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Smart Buildings the Next Step for Seattle

Downtown Seattle and the Elliott Bay waterfront are seen from atop the roof of the 650-foot-tall Space Needle looking South over the skyline on April 17, 2012.

From gourmet coffee to online shopping and software, the Seattle region has a long history of bringing innovations to market. And with its environmental consciousness, Seattle consistently ranks among the greenest cities in the United States.

So it makes sense that the region is capitalizing on its sustainability ethos to sharpen its next competitive advantage: smart building technology.

The region’s desire to cement a new market capability was partly about jobs, given the Great Recession and its aftermath. But leaders were concerned about a more basic dilemma: How can Seattle get beyond the “two Bills”-- Bill Boeing and Bill Gates—to build the next generation of innovation and a platform for broad-based economic growth?

Given their existing strengths, firms and leaders in the Puget Sound region made a play to apply their expertise in cloud computing, big data, and information technology to increasing energy efficiency in the built environment. And this would be an export opportunity, too. Rapid urbanization worldwide is prompting global demand for new sustainable solutions and technologies, a market that Seattle entrepreneurs and workers could meet.

To effectively enter and lead in the clean technology market, the region needed to address some market failures, including providing proof of return on investment of new technology for hesitant adopters and investors and building a skilled labor force to staff the increasingly sophisticated industry.

After developing a business plan, the Puget Sound region is now in the midst of a three-pronged, collaborative Smart Buildings effort driven by public, private, and non-profit partners including Innovate Washington, Microsoft, the city of Seattle, South Seattle Community College, and the Puget Sound Regional Council.

First, a high-performance buildings pilot launched last year is demonstrating the efficacy and return-on-investment of energy efficient technology in a mix of buildings—the Seattle Sheraton hotel, a University of Washington medical lab, a Boeing industrial facility, and a city of Seattle office building. The buildings are providing on-site building operators access to a constant digital building performance dashboard. The dashboard helps raise alarms if a key part might break down during an upcoming major event and identifies whether a large ballroom’s temperature needs to be readjusted following a large convening.

“We’re not having to babysit the system as much,” explained Rodney Schauf, the Seattle Sheraton’s director of engineering.

In the first six months of participation in the program, the University of Washington building reduced its energy use by 9 percent and the Sheraton reduced its usage by 5.5 percent, according to Brian Geller, the executive director of the Seattle 2030 District, the city’s larger high performance building district.

Second, the Smart Buildings Center opened as hub for business collaborations, technology demonstrations, and evaluation for energy efficiency technology solutions. The center is also currently developing an initiative to harness K-12 school and public building energy data for greater efficiencies. The effort is aided by the Cleantech Open, which identifies, connects, and mentors companies participating in the center.

Finally, South Seattle College will launch a new Sustainable Building Science Technology Bachelor’s of Applied Science Program, with the inaugural class starting this fall. The program, which combines technical systems understanding with internship opportunities and management skills, has already received strong interest from prospective students.

With this coordinated and comprehensive effort—which has been aided by funds from a federal i6 Green Challenge grant, state matching funds, and other private support—the region is on its way to demonstrating that its sustainable image can also produce real economic gains.

The initiative featured here emerged from work supported by the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation. Brookings recognizes that the value it provides is in its absolute commitment to quality, independence, and impact. Activities supported by its donors reflect this commitment and the analysis and recommendations are solely determined by the scholar.

  • Amy Liu is a senior fellow, and co-director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. She and Bruce Katz, the Institution’s Vice President, launched the program in 1996 to provide decision-makers with the latest trends analyses, policy ideas, and on-the-ground practices to help metropolitan areas, compete and prosper. Over the years, she has worked directly with neighborhood, city, suburban, and rural leaders within metropolitan areas; and government, business and civic leaders at the regional, state, and national level to address the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing our communities.

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