Can artificial intelligence give elephants a winning edge?

Images of elephants roaming the African plains are imprinted on all of our minds and something easily recognized as a symbol of Africa. But the future of elephants today is uncertain. An elephant is currently being killed by poachers every 15 minutes, and humans, who love watching them so much, have declared war on their species. Most people are not poachers, ivory collectors or intentionally harming wildlife, but silence or indifference to the battle at hand is as deadly.

You can choose to read this article, feel bad for a moment and then move on to your next email and start your day.

Or, perhaps you will pause and think: Our opportunities to help save wildlife, especially elephants, are right in front of us and grow every day. And some of these opportunities are rooted in machine learning (ML) and the magical outcome we fondly call AI.

Open-source developers are giving elephants a neural edge

Six months ago, amid a COVID-infused world, Hackster.io, a large open-source community owned by Avnet, and Smart Parks, a Dutch-based organization focused on wildlife conservation, reached out to tech industry leaders, including Microsoft, u-blox and Taoglas, Nordic Semiconductors, Western Digital and Edge Impulse with an idea to fund the R&D, manufacturing and shipping of 10 of the most advanced elephant tracking collars ever built.

These modern tracking collars are designed to deploy advanced machine-learning (ML) algorithms with the most extended battery life ever delivered for similar devices and a networking range more expansive than ever seen before. To make this vision even more audacious, they called to fully open-source and freely share the outcome of this effort via OpenCollar.io, a conservation organization championing open-source tracking collar hardware and software for environmental and wildlife monitoring projects.

Our opportunities to help save wildlife — especially elephants — are right in front of us and grow every day.

The tracker, ElephantEdge, would be built by specialist engineering firm Irnas, with the Hackster community coming together to make fully deployable ML models by Edge Impulse and telemetry dashboards by Avnet that will run the newly built hardware. Such an ambitious project was never attempted before, and many doubted that such a collaborative and innovative project could be pulled off.

Creating the world’s best elephant-tracking device

Only they pulled it off. Brilliantly. The new ElephantEdge tracker is considered the most advanced of its kind, with eight years of battery life and hundreds of miles worth of LoRaWAN networking repeaters range, running TinyML models that will provide park rangers with a better understanding of elephant acoustics, motion, location, environmental anomalies and more. The tracker can communicate with an array of sensors, connected by LoRaWAN technology to park rangers’ phones and laptops.

This gives rangers a more accurate image and location to track than earlier systems that captured and reported on pictures of all wildlife, which ran down the trackers’ battery life. The advanced ML software that runs on these trackers is built explicitly for elephants and developed by the Hackster.io community in a public design challenge.

“Elephants are the gardeners of the ecosystems as their roaming in itself creates space for other species to thrive. Our ElephantEdge project brings in people from all over the world to create the best technology vital for the survival of these gentle giants. Every day they are threatened by habitat destruction and poaching. This innovation and partnerships allow us to gain more insight into their behavior so we can improve protection,” said Smart Parks co-founder Tim van Dam.

Open-source, community-powered, conservation-AI at work

With hardware built by Irnas and Smart Parks, the community was busy building the algorithms to make it sing. Software developer and data scientist Swapnil Verma and Mausam Jain in the U.K. and Japan created Elephant AI. Using Edge Impulse, the team developed two ML models that will tap the tracker’s onboard sensors and provide critical information for park rangers.

The first community-led project, called Human Presence Detection, will alert park rangers of poaching risk using audio sampling to detect human presence in areas where humans are not supposed to be. This algorithm uses audio sensors to record sound and sight while sending it over the LoRaWAN network directly to a ranger’s phone to create an immediate alert.

The second model they named “Elephant Activity Monitoring.” It detects general elephant activity, taking time-series input from the tracker’s accelerometer to spot and make sense of running, sleeping and grazing to provide conservation specialists with the critical information they need to protect the elephants.

Another brilliant community development came from the other side of the world. Sara Olsson, a Swedish software engineer who has a passion for the national world, created a TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard to help park rangers with conservation efforts.

With little resources and support, Sara built a full telemetry dashboard combined with ML algorithms to monitor camera traps and watering holes, while reducing network traffic by processing data on the collar and considerably saving battery life. To validate her hypothesis, she used 1,155 data models and 311 tests!

Sara Olsson's TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard

Sara Olsson’s TinyML and IoT monitoring dashboard. Image Credits: Sara Olsson

She completed her work in the Edge Impulse studio, creating the models and testing them with camera traps streams from Africam using an OpenMV camera from her home’s comfort.

Technology for good works, but human behavior must change

Project ElephantEdge is an example of how commercial and public interest can converge and result in a collaborative sustainability effort to advance wildlife conservation efforts. The new collar can generate critical data and equip park rangers with better data to make urgent life-saving decisions about protecting their territories. By the end of 2021, at least ten elephants will be sporting the new collars in selected parks across Africa, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and Vulcan’s EarthRanger, unleashing a new wave of conservation, learning and defending.

Naturally, this is great, the technology works, and it’s helping elephants like never before. But in reality, the root cause of the problem runs much more profound. Humans must change their relationship to the natural world for proper elephant habitat and population revival to occur.

“The threat to elephants is greater than it’s ever been,” said Richard Leakey, a leading palaeoanthropologist and conservationist scholar. The main argument for allowing trophy or ivory hunting is that it raises money for conservation and local communities. However, a recent report revealed that only 3% of Africa’s hunting revenue trickles down to communities in hunting areas. Animals don’t need to die to make money for the communities you live around.

With great technology, collaboration and a commitment to address the underlying cultural conditions and the ivory trade that leads to most elephant deaths, there’s a real chance to save these singular creatures.

How four European cities are embracing micromobility to drive out cars

The coronavirus pandemic is acting as a catalyst for urban transformation across Europe as city authorities grapple with how to manage urban mobility without risking citizens’ health or inviting gridlock by letting cars flood in.

