In 2016, there is an array of new technological advances that have the potential to reshape our world and when it comes to the U.S. infrastructure, there is an imminent need for such a face lift. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card, the cost of bringing America’s infrastructure to a state of good repair (a grade of B) by 2020 is $3.6 trillion. Not only is that a heavy financial burden, but many of the issues in need of repair or updating disproportionately affect low-income households. When thinking about resolutions to challenges such as access to renewable energy, reliable public transportation and building resilient cities, there is a need for organizations willing to lead the charge by leveraging the latest advances in technology to bring enduring change to communities in need.
For decades the public transportation system in all its forms has been a staple in cities around the country. However, according to a survey conducted by the Center of Neighborhood Technology (CNT) on 28 metropolitan areas across the country, the average low-income household in the U.S. spends almost 30 percent of its total income on transportation expenses. That’s a heavy burden for families who are struggling just to make ends meet. Smart cities like Columbus, Ohio, the winner of the $40 million Smart City Challenge from the U.S. Department of Transportation, are working to address costly mobility issues using technology and Internet of Things (IoT) with plans to implement electric and autonomous transit to connect people with more job opportunities and reduce costs.
While many in higher income brackets are reaping the benefits of renewable energy with lower electric bills and doing their part to reduce their output of carbon emissions, many low-income families do not have those same opportunities. A review of 48 major U.S. metropolitan areas finds that low-income households devote up to three times more of their income to energy costs than average households in the same city. Energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions are essential to closing this gap. To ensure the U.S. and other countries meet their climate goals, access to these solutions by low-income communities is critical. An approach called “community solar,” which is quickly gaining currency in community planning circles and starting to attract mainstream media attention, can help. These projects, financed by multiple members of the community, give solar energy access to families who do not own property or can only afford to purchase a portion from a shared energy source. Recently Rocky Mountain Institute (Edelman client), in partnership with ROCSPOT, issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to develop at least 16 megawatts (MW) of solar generation to broaden solar access in Rochester, N.Y. to include low- and moderate-income households. These solar projects not only offer renewable energy to lower-income communities, but also have the ability to reduce electric bills for participants in the same way residents can save by using their own solar panels.
Superstorm Sandy cost $67 billion in damages and had a disproportionate effect on low- and moderate-income families in its aftermath. As scientists are beginning to link extreme weather events like wildfires and hurricanes to climate change, a term that has become popular in an effort to mitigate the effects on communities from such events is “resilience.” If the infrastructure in communities, particularly in low-income areas, isn’t built to sustain damages from the type of extreme weather that is forecast to become the new norm, it will be even more difficult for these communities to have ample opportunities to prosper. In response to this dire need, the Obama administration announced the winners of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) that will give states funding to invest in repairs from past damage and pilot new and innovative approaches to build resilience in low-income public housing. Other opportunities to advance resilience include The Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC), offering grants to organizations that can increase energy efficiency and/or the deployment of renewable energy solutions in low-income communities.
When it comes to addressing the needs of low-income communities across the country, public officials should evaluate infrastructure in a holistic way comprising clean energy, affordable transportation and resilient communities. As the IoT revolutionizes cities there is a lot of potential to increase opportunities for marginalized communities, not only in economic growth but higher participation in the clean energy revolution. On the path to this transformation, it’s worth noting that public relations and digital marketing will play a powerful role by fostering compelling storytelling between community leaders. When deploying new technologies and processes, we naturally seek lessons learned from peers.
While some of these projects and initiatives may take longer than others to come to fruition, they can lead the way for more organizations to get involved in reshaping how the country tackles these issues.
Mike Heymsfield is a senior account executive at Edelman, Silicon Valley.