Energy-efficient homes are becoming more commonplace, thanks to affordable energy-conserving light bulbs and appliances. With the advent of products like the Nest “smart” thermostat, they also are conserving energy more intelligently. The Nest thermostat “learns” the behavior patterns of a residence’s occupants—for example, if a home occupant turns up the heat upon coming home in the evening, but turns it back down the next morning before leaving for work. The thermostat then incorporates such practices into a program that efficiently and cost effectively moderates the residence’s temperature. While the resulting energy savings is obviously beneficial, today’s extensive communications backbone and technical advantages make one wonder if such energy-conservation efforts can be rolled out on a grander scale.

In the microwave and RF industry, for example, there has been a lot of buzz about smart-grid applications—and by and large, those applications range far beyond smart meters. By relying on wireless communications ranging from ZigBee to fourth-generation (4G) technologies, energy-monitoring devices can communicate back to a central point for billing, customer service, and more. Given information about an individual home or business, the utility can encourage energy conservation by offering incentives to people who do not vary their thermostats during temperature extremes or use their appliances at off-peak times. Beyond targeting a home or business, it makes sense that the delivery of real-time information about energy usage could be used to inspire energy-conservation efforts across a grid, or even an entire city.

In fact, the Worldwatch Institute asserts that the use of information and communication technology (ICT) could indeed help cities achieve higher levels of safety, cleanliness, and sustainability. In a report titled, “Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2012: Moving Toward Sustainable Prosperity,” the institute notes that such projects will impact the behavior of the individual consumer while contributing to urban initiatives. For example, urban residents could opt to avoid congestion by mapping their commute to avoid traffic. On a bigger scale, cities can be run more intelligently with the help of digital infrastructure, which could improve city life with aspects ranging from motion-sensor street lamps to more efficient mass-transportation mapping and scheduling.

In many cases, the institute notes, cities are partnering directly with businesses to boost urban sustainability. In The Netherlands, for example, the city of Rotterdam is working with General Electric (GE) to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 50% compared with 1990 levels. GE will use technologies like data visualizations and smart meters to both optimize energy efficiency and improve water management.

If such partnerships are successful, Rotterdam and other trial areas will hopefully become an inspiration for cities around the globe. To achieve success, Diana Lind, a Contributing Author for the Worldwatch report, recommends that communities use ICT to promote sustainability in three specific ways: by providing open access to data, mapping all of a city’s neighborhoods and regions, and enabling a “Community Watch” (which comprises both low-tech monitoring and web sites where problems and issues can be reported).

The goal is to ensure that diverse perspectives are included in the city’s plans and to solve problems with ICT—not just identify them. Although ICT is largely a technical solution to a problem, it will not succeed unless the right information is gathered. Only then can the best plan be implemented.

Effective communications is a key to these sustainability efforts. Any city designed or modified for efficient energy use will require a strong communications backbone to process and respond to changing requirements and conditions. Most likely, this will also mean another layer of wireless communications networking to connect in-building wireless systems, the Internet, cellular networks, point-to-point radios, and other forms of wired and wireless communications systems now in use. And once again, RF/microwave engineers will be at the heart of a global technological evolution.