Micromobility and local commerce are being seen as both short and long-term solutions for urban revival in a number of cases. We’ve run down key policy developments in four major cities, Paris, Barcelona, London and Milan, which — at varying speeds — are pushing to rethink and reclaim streets for feet and two wheels.

Paris’ 15-minute city

Every year, around 2,500 people die prematurely because of air pollution in Paris. Like most European cities, the number one cause of pollution is motorized traffic.

Due to consistent policy changes over the past two decades, pollution has been slowly decreasing. It’s a long and difficult process and each step provides a new set of challenges.

The city has only had two different mayors for the past twenty years — Bertrand Delanoë and Anne Hidalgo. That consistency combined with long terms as mayor has led to some divisive changes and long-term thinking.

Paris has a long and conflictual relationship with cars. Nearly 20 years ago, bus lanes were highly controversial because it reduced space dedicated to cars. Today, nobody is asking for the removal of those lanes.

That’s why it’s a bit ironic that the same thing is happening again and again. For instance, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo banned cars from the right bank of the Seine in 2016. Many political opponents and car enthusiasts criticized the decision. Earlier this year, none of the candidate in the municipal election mentioned the right bank of the Seine — it became a non-issue.

But the city’s policies aren’t just focused on banning cars. Paris has become a mobility lab for European cities with many public and private initiatives. If they work in Paris, chances are those initiatives will be reproduced elsewhere.

There are two reasons why Paris is an interesting city for mobility experiments. First, the Paris area is the 29th metropolitan area in the world by population density. Georges-Eugène Haussmann initiated some radical urbanization changes in the second half of the 19th century leading to the city’s modern layout — mostly seven-story buildings circled by the ring road.

As the limits of the city haven’t changed in over 100 years, it is still relatively small compared to other major cities. For instance, San Francisco, which is a small city by American standards, is still larger than Paris when it comes to area.

Second, Paris attracts a lot of tourists (in a normal year). In 2019, 38 million tourists came to Paris. These tourists tend to do normal touristy things — they move around the city all day long.

Vélib’ as the epicenter of mobility changes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Vélib' bikes

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and a fleet of Vélib’ bikes. Image Credits: Loïc Venance / AFP / Getty Images

In addition to a dense public transportation network with subways, regional trains, buses and trams, other transportation methods have emerged. In 2005, the city of Lyon introduced Vélo’v, a publicly subsidized bike-sharing service based on a network of stations spread across the city.

Two years later, the city of Paris introduced a similar servie called Vélib’. It’s hard to overstate how big of an impact Vélib’ has had on transportation. Just a few years after its launch, Vélib’ had hundreds of thousands of subscribers generation over 100,000 rides per day.

Other cities in Europe and the U.S. have followed course and introduced their own bike-sharing service. But nobody has come close to reaching the success of Vélib’. Despite some growing pains, Vélib’ now has over 400,000 subscribers. On September 4th, 2020, the service handled 209,000 rides. There are around 15,000 bikes on the service, which means that each bike is used nearly 14 times per day.

The reason why Vélib’ is much more successful than Citi Bike in New York or Santander Cycles in London is that Vélib’ is much cheaper. A standard Vélib’ subscription with unlimited ride costs $3.70 per month (€3.10). In London, you pay nearly $10 per month (£90 per year). In New York, it costs $15 per month. Subscribing to Vélib’ is a no-brainer.

And this is all due to political will. Vélib’ is a subsidized service. But it’s hard to understand the financial impact of Vélib’ as there are fewer cars on the road, which means that it’s less expensive to maintain roads. Additionally, the impact on pollution and physical activity means that people tend to be healthier, which reduces the pressure on the public health system.

Bike-sharing services can’t work without public money as it fosters network density, which boosts usage. Once the network reaches a critical mass, it’s a never-ending virtuous circle of network expansion and new clients.

Micromobility’s key battleground

A dozen Bikes from Obike in Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Many startups have tried to enter the lucrative market with their own take on bike-sharing without docks. Gobee.bike, Obike, Ofo, Mobike and more recently Bolt have all deployed thousands of bikes in the streets of Paris. They’ve all shut down since then. Jump, which is now a Lime subsidiary, is the only remaining contender.

But bikes are just one transportation method among what people call ‘soft mobility’ in France. A French startup called Cityscoot has also been thriving with tens of thousands of rides per day. The company operating free-floating electric moped scooter service.

And then, there are scooters. At some point, there were just too many scooter startups — Bird, Bolt, Bolt by Usain Bolt, Circ, Dott, Hive, Jump, Lime, Tier, Voi, Ufo and Wind. They all had funny-sounding names and there were even two different companies with the same name (Bolt). And I’m probably forgetting a couple of companies.

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

This shows once again that Paris is an attractive city for micromobility startups. There are many tourists and you can go from A to B quite easily.

The city of Paris had to regulate the market because scooters were taking over urban space. There are now three permits to operate shared electric scooters in Paris — Dott, Lime and Tier. They each operate a fleet of 5,000 scooters and there are now dedicated parking spots.

The 15-minute city

Up next, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has some ambitious plans to accelerate the pace of changes. During her reelection campaign earlier this year, she laid out a clear multiyear plan with a key concept: the 15-minute city.

“The 15-minute city represents the possibility of a decentralized city. At its heart is the concept of mixing urban social functions to create a vibrant vicinity,” Carlos Moreno, a professor at University of Paris 1, told Bloomberg.

Essentially, Moreno believes that there shouldn’t be residential neighbourhoods, business districts and commercial areas. Each neighbourhood should be a tiny town on its own with workplaces, stores, movie theaters, health centers, schools, bakeries, etc.

