Can Las Vegas Be Made Sustainable?

Can Las Vegas Be Made Sustainable?

By embracing new technologies, Sin City is trying to rebrand itself as one of America’s most energy-efficient and sustainable urban centers.


Las Vegas is all about light. Despite its desert location and the sunsets that turn the surrounding mountains and red-rock canyons all colors of delicate pink, the lights for which Las Vegas is most renowned are electronic, the kind that blur the line between night and day and leave visitors to Las Vegas always feeling that they have, somehow, stepped outside of normal time. Huge television screens, some the size of 10-story buildings, illuminate both the insides of casinos and the edifices of their exterior. Inside, gambling palaces are filled with countless thousands of blinking slot machines, alongside malls and food courts and bars and theaters all flooded with a fluorescent glow that creates an endless afternoon.

Which means that the city, and the surrounding valley, with a total population of 2.3 million, and an endless flow of tourists packed into hundreds of hotels, is a giant guzzler of electricity. Yet, paradoxically, through the city government’s aggressive embrace of cutting-edge technologies, Sin City is trying to rebrand itself as one of America’s most energy-efficient and sustainable urban centers.

“All the energy we consume, we currently produce,” says Michael Sherwood, Las Vegas’s chief innovation officer. This is, in large part, made possible by the fact that the city generates more solar power per capita than all but six other US cities. At least as importantly, 100 percent of the energy usage by city-run facilities comes from renewables, and has since 2016. Over the past 14 years, since explicitly embracing energy conservation as a goal in 2008, city facilities in Las Vegas have reduced their energy usage by a third.

But, Sherwood says, as the city expands, and as it seeks to move toward a net-zero carbon emissions strategy—not just for city-run facilities but for all of the private companies that keep the tourism mecca afloat—it has to get even better at how it uses energy. For Ryan Smith, the city’s director of economic development, that necessitates a willingness to embrace a range of new technologies—or technologies that have long existed but have only become affordable in the past few years—and to woo experimental companies to Las Vegas, sometimes allowing them to test new processes within the city limits.

One such new technology is known as the digital twin—an application of super-fast computing and communications systems that allows companies to visually map, in real-time, how the city is functioning, and to tweak those operations to maximize efficiency. In Las Vegas, a series of digital twins is now being developed, virtual replicas of the city detailed down to each individual building. City planners can migrate into the virtual world to adjust electricity distribution and traffic flow and test city planning suggestions at a level of efficiency that would have been unimaginable even four or five years ago. Consider this the benign side of Mark Zuckerberg’s dystopian vision of a Metaverse, where virtual reality competes with the real world for our attention, our time, our loyalties, and our consumer spending.

Each year, in early January, thousands of new gadgets are unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas’s vast Convention Center complex. For innovators looking to pitch their brand of “new,” it’s a can’t-miss experience. At CES this year, one could try out ultra-realistic virtual reality technologies, with shopping experiences so insanely real-looking that it’s impossible to know, once the goggles are on, what is real and what is simply phantasmagoria of the metaverse. There was clothing that replicates for the wearer an array of sensations, so that, for example, the player of a violent video game can actually feel the impact of being shot. One could explore new AI software capable of generating human-looking and -sounding avatars—and have a conversation with those avatars.

This year, the event was truncated slightly by the Omicron pandemic. Several prestige vendors went online instead of attending in-person; the show was shortened by one day; and the eponymous partying that accompanies CES was—for Vegas, anyway—on the quiet side. Notwithstanding, the convention center was jam-packed with exhibitors and visitors from around the world.

One of CES 2022’s lead themes was “smart cities,” a buzzword that has taken off recently as AI technology has evolved to the point that vast amounts of data can now be collated, analyzed, and acted upon in real time. Thousands of sensors set up around cities, embedded on practically every street corner, under every parking space or traffic lane, in or on every commercial building, can monitor everything from vehicular traffic to pedestrian flows to air quality to CO2 emissions. AI can be used to tweak electricity distribution, to alter traffic light patterns, to feed information to computer systems aboard electronic and autonomous vehicles, all with the goal of reducing energy usage and, by extension, minimizing the release of climate-changing gases into the atmosphere.

