”

No matter what digital technology you use, for Gould, it’s all about having the right information to make the best decision. “Sustainability for our region is all about seeing what’s coming and acting before it hits. So these technologies can provide not only insight into the state of things today, but also about what’s to be, so we can prepare. That’s the heart of sustainability. We know the definition of sustainability, but you’ll never be that if you don’t have some capacity for it. Part of it is figuring out how to use technology to help the region increase its capacity for sustainability.”  

Digitally building for sustainability

After hanging out downtown with Sustainable Pittsburgh, I cruised on over to Carnegie Mellon University, which is well known for its work in the smart grid arena, as well as for incorporating more sensors into critical infrastructure through a program known as theCenter for Sensed Critical Infrastructure Research (CenSCIR). I wanted to expand the discussion beyond the smart grid itself, so I stopped by the architecture department for a chat about digitizing buildings. Of course, I was reminded that energy touches everything.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, Carnegie Mellon is participating in a regional effort, known as the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster, which focuses on developing energy-efficient buildings. Stephen Lee, professor and head of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture, discussed one of the roles Carnegie Mellon will be taking on in the project. “We’re looking to refine and expand the digital platform for buildings, so they will be a part of the entire lifecycle of the building. From the moment you conceive of the building, you will be able to test its energy efficiency, lighting performance and ventilation. That digital model will be passed on to the construction entity, and they will use the digital model to construct the building. It will then be passed on to the commissioning phase where they will actually set up and test all of the equipment to make sure it is achieving all of its specs. Finally, the model will be passed on to the facilities managers so they can operate the building.”

Creating digital platforms for buildings won’t be easy, and not because of the technology. Professional liability implications often limit the ability of architects and building contractors to work together. “The technology exists,” noted Lee. “But the profession hasn’t caught on yet with the idea of a shared model.”

In the spirit of looking regionally, I wondered what has to happen to make the leap from digitizing an individual building to digitizing a region’s worth of them. “The questions that will need to be answered are scalability and modularity,” said Lee. “So, if you have 100 buildings in a complex and each one has a huge repository of data, what are the scalability issues of making all the data available to the utility company or the campus owner that’s at the next level up? You have to ask this every time you ‘bump up’ from the individual building to a group of buildings, from a group of buildings to a neighborhood that they’re in, from the neighborhood to the city or region that they’re in.”

Digital and sustainable lives for seniors, and more

After combing the cool neighborhoods surrounding Carnegie Mellon, I ventured out of Pittsburgh to talk with another building-focused digitizer. Fifteen miles and seemingly hundreds of Google Map turns later, I ended up in the quaint town of McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the town really didn’t have street signs. Fortunately, my phone still had the data connection so I could count off the streets. Go networked regions!

After arriving at my destination, the model home of Blueroof Technologies, I was offered a cup of coffee three separate times and learned about the home automation technologies that this company is deploying to improve quality of life for older and disabled individuals.

 “Our objective is to develop technology that will enable an individual to essentially age in place—whether that individual is an older adult whose abilities are going to decline in the future or someone who is disabled,” said John Bertoty, executive director of Blueroof Technologies. “We want to be able to bridge the gap between what they can do and what they want to be able to do, in terms of living in their home.”  

To better understand which enabling technologies to deploy, Blueroof studied what was important to these individuals. The number-one concern was safety and security, followed by:

·       A front porch, which provided seniors an opportunity to connect with the neighborhood

·       Accessibility

·       Low maintenance requirements

·       Energy efficiency

Given these findings, the company rolled out safety and security technologies (which blanketed the home I was sitting in), but they soon realized that these efforts didn’t take up much computing power. So the company started to look at other ways to use the excess computing power to make homes more energy efficient, with lower cost and lower maintenance demands —really, bringing about more sustainability.

And keeping folks in their homes means better quality of life—as well as substantial savings. “If everybody in the United States that was going to go into an assisted living facility—a nursing home or assisted living—waited one month, the savings would be one billion dollars,” noted Bertoty.

The company focuses much of it efforts on supporting McKeesport housing stock, but its organizational connections make it more regional in scope. Its origins are rooted in collaborations with Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania State University. It’s also a founding member of the Quality of Life Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon.

Not just technology -- innovative businesses fostering a better quality of life

Heading north of Pittsburgh, I eventually landed in the deliciously named community of Cranberry Township. I talked with another business that is working to build a more sustainable world through digital technologies and applications: BPL Global. After discussing the company’s efforts in the smart grid arena, our conversation turned toward Pittsburgh and how the region turned its image around and managed to foster sustainable and digital innovation.

According to Keith Schaefer, president and CEO of BPL Global, the state of the rivers, Pittsburgh’s lifeblood, tells it all. “Pittsburgh is rebuilding its waterfront with clean energy buildings where factories used to stand. And in these buildings, companies are doing critical research and development—whether it’s Google’s new center in Bakery Square or the electronics art center at Carnegie Mellon for video games, or Siemens, or Seagate. At the same time, Alcoa, U.S. Steel, Pittsburgh Glass—big companies that still have factories here—are very much aware of the pollution that they produce, and they are looking for companies like us that are really developing cleaner ways to manufacture glass, aluminum or steel.

“When you come through that Fort Pitt tunnel, you now see a cleaner city. People are rowing in the waters, they’re swimming in the rivers and they’re fishing in the rivers. I see ducks along the river when I go to the football games. I mean, it’s a different world from the one that I grew up in—significantly different.” 

And Pittsburgh’s sustainability and digital technologies are attracting more than Google and ducks. “For the first time in a long while, Pittsburgh’s population is not shrinking, it’s growing. College students are going into startups, they’re going into companies that are clean and green, and fun and innovative. I think Pittsburgh is going to be the center for a renaissance in energy.”

Proof of this statement was sitting in the room. Jason Novick is a recent college graduate, BPL Global’s marketing program manager, and a transplant to Pittsburgh. He finished off the meeting with the words Pittsburgh has worked so hard to finally hear. “I’ve been coming here my whole life, and I’ve really developed an appreciation for it. I realized this is a place where I want to live. As soon as I graduated, this is the place I chose to come to.”

Final thoughts

As we talk about building networked regions, Pittsburgh reminds us that digital technology deployment and innovation don’t have to come from one organization, or a centralized plan for building a more networked region. With universities and forward-thinking businesses in the region, Pittsburgh has been able to build not only a more environmentally aware community, but also one that is economically and socially sustainable.

In the next essay, we’ll look at a region where sustainable efforts and digital technology deployments are just starting to form in a few pockets of the community. We’ll focus on two areas in the Valley of the Sun: Mesa, Arizona and Arizona State University.