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, the 15-minute concept has the potential of revitalizing neighbourhoods altogether. By prioritizing social functions, roads immediately become an afterthought.

The 15-minute city is a concept that sums up a lot of things in three words. Suddenly, there’s a clear political agenda with a strong brand for the next decade of urban planning.

If I paraphrase neoliberal ideology, many policies trickle down from the 15-minute city. Car ownership is relatively low in Paris — more than 60% of households don’t have a car. Even more striking, people going to work use their car extremely rarely — in 9.5% of cases.

There are two consequences. First, cars are no longer the priority. In 2024, you won’t be able to drive a diesel car in Paris. In 2030, gas-powered cars will be banned.

Some major roads are now primarily focused on ‘soft mobility’. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the city of Paris took advantage of the lockdown to accelerate their mobility agenda with new bike lanes and repurposed roads. It feels like they’re copying the neoliberal shock doctrine, as explained by Naomi Klein. And yet, in that case, it feels like a reverse shock doctrine as the administration is focusing on green initiatives.

For instance, the Rue de Rivoli used to be a major road that connects the Champs-Elysées to Bastille. Now, one-third of the road is dedicated to buses and two-thirds are reserved for bikes and e-scooters.

Rue de Rivoli. Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Second, the City of Paris wants to reclaim space. Cars in Paris remain parked 95% of the time. That’s why Paris is going to remove 50% of parking spots. Instead, the city of Paris wants to turn some streets into gardens. There are bigger plans for new parks as well in front of the city hall and between the Eiffel Tower and Trocadéro.

After decades of incremental changes, everything is lining up for a drastic transition. In Paris, change happens progressively, then suddenly.

A bike traffic jam near Bastille, Paris

Image Credits: Romain Dillet / TechCrunch

Barcelona’s Superblocks

The Catalan capital — Spain’s second largest city — approved a new Urban Mobility Plan in 2013 with the aim of flipping street space in favor of pedestrians and away from prioritizing private vehicles. The city has the highest vehicle density in Europe and that’s a major problem.

City authorities report vehicle density at around 6,000 per square kilometer — highlighting the deleterious impact on air quality and public health. Per official stats, traffic pollution causes 3,500 premature deaths annually, 1,800 hospital admissions for cardiorespiratory problems, 5,100 cases of bronchitis in adults, 31,100 cases in children and 54,000 asthma attacks in children and adults.

The city’s solution to this public health crisis is an ambitious pedestrianization plan focused, in recent years, on creating ‘superilles’ — also known as ‘super islands’ or ‘superblocks’ — which switch the function of a number of streets from carrying cars to putting neighbourhood life first.

One of Barcelona’s early superblocks in the Poblenou district. Image Credits: Toni Hermoso Pulido / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

A handful of superblocks have been established over the years. Some, such as one in the Gracia barrio, is already so well established it’s all but invisible to the eye unless you stop to ask yourself how come there are so many pedestrians out and about and the cars that pass have to creep along behind them? Or why the edge of the pavement blends seamlessly into the road with no change of level.

But Barcelona is now planning a major expansion of the policy, championed by mayor Ada Colau, that will see it transform the dense, central Eixample district — creating masses more green (and low speed) urban space over the next ten years. They’re dubbing this the Barcelona superblock, given its central location and the larger scale vs what’s come before.

The superblocks model is naturally suited to micromobility — and building out the city’s network of bike lanes is a key part of the urban mobility plan.

Barcelona has had a red-liveried docked bike rental scheme — called Bicing — since 2007. Recently upgraded to include e-bikes alongside mechanical rides, the scheme isn’t yet as heavily used as its equivalent in Paris (and isn’t open to tourists as the subscription requires a local ID to obtain) but it is very popular with residents.

Per official data, Bicing had more than 127,000 subscribers as of September 2020 who racked up around 1.3 million journeys in the month.

In recent years e-scooter ownership has also mushroomed, with no specific legislation preventing private use on public roads, though rental companies have faced regulatory controls. Not that that’s prevented plenty of scooter startups — from Bird to Bolt to Wind — from scooter-bombing the city seeking to workaround restrictions.

A pair of Wind e-scooters parked in a Barcelona street in the barrio of Gracia where pedestrians and bikes already have priority over cars. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

As well as boosting biking and micromobility, the superblocks plan also aims to boost local commerce as streets flip from being ‘for cars’ to greener and more pleasant spaces where people are encouraged to meet, gather and do business.

In other traffic control policy measures, Barcelona began applying restrictions to vehicles based on their emissions at the start of this year — banning older petrol and diesel cars from entering during peak times. (The policy will apply to delivery transportation from next year.) While residents who own polluting vehicles have been encouraged to give up their cars in exchange for a free three-year public transit card (nudging people toward the existing metro, train and bus network).

Righting a historical wrong

With the superblocks transformation, there’s a historical architectural challenge that Barcelona’s urban planners are aiming to overcome.

The grid structure of the central Eixample district — conceived in 1856 by Catalan civil engineer, Illdefons Cerdà — aimed to extend the growing city in a healthy way by allowing for green space within every housing block.

However, the plan was implemented with a lack of regulation that allowed infill by developers and speculators over time, fuelled by rising land values and housing prices. That gobbled up gaps in the blocks intended as open public spaces. The result is a far denser city than Cerdà had planned. And one with streets that — so long as they remain packed with petrol and diesel vehicles — are noisy, polluted and unpleasant places to hang around in.

The Barcelona superblock is thus an attempt to right a historical wrong in the implementation of the city’s urban planning. Or “to modernize the Barcelona of the late nineteenth century and achieve better conditions for public health,” as city authorities put it.

It’s also a cautionary story about the need for proper regulation to accompany urban planning to ensure it serves the public interest — to protect residents’ health, quality of life and local commerce — guarding against deleterious external forces powered by private economic interests.

