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Communities / Environment

Cities are the major unit of analysis for the future: CUSP Dep. Director [Q&A]

New technology for understanding how cities work are coming online just as cities become the critical unit for improving quality of life, according to top Brooklyn city scientist.

Downtown Brooklyn on July 4th. Photo by Flickr user MichaelTapp [Creative Commons]

Cities need to be studied as a separate unit of analysis in the same way individual business data is used in economics. It’s with that thinking that NYU’s Center for Urban Science Progress [CUSP] welcomed its first class this year led by Prof. Constantine Kontokosta, CUSP’s Deputy Director.

We live in an exciting moment, when more and more, cities solve problems while higher levels of government are in deadlock, Konotokosta said. Luckily, computing power and measurement instruments are becoming good enough to allow researchers to make a real science of studying cities, applying some of the techniques innovated in other science to better understanding urban life.

Prof. Kontokosta told us that he’s also at work on projects around measuring waste and creating better environmental impact statements, with other projects in the works that Technically Brooklyn looks forward to hearing about soon.

Below, find an interview between Brooklyn and the CUSP leader.

Technically Brooklyn: You’re doing research into establishing a baseline for buildings and their efficiency. What more can you tell us?

Professor Constantine Kontokosta: Sure, so, a lot of this work has come out of my engagement with the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning, to analyze all the building energy data to come out of Building Law 84, which is New York City’s benchmarking law. A law that was the first of its kind in the country. Now I think there are eight cites that have similar reporting requirements.

So it started with the purpose to use this energy data to do a better job of how to evaluate how a building is performing from an energy perspective. And as an opportunity to, perhaps, cluster segments of the market a little more accurately so you could identify targeted regulations, targeted incentives, that would more effectively get to the goals that New York City had of reducing energy consumption in buildings. About half of the 2030 goals for reductions in energy are to come from buildings.

I have been working with the city now for three years. We have three years worth of data. We also have data from a few other providers now on energy consumption. We are working to develop a more accurate energy performance rating, to allow the marketplace to understand and value energy performance in its investment data. I’ve been a part of two reports now on this data (Edit: 2012 and 2013), from the Mayor’s Office of Longterm Planning and Sustainability

TBK: In the podcast we covered that you appeared on, you said it was important to consider what is being done in a building. It’s a different question if you have a normal residential building compared to one filled with huge computers. How do you factor that in?

Kontokosta: So that’s kind of the crux of what we’re finding.  A lot of the previous work on energy efficiency had really focused on the physical characteristics of a building. Especially in office buildings, that doesn’t do a great job of comparing the variations in how much energy a building actually uses. Under this new law, people are also reporting other info, like number of occupants, number of computers, what its hours are.

An important component of what we are doing at CUSP is taking a lot of disparate data sets and merging them together. There are a lot of analysis and insights you can gain from doing that. We have been able to merge with other data sets that have much more granular information about what kind of tenants there are. That gives us a sense of the intensity of use.

We just launched a major project with CB Richard Ellis and the National Resources Defense Council, to actually work with CB Richard Ellis to collect data from over 1,000 tenants, in 300 different commercial buildings that CB Richard Ellis manages across the country. We are going to collect a lot of very detailed information about how tenants are using a space, how much energy they are using.  An important thing to remember in all of this, is a typical building owner in a multi tenant building only controls about half of the energy use. Tenants have a lot of control. I think this gives us a platform to devise better systems to improve energy efficiency going forward.

TBK: Why did you get interested in studying cities?

Kontokosta: I think I was born with it. I grew up in NYC. Born and raised. My trajectory has always been a study of a built environment. Starting with an engineering degree, and then into urban economics and urban planning. All that education went into not only the relevance of cities, but the relevance of cities from a sustainability perspective. 

What we are doing at CUSP is an incredible new approach to the study of cities. The tools and techniques that we are developing and bringing together here will be critical to how we shape cities in the future.

TechBK: If you can really prove that enhancements to the environment will yield real impacts to worker productivity, then you might be able to encourage investors to more actively invest in improving buildings. How important is that? 

Kontokosta: A typical building in NYC will rent for $100 per sq foot per year. They’ll spend $3 per square foot on electricity. So even if you save 50 percent on electricity, you are saving $1.50 per square foot. That same tenant will spend something like $500-$800 per square foot on employees, so if you do something that will reduce sick days, this will have an incredible impact on  revenue for that company.

That’s why I think this is the next big wave. What are the actual human impacts, the health impacts, on people who are working and living in buildings that are more efficient or more sustainable.

TBK: What’s different today about studying cities from five years ago?

Kontokosta: I think CUSP is direct evidence of the shift. I think we are seeing a lot of interest from folks in computer science and other sciences, who have not looked at the city as a unit of analysis. We saw this in business schools over the last fifty to eighty years, where the firm became a unit of study. I think we are starting to see that rigor and that coherence around the study of the cities.

The tools that are being brought to bear, the amount of data that is being made available, is really dovetailing generally well with an environment in which cities have become a focal point at which we can improve quality of life and address society’s problems going forward. It’s an interesting conflation of a number of trends that have come together to make the study of cities much more scientific, rigorous in its approach and much more data driven.

TBK: Where do you anticipate your and CUSP’s work studying cities in five years?

Kontokosta: We have a number of long term research and experimental platforms that we are trying to establish and hope will be established in that time, and then we will be able to bring in researchers from a number of fields who will be able to come in and ask interesting questions.

I think there is also just advancing the discussion, advancing the state of the art of an urban science, this emerging concept of a science of cities. Are there underlying common principles that will help us understand how cities grow, how cities form and how cities function?

TBK: Brooklyn has a great startup scene and a technology community. Do you see CUSP interfacing with that entrepreneurial community?

Kontokosta: Absolutely. One of the benefits of being located in downtown Brooklyn as we are, we get to tap in and be a resource element for that innovation community. Already NYU Poly has some of the most successful tech incubators. CUSP will have an important commercialization and entrepreneurial piece as well. CUSP  will also have an incubator that will be defined in the next few years.

We certainly see ourselves as embedded in the technology scene of Brooklyn, and hopefully contributing quite a bit to its growth.

Companies: Center for Urban Science and Progress / NYU Tandon School of Engineering
Series: Brooklyn

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