Building a Smart City amidst the Pandemic
Grant Ervin currently serves as the Chief resilience offfier for the City of Pittsburgh. He oversees the planning and strategy for city operations and city policies to build sustainability and resilience in our policies, programs, and processes. Before joining the City of Pittsburgh, Mr. Ervin worked in public policy development and design at the state and local levels. He worked with multiple constituencies on designing public policy solutions to a variety of community and infrastructure challenges. Most of his history focuses on environmental community and sustainable development practices, which has led to his current position at the City of Pittsburgh.
In light of your experience, what are some of the challenges and trends that you have witnessed happening in the Smart City space?
We've focused on the transition from in-person work to a virtual work environment much like other companies have done. So the challenge of technology deployment is ensuring that everyone has the capabilities that they need to do their respective jobs, which has been one of the problems. As a team manager, changing that work style in terms of the in person engagement with your employees, which we are typically used in the day-to-day, are now virtual engagements with Zoom, BlueJeans, and every other platform. So that type of instantaneous accessibility has been both helpful in terms of reaching out to team members and colleagues. Still, also it creates a challenging rhythm because you're always accessible and going from one Zoom call to another. So that's been one of both challenges and benefits.
The benefit of this new work environment is that it has increased a lot of the collaboration that we've had internally within our team, which has allowed us to focus on a lot of projects that have moved quicker. Because we've been able to foster internal collaboration where we haven't had as many of the external extractions that impinge upon projects, this has allowed us to deliver on a variety of energy measures where a lot of my focus is on the smart city space. So we've been able to renew energy, electricity, and procurement contracts, which has saved us about a hundred thousand dollars in the city and $700,000 amongst our energy buying consortium members that we navigate and support. We've been able to Institute a demand response program now, which allows us to curtail energy costs on hot or extremely hot or extremely cold days. So that has been enabled because of now having a virtual work platform. This has given us more confidence to be able to adjust the number of people in our facilities and to deploy energy curtailment strategies strategically.
The opportunities to build diverse teams are essential to delivering solutions that bring projects to fruition
Also, to lean on this energy management component, i.e., having instantaneous information from both our electrical supplier and the grid manager PJM is helpful. This enables our team to work directly with our facilities teams to make adjustments to heating and cooling and other types of strategic interventions. So that's been helpful for us in terms of increasing the amount of information and increasing the amount of quality data that we're then able to act upon.
Could you elaborate on some interesting and impactful project/initiatives that you’re currently overseeing?
We're constantly working on the energy and technology space, installing infrastructure to guide both district heating and community scale development, while creating the platform for electric vehicle charging. Some of the installation challenges that we're navigating now are, for instance, putting in the first pipe that will help expand a district heating system as well as the conduit for an electric vehicle charging network. So there is a learning curve in overcoming those challenges, and we're working to adapt to that. The other aspect that we're working on is developing the financial structures to figure out how to facilitate the development of those systems.
So, in many cases, we're spending a lot of time creating the enabling operating environment from a technology standpoint. Still, we are spending our time from a financing and governance standpoint on how you install and operate these new systems. It requires us to build new types of muscle memory and unique skillsets within the city government. This has a learning curve and involves education and engagement. We're spending a lot of our time corralling all of the different players to put people on the same page that sees a vision that we're trying to implement but ultimately build the network and team to help deliver on those.
How would you see the evolution a few years from now with regard to disruptions and transformations within the arena?
Even in the challenging space amidst all the turmoil that the pandemic has created, we have seen the benefits of pollution reduction, cleaner air, and the reduced environmental impact. So one of the significant challenges that we have on the horizon is how you maintain those gains in terms of pollution reduction while introducing clean technologies that allow us to get back the economy to where it was. We know the technologies and tools are out there; so how do we put them together so that when we come through the pandemic and deal with the challenges, we create a cleaner and more opportunities for people to be a participant in the economy and society going forward is the vision.
What would be the single piece of advice that you could impart to your colleagues to excel in this space?
The best advice would be team building. The opportunities to build diverse teams are essential in ultimately delivering on the solutions required to bring projects to fruition. To get a variety of inputs and perspectives is helpful because it eventually strengthens the quality of the project. There's a key component of that which is the education and the empowerment that is required to make all the people on the team available and able to help bring projects to fruition. Thus, a critical piece that managers and leaders can provide is capacity building.