Around a third of Eixample’s 61 streets will be flipped to make way for a “green axes” of pedestrianized carriageway by 2030, under the Barcelona superblock plan. It will also create 21 new public squares at diagonal intersections.

The transformation of the zone will be slow, with city authorities wanting to make sure they bring residents along with them. But they have data to champion the plan — drawing on the success of a handful of existing superblocks, such as one in the Poblenou district — and can point to examples such as a third less NO2 pollution at one of the flipped interchanges and a similar increase in street level commercial activity.

The detail of the new street model has not yet been determined — the city is holding a design competition to choose that next year — but it’s set key parameters such as the need for 80% of the street to be shaded by trees/vegetation in summer, and at least 20% of its surface to be permeable rather than paved.

The city’s vision for the evolution of streets in the Barcelona superblock. Image Credits: Barcelona City Council

“It will be necessary to generate walking spaces, spaces that facilitate spontaneous children’s play and comfortable living spaces,” it writes in a press release [translated from Catalan]. “The design will have to allow for flexible spaces that can accommodate various occasional uses such as fairs, concerts and other acts. All with a feminist vision, prioritizing children and the elderly and promoting services and local trade.”

City authorities describe the aim as “a more sustainable model of public space, healthy and designed for people” — and one which “promotes social relations, which encourages local trade and focuses on the needs of children and seniors.”

They have also committed to maintain access to public transport throughout the superblocks.

Work on converting the first four streets is slated to begin in the first quarter of 2022: In Consell de Cent, Girona, Rocafort and Comte Borrell. City authorities have committed $44.8 million (€37.8 million) to these first transformations — though clearly a lot more public funding will be needed to deliver the full switch.

The coronavirus pandemic has acted as a small-scale opportunity for accelerating pedestrian-focused urban remodeling — enabling city authorities to expand Barcelona’s network of bike lanes during the relative quiet of lockdowns, and install some emergency pedestrian zones to expand outdoor space as an anti-COVID-19 measure.

Some street parking around the city has also been requisitioned and repurposed to make outdoor terrace space for cafés and bars during the pandemic.

But the need to reset an urban infrastructure that’s unhealthily monopolized by motorized traffic is an issue the city has been grappling with for decades — slowly chipping away at the problem with a variety of policies, such as those that allow for temporary road closures for local events and at weekends.

So, for many Barcelona residents, it’s not controversial to say that creating healthy, commercially active urban spaces means cars giving way to foot traffic. And the 2030 ‘Barcelona superblock’ looks like it will tip the balance for good.

That said, criticism of the project includes that it’s not radical enough — leaving a number of high-speed thoroughfares to keep on slicing right through the heart of the city. So Barcelona’s creep away from cars doesn’t yet look as radical as what’s being planned in Paris.

A Bird e-scooter parked next to a bike lane in Barcelona’s Poblenou district. Image Credits: Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch

London’s Low-Traffic Neighbourhoods

The UK capital has operated congestion charging in central zones of the city since 2003 — charging motorists to drive into the area in a bid to reduce road use during the busiest times. The policy made London a major European pioneer in applying controls on urban car use.

However, a lack of public and political consensus on the issue has restricted policy development for long periods — and even led to a rolling back, at the end of 2010, when then London mayor, Boris Johnson, scrapped a portion of the zone known as the western extension.

London’s huge population and sprawling size — with commercial zones tending to be clustered and concentrated away from large swathes of residential housing (which are often segregated by income) — means the issue of how to get around can be a divisive one, for people and businesses. So, it’s not an obvious candidate for going ‘car free’.

Yet, at the same time, London is extremely well served with public transport (buses, subways, trams and trains) — meaning plenty of journeys can be made without owning or using a private vehicle. There has also been investment in expanding the city’s network of cycle lanes in recent decades. And since 2010 a pay-as-you-go docked bike rental scheme has been in operation — racking up more than 10 million trips in total as of 2017.

Though, again, car-clogged streets and a Northern European climate can put limits on people’s willingness to brave the elements on two wheels.

London’s docked bike hire scheme. Image Credits: Elliott Brown / Flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license

Existing UK regulations have also held back the uptake of modern alternatives like e-scooters — though there are now moves to open up streets to this type of micromobility, with the city’s transport regulator preparing a trial for scooter rental companies.

While a lack of decisive political action to curb car use has undoubtedly contributed to decades of terrible air quality in London — with drastic impacts on public health (one study in 2015 suggested deaths from long term exposed to pollution could be as high as 9,500 annually) — rising awareness of the health risks associated with urban traffic has led city authorities to push policies that aim to deter the most polluting vehicles from driving through the congestion zone by applying a surcharge, which appears to have led to a decline in peak pollution levels.

London’s ‘ultra-low emission zone’ (Ulez) will be expanded to cover a larger area of the city next year. So, there’s been a centralized and somewhat sustained push to make urban car use cleaner and less harmful, even though there’s been an inconsistent approach to discouraging car use itself.

But, in a more radical recent development, the shock of the coronavirus has fuelled grassroots campaigns at a borough/neighbourhood level to bar through-traffic in residential neighbourhoods.

This is done by implementing so-called low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) which use a variety of interventions to limit traffic — such as strategically placed planters or bollards and/or timed road use restrictions to block rat runs.

Residents in a number of London boroughs who are sick of living alongside the noise and pollution generated by traffic have seized on the opportunity of COVID-19-related mobility restrictions to restrict access to roads in their immediate vicinity to through traffic.

Per Bloomberg, there were 114 plans for LTNs in the works in London as of late July.

There’s push and pull here too, with LTNs generating opposition, including complaints that rat-running cars are simply being displaced to other streets.

There are also important socioeconomic critiques that they disproportionately benefit wealthier areas at the expense of more deprived neighbourhoods.