Techno-utopians, of which there are more than a few in Las Vegas, argue that these technologies, when harnessed for environmental ends, are critical tools in the global effort to get to net-zero emissions. But not all environmental thinkers are sold on these promises. Jason W. Moore, professor of sociology at Binghamton University, is the author of several books on environmental politics, including Capitalism in the Web of Life, and A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, which he co-authored with Raj Patel. He argues that mapping cities and regions for economic gain has been a core part of the capitalist project for more than five centuries. Seen in this context, the digital twin is more likely to be an economic bonanza for companies rather than a genuinely transformative environmental intervention.

“The question is, really, how is that ideologically put to use to reassure people progress is being made, when it emphatically is not,” he says. “Because the problem is global, not local. The techno-fix argument becomes parts of the illusion that progress is being made.” For Moore, the underlying problem is the unsustainable nature of modern living—overreliance on air transport, usage of carbon-intensive farming methods, under-investment in high-quality, low-carbon-footprint housing. “Urbanization is a crucial driver of the planetary inferno,” he argues. Techno-fixes such as a digital twin simply end up adding grist to what he terms an “eco-industrial project.”

Other scholars are, nevertheless, intrigued. “I think the basic idea of this is fine and necessary,” says Holly Buck, assistant professor of environment and sustainability at University of Buffalo and author of After Geoengineering. “We are going to have to build these net-zero platforms for sustainability. I might wish for the platform to be developed by in-house public servants rather than a third party, and geared towards citizens, but that’s a pretty far-off vision from how we are right now.”

David Knight, CEO of Terbine, and Michael Jansen, CEO of the Chicago-based City Zenith, are at the forefront of the environmental digital twin movement. Knight, a fast-talking computer whiz, was once on the commission responsible for flying the last space shuttle from Florida to its final resting place in a museum in Los Angeles. Three years ago, he moved his company, which had been conducting a large-scale research and development effort on how to use AI and machine-learning to visually interpret huge data-flows, out of San Francisco, where he noticed that even his well-paid young employees were struggling to find decent housing that they could afford. Their new home? Las Vegas. There were fewer business regulations, lower taxes, more affordable real estate. At the same time, it was politically far more progressive than Texas, which was also seeking to lure California tech companies.

In 2019, the city provided space to Knight’s company in the 10,000 square feet International Innovation Center—an airy, glass-fronted, technology hub, its ceiling lined with exposed pipes, its offices and booths lined with prefab metal shelving. The building, designated by the city for start-ups, is sandwiched between the Nevada Supreme Court Building and the Mob Museum, four miles north of the Strip. Knight set to work fine-tuning his digital twin technology.

Knight knew that he wanted to take troves of data and build complex software systems that would convert them into something visualizable. He linked up with Jansen’s City Zenith, a company that specialized in absorbing usable environmental data from miscellaneous sources—cities, private companies, even electronic vehicles traveling down streets and generating mountains of data as they go—and aggregating it in a way that Terbine could use.

“You can go into a digital twin and fly around a city virtually, and look at noise pollution, air pollution, where might you put EV stations, how can you manage traffic,” Knight explains, with something of the enthusiasm of a missionary. “It’s now so powerful you can take it down to an individual building and model what is happening in that building—at once, using cloud computing.”

Some digital twin companies are developing software designed to reduce traffic accidents or pedestrian fatalities. Some are focusing on crime strategies, and mapping criminal activity. Terbine, working with the data sets generated by City Zenith, is primarily concerned with environmental issues.

