One of the most engaging discussions at Itron Utility Week (IUW) was the Big Picture Session, which explored new business models to fund and activate smart cities. We were lucky to have industry expert Jennifer Runyon lead the compelling conversation, which gave the audience a chance to glean insights from a trifecta of industry experts, which included:

  • David Graham, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, Smart + Sustainable Communities, City of San Diego
  • Jim Mazurek, Accenture Strategy, Managing Director, Accenture Strategy – Utilities
  • Phil Nevels, Director Utility of the Future, ComEd – an Exelon company

Pairing the hands-on insights of Graham and Nevels with Mazurek — who has advised 50+ utility industry leaders on C-level topics such as industry disruption, emerging technologies, customer-focused transformation and more — gave attendees the unique experience to be a part of the dynamic discussion that can take place when cities and utilities lock arms to explore the ways connectivity can enable new business models while also enhancing the lives of the citizens who live within them.

There were a ton of excellent takeaways from this discussion, with four key themes emerging from the conversation. This blog post is the first in a two-part series that will recap all four themes from the Big Picture session.

I. Maintain a “citizen-first” mentality to move the needle
Runyon’s first question focused on how to build effective public/private partnerships, and the panelists articulated their advice by offering a couple of examples, including the City of Amsterdam and Chicago’s Bronzeville Community of the Future.

Mazurek noted that Amsterdam has a progressive and unique approach to smart city deployments, describing the government’s role as similar to a “matchmaker,” pairing three audiences — innovators, investors and infrastructure owners — with one another. “They’ve also got their act together when it comes to cultivating and activating an open data platform; it allows them to monetize the information and subsequently subsidize the cost of infrastructure.” His fellow panelists agree that the best examples of public/private partnerships are those where everyone’s a winner, including municipalities, utilities and most importantly, people.

A follow up question on best practices came from the audience, calling on Nevels – who led the Bronzeville Community of the Future project, and asked him to share any partnership best practices he’s learned since working on the Chicago Microgrid Demonstration.

Nevels responded by sharing that the collective team took an equity- and accessibility-first mentality, noting, “as we look at smart cities, they can’t just be subsets of the population; it needs to be a smart city for all. Everyone needs equal access to anything a smart city offers. We’re a utility company — we’re in the business of equity — that’s what we provide: the same quality of power to all 10 million of our customers across country and the structure enables us to do this affordably while making it accessible to all citizens.” He recommended that all engaged partners maintain an equity-first mindset when approaching collaborative projects.

Graham agreed and went on to expand on a powerful point he had made during that morning’s general session, “we’re here to talk about scaling — the ideas, the projects, the technology are all there, we know that, we’re at a point where it’s all about gaining community support…and it’s the people — the public — that need to be the big “P” in [public/private] partnership conversations.”

II. Don’t ditch “inside-the-box” thinking just yet – now is the time to get tactical
Nevels also recommended that utilities keep infrastructure investment in mind when it comes to new business models. “Generally thinking ‘inside-the-box’ has a negative connotation, but what if you can make that ‘box’ bigger? We – as people – default to a need for new products and new services when discussing new revenue models and that is one very viable avenue to take. However, we don’t want to exclude the idea of investing in infrastructure, the same path that got us here.”

Nevels gave an example of fiber implementation to further his point and explained how the opportunity to lease fiber back to private entities as an example of a new revenue stream that could bring down total costs for everyone. “It’s a win, win,” he said.

As the conversation continued, it became clear that actionable, tactical ideas that offer high community impact will be most effective. But what about speed? A question from the audience requested that the panelists share their best examples of quick wins that utilities and municipalities can hang their hats on as they work to demonstrate the value of smart city technology.

Graham was eager to jump in and noted “streetlights is a big one — there’s so much scaling that can be done.”

Mazurek agreed and elaborated further on the benefits smart lighting solutions can offer: “If you haven’t fully harvested the value of smart street lighting and you want a quick, high-impact win, this is a slam dunk. The slam dunk business case is the immediate cost savings associated with electricity, but there’s so much more to it – the opportunities are nearly limitless when you think of everything you can put on top.”

Read on for two more insightful themes in Part II.

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