Such opposition may in part reflect the relative rapidness of implementation since the pandemic — something a more participatory process and well-rounded monitoring and consultation might be able to avoid.

But for those lucky to be living in LTNs the gains look hard to ignore. “Now, instead of speeding cars, the streets carry street chalk, murals, flowers, and signs with children’s illustrations asking people to step out of their car and explore the neighborhood,” Bloomberg reports on the changed character of street life in one LTN.

A pedestrianized junction in Dulwich as part of emergency coronavirus measures to create more street space for people Image credits: Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

In May, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan — who has pledged to make London carbon neutral by 2030 if he’s reelected next year — announced a ‘Streetspace’ plan: Pushing a range of policies aimed at “rapidly transforming London’s streets to accommodate a possible 10x increase in cycling and 5x increase in walking.”

The plan also explicitly encourages scooting alongside walking and cycling as an urban mobility priority in London.

Part of the motivation for the policy push has been trying to steer Londoners away from a mass regressive switch away from London’s public transport — and into cars — as lockdown restrictions ease yet the risk of COVID-19 infection lingers.

Khan’s Streetspace plan also voices support for LTNs. But, ultimately, the power to restrict London traffic rests with local councils (or central government) — leaving the mayor to “urge” government/borough councils to get on board with measures aimed at persuading Londoners to switch to “cleaner, more sustainable forms of transport”.

The lack of a central London authority with a policy plan for LTNs may limit how far or fast these through-traffic-free neighbourhoods can spread in the UK capital.

Nonetheless it’s an interesting development that shows how much appetite there is among Londoners to reclaim residential streets for neighbourhood life.

Planters block a road to through traffic as part of the London’s mayor’s Streetspace plan Image credits: Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures / Getty Images

Milan’s Open Streets

Italy’s industrial north was among the hardest hit regions in Europe during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic. An extended lockdown was implemented — clearing cars off the streets of cities like Milan for months, as businesses got shuttered and residents were confined indoors — which in turn led to a noticeable improvement in air quality in a region infamous for pollution.

Since then, authorities in Milan have seized on the enforced break with a smog-filled ‘norm’ to push forward with an experimental citywide expansion of cycling lanes and pedestrianized zones — under a mobility plan called Strade Aperte (aka Open Streets) that’s aimed at adapting city infrastructure to find space for social distancing as urban life gets opened back up.

The Open Streets plan includes dropping the speed limit to 30kmph on a majority of Milan’s roads (replacing a 50kmph maximum), via signage and incorporating some structural elements for speed control; and adding 35km to its existing bike network before the end of the year.

The city launched its docked bike rental scheme, BikeMI, in 2008.

Milan is looking to boost cycling after lockdown by expanding its network of bike lanes Image credits: Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images

“As the Milan 2020 Adaptation Strategy foresees, the current health crisis can be an opportunity to decide to give more space to people and improve the environmental conditions in the city, increasing more sustainable, non-polluting, means of travel and redefining the use of streets and public spaces for commercial, recreational, cultural, and sport purposes, while respecting physical distance requirements,” city authorities write in a memo on the plan.

The overarching policy push is toward the same goal as Paris’ vision: Supporting what’s described as “the neighbourhood dimension” — aka making sure every citizen has access to almost all services within 15 minutes’ walk.

This is a strategic aim while residents are forced to live alongside the virus — and some of the measures are being couched as ‘temporary’.

But while the pandemic is acting as a catalyst/justification for rapid changes, city authorities were already looking for ways to repurpose urban infrastructure to deliver health benefits to citizens, environmental gains and boost local commerce by getting people out of cars and peddling/walking through the neighbourhood.

So, it’s hard to see where the impetus would come from to advocate a reversal back to noisier, more polluted, less playful streets.

In Milan, it’s the same story: The direction of urban travel is about rethinking streets as open public spaces for people and hyper-local micromobility, rather than letting cars colonize the commons and render its roads default highways elsewhere. Addio macchina.

Scooting on a Milan street Image credits: Mairo Cinquetti / NurPhoto / Getty Images

Panasonic explores a European battery deal with Norway’s largest energy and industrial companies

Panasonic, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries, has signed a preliminary agreement with the Nordic energy company Equinor and engineering and industrial company Norsk Hydro to collaborate on building a battery business in Northern Europe.

The three companies said that over the coming months they’ll work to assess the market for lithium-ion batteries in Europe and explore the potential for building a big battery business in Norway.

“This collaboration combines Panasonic’s position as an innovative technology company and leader in  lithium-ion batteries, with the deep industrial experience of Equinor and Hydro, both strong global players,  to potentially pave the way for a robust and sustainable battery business in Norway,” said Mototsugu Sato, executive vice president of Panasonic, in a statement. “We are pleased to enter into this initiative to explore  implementing sustainable, highly advanced technology and supply chains to deliver on the exacting needs  of lithium-ion battery customers and support the renewable energy sector in the European region.” 

As part of the agreement, the companies will explore the potential for an integrated battery value chain and for co-locating supply chain partners, according to a statement.

Panasonic is running neck and neck with LG Chem to be the leading supplier of batteries for electric vehicles in the world. The company’s main customers for batteries are Tesla and Toyota, while LG counts automakers including General Motors, Groupe Renault, Hyundai, Ford Motor Company and Volvo as its main customers. 

Panasonic’s push into Northern Europe alongside two big regional players in hydrocarbons and renewable energy is a sign of the potential that exists in the European market beyond automotive.  

“Our companies seek to be leaders in the energy transition. The creation of this world-class battery  partnership demonstrates Equinor’s ambition to become a broad energy company,” said Al Cook, executive vice president of Global Strategy & Business  Development at Equinor, in a statement. “We believe that battery storage will play an increasingly important role in bringing energy systems to net zero emissions. By pooling our different areas of energy expertise, our companies will seek to create a battery business that is  profitable, scalable and sustainable.”