In 2020, City Zenith launched what it called the Clean Cities Clean Future Initiative, pledging to sponsor the implementation of digital twins in cities around the world as a fast-track method of reducing CO2 emissions. Since then, it has been working with Terbine and other companies to create platforms that will allow city planners to take advantage of the vast amounts of environmental information being generated so as to plan more efficient cities, and, among other things, generate retrofits for buildings that would make their air-conditioning and heating systems less energy-intensive.

By using these strategies, says Jansen, an award-winning Cambridge and Yale-educated architect and urbanist who wears his hear long and attends webinars in hoodies, buildings can reduce their energy bills by as much as 60 percent, and infrastructure can also be operated much more efficiently. “Cities won’t be able to achieve any of their climate goals without digital twin,” Jansen claims. “They’ll be the enabler of the decarbonization of cities. Not a sideshow, the main act.”

The end goal for Terbine and City Zenith is, in David Knight’s way of thinking, to “take the pulse” of the city, to create a system that can convey its living, breathing rhythms. That will allow lay people and specialists alike to enter a virtual version of the city and to walk through it—much as Victorian adventurers would have roamed around in the cavernous, brick-lined tunnels of the new sewage systems built under the great cities of their day.

Last year, the Brooklyn Navy Yards began using the City Zenith/Terbine digital twin technology to ramp up its environmental efforts. Phoenix has also indicated it is interested in adopting it. When Ithaca, N.Y., recently declared its intention to become the first legally net-zero city in America, its leadership reached out to City Zenith to help them develop technologies that could make that goal a reality.

Then, late in 2021, Las Vegas announced that it too would wholeheartedly embrace the technology, signing a contract with City Zenith and with Terbine to create a realistic virtual version of the entire city. The city’s gamble was that it would be getting a head start on technology that, it believes, within a few years will be omnipresent around the world. At a side-event to the CES, Terbine, City Zenith and city leaders unveiled their plans to take the digital twin live.

“It’s leading us down the road of the future,” argues Michael Sherwood. “I do see a vision where there is the ability to see the city as a living organism or a living ecosystem. And being able to modify things to improve the conditions of residents.”

Imagining the future is often a fool’s errand. But Las Vegas is certainly providing some hints as to what a not-too-distant future could look like. In a few years, with virtual reality technology added into the mix, it will be possible for Las Vegas to hire technicians who will spend a large part of their time inhabiting the digital twin, and, with help from AI systems and 5G networks, changing energy system distributions to make the usage of electricity far, far more efficient than it currently is.

“Will the concept of the digital twin be central?” Michael Sherwood asks himself. “The answer is yes. We can bring in data from multiple sensors. You have the core ability to test theories and get a central outcome for how that is going to lower emissions. For example, you can close a street on the digital twin and see the traffic impact before in the real world you actually close the street. You will have a true lifeline or overview of how a city is functioning. This living eco-system—you’ll be able to see all aspects, which can lead to a better, cleaner, safer community.”

Jason W. Moore argues that, in the short term, these changes are likely to be simply cosmetic. Without a fundamental redistribution of power, he believes, no truly transformative ecological agenda can or will be implemented. In the longer term, he worries that even ostensibly benign virtual systems such as a digital twin could end up becoming part of a “totalitarian geo-surveillance and bio-surveillance state.”

Las Vegas’s city planners, however, have no such qualms. They have committed to massively reducing the neon city’s carbon footprint, and they can’t see a way forward to achieve this goal without the high-tech changes pushed by Knight and his team.

Sherwood believes that where Las Vegas goes, much of the rest of the world will soon follow. He sees digital twins being unveiled in many global cities over the next year or two, and argues that “within a seven-to-10 year period you’ll most likely see digital twins having major impacts on major aspects of a city: how it’s developed, laid out, how services are delivered.”

One day soon, Sherwood believes, digital twins will be as normal as police or fire departments.

“It’s going to definitely change the way that cities look at providing services to their residents and constituents,” says Ryan Smith. “To get to net zero, you need a collaboration of many technologies, including digital twin. It’s an important tool in the whole ecosystem.”

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