By Lana Harrison | Downtown Partnership News
Is San Diego a smart city? The answer to that question will be decided this month when the winners of the 2018 IDC Smart Cities North America Award are announced. Along with Chicago, Spokane, and the entire state of Illinois, San Diego is a finalist in the Sustainable Infrastructure category for its installation of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on city streetlights.
Regardless of whether or not San Diego is handed the controversial “rose” of victory, its inclusion as a finalist marks the city as a leader in technological innovation that will undoubtedly (and perhaps is already doing so) transform people’s daily life experiences and interactions with the environment.
In San Diego, smart cities innovation has taken the form of unique public-private partnerships. Entities like CleanTech San Diego, the city of San Diego, SDG&E, General Electric, and UC San Diego have collaborated to “improve the region’s energy independence, empower consumers to use electric vehicles, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and encourage economic growth,” according to the city’s website.
Already, San Diego replaced 3,000 streetlights with more energy efficient LED bulbs, implemented electric vehicle charging stations at Balboa Park (San Diego has one of the highest adoption rates of electric vehicles, according to a National Geographic documentary), and updated the Port’s land and systems for energy efficiency.
As far as the competition goes, what’s the big deal about installing sensors on the streets?
In the simplest terms, they can track all kinds of data — traffic flows, light, sound, air pollution, and more. They also can be widely installed for comparison purposes. The goal here is to collect and track data that can be used for environmental and safety improvements. Knowing what’s happening on the ground can, in theory, lead to improvements in parking, pedestrian safety, emergency response, and general quality of life.
If this all sounds a bit esoteric, that’s because it is. What cities like San Diego and others have accomplished and continue to develop is the stuff of science fiction novels. But it will not remain esoteric for long. Whether you think it’s eerily Orwellian or an exciting leap into the future, it’s happening. The next question is, where does it go from here?
In a National Geographic documentary entitled “World’s Smart Cities” that featured San Diego, local architect Rob Quigley said, “The idea of community isn’t old fashioned — it’s timeless.”
The point of a smart city isn’t (just) to prove the technological prowess of what has long been known as a relaxed surfer town. These innovations enhance the quality of life for individual San Diegans and for the city and region as a holistic community. This is done by implementing both creative and sustainable solutions that benefit the city in the long run, as well as developing strategies from collected data that benefit the community now. Data on traffic flows, air pollution, and pedestrian mobility is useless if it remains a number on a spreadsheet on a server. And that’s where both the magic and the challenge lie.
Andy White, who works in startup operations at Keshif Ventures, says now that the foundational technology has been implemented, the task ahead is in turning that data into something that’s actionable; something that actually impacts the community that the data is collected from.
And that “something” can look a number of different ways. Inside the collection of data is a variety of potential societal and environmental problems that can be addressed by established San Diego entities with the experience and resources to tackle big challenges. Also, they’re problems that inquisitive minds with a hankering to start something new can uniquely solve.
San Diego has already become a hub for entrepreneurs with big dreams. The knowledge that comes from smart city technology has the ability to not only generate new startups but bolster the existing infrastructure and community. The benefits of this to the community are countless.
According to White, however, these solutions will only develop when the data becomes more open and accessible, albeit securely, by those who can and want to use it for problem-solving purposes.
Recent national data collections and breaches revealed by the media will undoubtedly make an already doubtful society even more skeptical about this prospect, which is why the public-private partnership that catalyzed smart cities implementation in the first place remains essential moving forward.
Regulation that is accountable to constituents and adaptable innovation that seeks to improve the quality of life need not find an enemy in each other. In fact, they can’t afford to. The future is happening now and it’s moving quickly.
According to Danny Reeves, senior vice-president of Public Policy & Economic Development here at the Partnership and resident real estate expert, we’ll start seeing these actionable items playing out in the burgeoning development happening Downtown. Soon, you might see residential units with the smart technology to know you’re walking in the door or to take your temperature and adjust your unit’s thermometer accordingly. Overall, smart city technology has the capacity to help produce energy efficiency and cost savings.
From there it’s a short leap, Reeves says, to connect building technology to the city’s infrastructure. Right now, sharing and connectivity between smart entities is limited. However, with a rapidly changing technology ecosystem that renders today’s cutting-edge innovation obsolete in 10 years, sharing and collaboration is vital to safely and effectively take advantage of the new information that is generated from technology like sensors.
San Diego has what it takes to remain America’s Finest City, but only by leading the way as one of America’s smartest cities for the benefit of the community.
—Lana Harrison is the communications coordinator for the Downtown San Diego Partnership. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.