A Biden presidency doesn’t need a Green New Deal to make progress on climate change

Even without a Green New Deal, the sweeping set of climate-related initiatives many Democrats are pushing for, President-elect Joe Biden will have plenty of opportunities to move ahead with much of the ambitious energy transformation plan as part of any infrastructure or stimulus package.

Should Republicans manage to maintain control of the Senate, there are still several opportunities to build climate-friendly policies into the infrastructure and stimulus bills Congress will be pushing through as its first orders of business, according to experts, investors and advisors to the President-elect.

That’s good news for established companies and the wave of startups focused on technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global climate change. And these changes could happen despite intransigence from even moderate Republicans like Mitt Romney on climate issues.

“I think people are saying that conservative principles still account for a majority of public opinion in our country,” Romney said on “Meet the Press” last week. “I don’t think they want to sign up for a Green New Deal. I don’t think they want to sign up for getting rid of coal or oil or gas. I don’t think they’re interested in Medicare for All or higher taxes that would slow down the economy.”

Already, current market conditions are forcing some of the largest oil, gas and energy companies to transition to renewables. As those companies begin closing refineries in the U.S., Congress is going to feel increasing pressure to find a way to replace those jobs.

For instance, Shell announced earlier this month in Louisiana that it was closing a factory and laying off roughly 650 workers. The closure is primarily due to declining demand for oil brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, but both Netherlands-headquartered Shell and its U.K.-based counterpart BP believe fossil fuel consumption may have reached its peak in 2019 and is headed for long-term decline.

U.S. oil and gas giants aren’t immune from the economic impacts of COVID-19 and a global shift away from fossil fuels either. Two of the largest companies, Chevron and ExxonMobil, have seen their share prices decline over the past year as the oil industry reckons with steep reductions in demand and other market pressures.

Meanwhile, some of the nation’s largest utilities are working to phase out fossil fuel-based power generation.

The markets are already supporting the transition to renewable energy, without much government guidance, at least here in the U.S. So against this backdrop, the question isn’t if the government should be supporting the transition to renewable energy, but how quickly stimulus can be mobilized to save American jobs.

“A lot of the really consequential climate-related stuff that’s going to come out in the [near term] … won’t actually be related to renewables,” an advisor to the President-elect said.

So the questions become: What will economic stimulus look like? How will it be distributed? and how will it be financed?

Image Credits: Artem_Egorov/Getty Images

Economic stimulus, COVID-19 and climate

President-elect Biden has already spelled out the first priorities for his incoming administration. While trying to manage the COVID-19 pandemic that has already killed over 238,000 Americans comes first, dealing with the economic fallout caused by the response to the pandemic will quickly follow.

Climate-friendly initiatives will loom large in that effort, analysts and advisors indicate, and could be a boon to new technology companies — as well as longtime players in the fossil fuels business.

“If we are going to be spending that money, there is an enormous opportunity to make sure that these investments are moving us forward and not recreating problems,” said one advisor to the Biden campaign earlier this year.

To understand how the trillions of dollars that are up for grabs will be spent, it’s helpful to think in terms of short-, medium- and long-term goals.

In the short term, the focus will be on “shovel-ready” projects that can be spun up as quickly as possible. These would be initiatives like environmental retrofits and building upgrades; repairing and upgrading water systems and electricity grids; providing more manufacturing incentives for electric vehicles; and potentially boosting money for environmental remediation and reclamation projects.

In all, that spending could total $750 billion by some estimates and would be used to get Americans back to work with a focus on industrial and manufacturing jobs that could have long-term benefits for the national economy — especially if that spending targets the government-designated Opportunity Zones carved out around the country to help low-income rural and urban communities.

If these efforts incorporate Opportunity Zones, there’s a chance to deploy the cash even faster. And if there are ways to preferentially rank infrastructure projects that also include a tech component, then that’s even better for startups who have managed to overcome hurdles associated with technology risk.

“Any time you craft policy, especially federal policy, you have to be so careful that the incentives line up correctly with what you’re trying to achieve,” said a Biden advisor.

Medium- and longer-term goals will likely require more time to plan and develop, because they’re relying on newer technologies in some cases, or they will have to wind their way through the planning process at the local and state levels before they can receive federal funds to begin construction.

Expect another $60 billion to be spent on these projects to finance development, workforce training and reskilling to prepare a labor force for a different kind of labor market.

Incentives over mandates 

One of the biggest risks that Biden administration climate policies face is the potential for legal challenges heard before an increasingly sympathetic conservative judiciary appointed under the Trump administration.

These challenges could force the Biden team to emphasize the financial benefits of adopting business-friendly carrots over regulatory sticks.

“Whenever possible you do want to let the markets figure themselves out,” said the advisor to the President-elect. “You always want to default to incentives rather than mandates.”

Coming off of the news this week that Pfizer has received positive results for its vaccine, there are some models from the current administration’s progress on a COVID-19 vaccine that can be instructive.

While Pfizer wasn’t involved in the Operation Warp Speed program created by the Department of Health and Human Services, the company did cut a $2 billion deal with the government that guaranteed a market for its vaccines.

The type of public-private partnerships that Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy mentions could also be employed in the climate space — especially in areas that will be hardest hit by the transition away from coal.

Some of that spending guarantee could come in the form of environmental remediation for orphaned natural gas wells or coal mining operations — especially in regions of the country like the Dakotas, Montana, West Virginia and Wyoming, that would be hardest hit by a transition away from fossil fuels. Some could come from the development of new geothermal engineering projects that require the same kind of skills that engineering firms and oil companies have developed over the past decades.

And, there’s the looming promise of a hydrogen-based economy, which could take advantage of some of the existing oil-and-gas infrastructure and expertise that exists in the country to transition to a cleaner energy future (n.b., that’s not necessarily a clean energy future, but it’s a cleaner one).

