Smart Connections and Conversations on the Road at SXSW Eco and VERGE SF

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Over the past few weeks, I had the privilege of attending both SXSW Eco and VERGE San Francisco, events that brought together a diverse cross-section of businesses (large and small), entrepreneurs, NGO’s, Universities, public sector, thought leaders and students.

These forums are incredibly important in bringing together the human network of  cross-sector leaders to work on some of the biggest sustainability challenges of our time.


At SXSWEco in Austin, I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with Chris O’Connor, VP Strategy for Cloud/Smarter Infrastructure for IBM, and Nathan Phillips, a professor from Boston University who studies physiological mechanisms and the processes by which plants and ecosystems regulate water loss and carbon gain.

SXSWEco Panel; Katie Tweed (Moderator, GreenTech Media), Chris O'Connor (IBM), Melissa O'Mara (Schneider Electric), Nathan Phillips (Boston University)
SXSWEco Panel; Katie Tweed (Moderator, GreenTech Media), Chris O’Connor (IBM), Melissa O’Mara (Schneider Electric), Nathan Phillips (Boston University)

Our job was to discuss and debate whether IT (information technology) or OT (operational technology) was more important to enabling smart, sustainable cities, as well as the natural systems in cities. The consensus of the panel is that both IT and OT (as well as HT – human transformation) are extremely important. Cities start where they have the most pain, and also where they have thought leaders or game changers that see the need, and make the case for addressing this need across their span of influence.

We discussed the city of Boston, where we have all worked on smart city initiatives. At Schneider Electric, we recently won the implementation of a “top-down” Enterprise Energy Management System. Of course, the fact that the city could provide data from lots of buildings, traffic lights and streetlights speaks to the fact that they’ve also done some “bottom-up” work at the infrastructure level. Much of the credit goes to Brian Sweet, the city’s chief of environment and energy, who has been making this work a priority.

While at SXSWEco, I also had a chance to do a video interview with Nick Aster of Triple Pundit about Smart Cities, where I was able to cite two examples of work we are doing– the Enterprise Energy Management System in the city of Boston, and the Integrated Corridor Management system in the Dallas metro area.

If you’re looking to get a sense of the larger event, I highly recommend this summary from Triple Pundit: 20 Inspiring Quotes from SXSWEco 2013. And to see the conversation that took place in the twittersphere, check out #SXSWEco.

VERGE San Francisco

At VERGE San Francisco, I represented Schneider Electric on a panel of experts discussing Collective Leadership as a Key to Transforming Cities. The panel was a great combination of experts, from Jiang Lin, of The Energy Foundation, who brought a wealth of information from his work in China, to Mark Gander, who has worked many iconic projects for AECOM, especially in the transportation and mobility space, and most recently on the WBCSD Urban Infrastructure Initiative in Philadelphia (which attendees will be hearing about at Greenbuild in November). We also heard from Yiaway Yeh, Co-Chief Innovation Officer for Metro Gov’t of Nashville and Davidson County, sharing on his new “Ideas to Realities” program with Nashville’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The VERGE agenda was rich with important sessions, a continued value provided by VERGE and GreenBiz events. What stood out for me most this year were the number of game changers truly open to collaboration, hungry to network with like-minded leaders and discover new ways to supplement their own efforts in leveraging technology to enable sustainability.

The twittersphere was also fairly active, and I did my fair share of tweeting (#VERGECon, @melissaomara). My favorite tweet came from Colin Tetreault, Senior Policy Advisor, Sustainability for Office of the Mayor, City of Phoenix.

The highlight of the event for me was on the main stage – when Former Colonel Mark (Puck) Mykleby spoke passionately about a “Grand Strategy” for America and was the only speaker to receive a standing ovation during the event. Heather Clancy from GreenBiz and I did our best to extend his call to action to our topic – Harnessing Human Systems to Enable Smarter Cities.

Melissa O'Mara with Heather Clancy at VERGE
Melissa O’Mara with Heather Clancy at VERGE

After two weeks filled with valuable discussions, I look forward to seeing the connections made at these events mature into collaborative work. Seeing some of these projects and ideas come to fruition will serve to open new avenues to progress on smart cities.

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