Already, nations like Japan are building the groundwork for replacing oil with hydrogen fuels, and these kinds of incentive-based programs and public-private partnerships could be a big boost for startups in a number of industries as well.

Image Credits: Cameron Davidson/Getty Images

Sharing the wealth (rural edition)

Any policies that a Biden administration enacts would have to focus on economic opportunity broadly, and much of the proposed plan from the campaign fulfills that need. One of its key propositions was that it would be “creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban and tribal,” according to the transition website.

An early emphasis on grid and utility infrastructure could create significant opportunities for job creation across America — and be a boost for technology companies.

“Our electric power infrastructure is old, aging and not secure,” said Abe Yokell, co-founder of the energy and climate-focused venture capital firm Congruent Ventures. “From an infrastructure standpoint, transmission distribution really should be upgraded and has been underinvested over the years. And it is in direct alignment with providing renewable energy deployment across the U.S. and the electrification of everything.”

Combining electric infrastructure revitalization with new broadband capabilities and monitoring technologies for power and water would be a massive windfall for companies like Verizon (which owns TechCrunch), and other networking companies. It also provides utilities with a way to adjust their rates (which they appreciate).

Those infrastructure upgrades are also useful in helping utilities find a way to repurpose stranded coal assets that are both costly and — increasingly — useless.

“Coal … it doesn’t make sense to burn coal anymore,” Yokell said. “People are doing it even though it’s out of the money for liability reasons … everyone is looking to retire coal even in the assets.”

If those assets can be decommissioned and repurposed to act as nodes on a distributed energy grid using energy storage to smooth capacity in the same way that those coal plants used to, “it’s a massive win,” according to Yokell. Adoption of energy storage used to be a cost issue, Yokell said. “It’s now a siting issue.”

Repowering old hydroelectric assets with newer, more efficient technologies offer another way to move the needle with shovel-ready projects and is an area where startups could stand to benefit from the push. It’s also a way to bring jobs to rural communities.

The promise of infrastructure spending can be born out across urban and rural areas, but the stimulus benefits don’t end there.

For rural communities there are business opportunities in “climate-smart agriculture, resilience and conservation, including 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock and uranium mines,” as the Biden transition team notes. And there’s a huge opportunity for oil industry workers to find jobs in the new and growing tech-enabled geothermal energy industry.

The farm subsidies that have skyrocketed under the Trump administration could continue, just with a more climate-focused bent. Instead of literally giving away the farm to the tune of a projected $46 billion that the Trump administration will hand out to farmers over the course of 2020, payouts could be predicated on “carbon farming.” Wooing the farm vote with the promise of payouts for carbon sequestration could be a way to restart a conversation around a carbon price (a largely failed prospect in government circles). Beyond carbon sequestration, rapid innovations in synthetic biology for biomaterials, coatings and even food could take advantage of the big biofuel fermenters and feedstocks in the Midwest to enable a new biomanufacturing industry.

Furthermore, the expansion of rail lines thanks to the fracking and oil boom means opportunities and the potential to build out other types of manufacturing capacity that can be transported across the U.S.

vw-plant-tennessee

Volkswagen broke ground Wednesday, November 13, 2019 on an $800 million factory expansion in Tennessee that will be the North American hub of its electric vehicle plans. Image Credits: Volkswagen

Sharing the wealth (urban edition) 

The same spending that could juice rural economies can be equally applied in America’s largest cities. Any movement to boost the auto industry through incentives around electric vehicles or federal mandates to upgrade fleets would do wonders for automakers and the original equipment manufacturers that supply them.

Public-private partnerships for urban infrastructure could first receive support from funds devoted to planning and managing upgrades. That could boost the adoption of new tech from startup companies around the country, while creating new jobs for a significant number of workers through implementation.

One large area where urban economic revitalization and climate policies can intersect is in the relatively unsexy area of weatherization, energy efficient appliance installation and building retrofits.

“Local governments across the country are highly interested in the green economy and transitioning to the low-carbon economy,” said Lauren Zullo, the director of environmental impact at the real estate management firm, Jonathan Rose Companies. “Cities are really looking to partner with the private real estate sector because they know we’re going to have to get buildings involved in the green economy. And any work that you do retrofitting local buildings is literally local economy.”

By channeling dollars into green retrofits and the deployment of distributed renewable energy, local economies will get a huge boost — and one that disproportionately will go to helping the communities that have been on the front lines of climate change.

You saw … a lot of investment made just this way out of the Recovery Act,” Zullo said, referring to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the stimulus bill passed in the first term of the Obama administration. “A lot of [funds] focused on low-income weatherization that were earmarked for low income and affordable housing. [Those] funds have allowed us to reduce energy consumption anywhere from 30% to 50% … and being able to gain those utility cost savings have been transformational to those communities.”

Why are these programs so important? Zullo explained further, “Low-income folks are disproportionately burdened by utility and energy costs. Any sort of energy-saving opportunities that we can earmark or target in these low-income communities is truly impactful … not just on a carbon footprint, but on the lives and success of these low-income communities.”

Paying for it

For even this more-modest legislation to make it through Congress, a Biden administration will have to answer the questions of who would pay for the stimulus and how it would get distributed.

In a tweet, the political commentator Matthew Yglesias proffered that the country could afford “to throw an ice cream party.” That policy would enable Republicans to keep the tax cuts while allowing the government to continue to spend on stimulus measures.

“[Interest] rates are very low. The country can afford an ice cream option where we spend money on some good things and ‘offset’ with tax cuts,” Yglesias wrote.

To distribute the funds, Congress could set up a body similar to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was established by Herbert Hoover’s administration back at the start of the Great Depression. It was expanded under Franklin Delano Roosevelt to disburse funds to financial institutions, farms and corporations at risk of collapse.

While the success of the institution itself is somewhat murky, the RFC along with federal deposit insurance and the related Commodity Credit Corporation (which, unlike the RFC, still exists) laid the groundwork for the country to emerge from the Great Depression and gear up manufacturing to engage with a world at war in the 1940s.

The durability of the CCC could provide a model for any infrastructure credit corporation that the government may want to establish.

Some investors support the idea. “It’s more about channeling dollars to state, municipal or private businesses with the ability to underwrite heavily subsidized loans to any entity proposing a modern infrastructure project that could be paid through municipal bonds or tolling,” said one investor in the infrastructure space. “It would offer a credit backstop to anyone who wanted to invest in infrastructure and could have a technological requirement associated with it.”

Several investors suggested that capital from loans paid out through the infrastructure bank could finance the reshoring of industry, with potential tax revenues from the businesses offsetting some of the costs of the loans. Some of these measures could have additional economic benefits if the loans get funneled through local financial institutions as well.

“If you think about a vehicle to deliver these funds, you already have an existing architecture to deliver this … which is the municipal bond market,” said Mark Paris, a managing partner at Urban.us, a venture capital fund focused on urban infrastructure. 

The infrastructure answer

There’s no shortage of levers that the Biden administration can pull to reverse the course of the Trump administration’s policies on climate change, but many of these federal policy changes are likely to face challenges in courts.

Vox’s David Roberts has an excellent run down of some of the direct actions that Biden can take along the path toward decarbonization of the U.S. economy. They include restoring the over 125 climate and environmental regulations that the Trump presidency reversed or rolled back; working with the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a new, more sweeping version of the original Obama-era Clean Power Plan; push the Department of Transportation’s development of new fuel economy standards; and supporting California’s own, very aggressive vehicle standards.

Biden can also encourage financial markets to make more of an effort to price climate risk into their financial models for investment, which would further encourage investment in climate-friendly businesses and a divestment from fossil fuels, as Roberts notes.

Some of America’s largest financial services institutions are already doing just that, and oil-and-gas companies are wrestling with the need to transition to renewable or emission-free fuels as their share prices take a pummeling and demand plummets on the back of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Mother Jones suggested last year, a Biden administration could declare climate change a national security emergency, in the same way that the Trump administration declared immigration to be a national security emergency. That would give Biden extensive powers to reshape the economy and directly influence industrial policy.

Declaring a national climate emergency would give Biden the powers he needs to enact much of the infrastructure initiatives that comprise the President-elect’s energy plan, but not a popular mandate to support it.

Before taking that step, Biden may choose to try and exhaust all legislative options first. In a divided Congress that means focusing on infrastructure, jobs and industry incentives.

“The impacts of climate change don’t pick and choose. That’s because it’s not a partisan phenomenon. It’s science. And our response should be the same. Grounded in science. Acting together. All of us,” Biden said in a September speech.

“These are concrete, actionable policies that create jobs, mitigate climate change and put our nation on the road to net-zero emissions by no later than 2050,” he said. “We can invest in our infrastructure to make it stronger and more resilient, while at the same time tackling the root causes of climate change.”

 

Biden’s infrastructure plans could boost startups

As President-elect Joe Biden readies his transition team and sets the agenda for his first 100 days in office, startups can expect to see some movement on long-stalled infrastructure initiatives that could mean big boosts to their business.

Infrastructure is high on the list of priorities of the incoming Biden Administration as the former vice president hopes to make good on his campaign promise to “build back better.”

American infrastructure has been crumbling for decades without significant investment from the federal government, and much of what will be replaced will also be upgraded with new technology, according to people familiar with the Biden plan.

That means tech companies focused on next-generation telecommunications and utility infrastructure, transportation, housing and construction tech around energy efficiency could see new dollars pour in over the next four years.

“Infrastructure and build out of the clean energy economy … doesn’t necessarily mean large wind or large solar projects. It could mean advanced metering … it can be new engine technologies,” said Dan Goldman, a managing partner at Clean Energy Ventures. “We think that that can be a huge opportunity for job creation … not only putting people back to work but putting people back to work in high quality jobs.”

And there’s a willingness to encourage these infrastructure projects in less partisan ways in states like Massachusetts, Virginia and Florida, which are actively building out electric vehicle infrastructure and renewable energy projects, Goldman said.

While the federal government will ultimately be distributing the cash, startups can expect to see the spending actually come from municipalities and state governments, which often have a better understanding of local needs and where the money should go.

Next-generation energy infrastructure

The electrification of everything — a component of any zero-carbon movement — requires significant upgrades to existing power infrastructure. That means everything from systems management technologies to distribution facilities to ways to store power that can be moved on to the grid.

“Without that infrastructure investment it gets quite challenging,” said Abe Yokell, a co-founder and managing partner of Congruent Ventures. 

He pointed to large-scale energy storage technologies as one solution, but management systems for utilities will be another area of interest.

Those infrastructure initiatives will likely mean good things for battery companies like Form Energy, which signed its first major contract with Great River Energy earlier this year; or Antora and Malta, which store energy as heat; or Quidnet, which has a pumped hydroelectric play for large-scale energy storage by pumping water into the gaps between rocks underground that creates pressure and can force water back up through a generator.

Other large-scale energy storage companies working on developing and installing batteries could benefit as well. That means good things for Tesla, which has a few major battery installs under its belt, and Fluence, which manages and operates big install projects.

Natel Energy, another startup working on energy storage (and generation) using hydropower, could also find its technology in the mix, according to company founder, Gia Schneider.

Schneider sees three potential pitches for her company’s technologies. “Climate change is water change,” she said. “We have a bucket in energy, a bucket of stuff in environmental and a bucket of stuff in working lands.”