Smart San Diego: City's bragging points go beyond sunshine and beaches

Mon, 2014-12-15 12:17 -- Liz Enbysk

"We’ve been on a lot of top 10 lists recently and it's not just because of our beaches and our bays," San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer told the Smart Cities Now forum meeting in his city last week. The mayor showed a video clip highlighting a new National Geographic smart city ranking that puts San Diego alongside Copenhagen, Dubai and other leading urban centers.

The forum brought several hundred public officials, members of academia and leading smart city practitioners to Qualcomm's massive campus in San Diego. Qualcomm is a Council Lead Partner.

Noting that a smart city has a competitive advantage, Mayor Faulconer said San Diego is notable on a lot of fronts – the number of startups and patents it produces, a sphere of cutting-edge companies like Qualcomm, bright people, educational institutions, etc. "My job is to make sure we're putting all of that together," he says.

Innovate or stagnate?
Faulconer says San Diego has embraced change and a culture of innovation – rather than stagnation – at city hall. Among the initiatives he cites:

  • A climate action plan "with teeth to it" that ensures San Diego will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% and moving to 100% renewables – all by 2035
  • Tackling long-term drought with Pure Water San Diego, which the mayor describes as one of the largest water recycling projects in the U.S.
  • Land use policies that encourage people to get out and walk

David Graham, San Diego's deputy chief operating officer for neighborhood services, offered another example – the adaptive street lights project it undertook with Council Lead Partner GE. Deb Tatum of GE Digital Energy Services, also speaking at the forum, said that by swapping out about 3,000 lights with LEDs, San Diego is increasing efficiency and should save some $250,000 annually.

But as Graham explains it, the city got more than LED bulbs. The more important piece in his mind are the adaptive controls – smart nodes -- that give the city a platform for greater control over the lights, knowing where they are via GPS, when there's an outage, how much the lights are used. And that's just the beginning. Graham says the network can be enhanced with more capabilities, for example detecting smoke or toxins in the area or integration with traffic controls to aid emergency services.

The big idea
"The big idea here," Graham says, "is a civic infrastructure awakening." Rather than thinking of a project as a single one-off effort; the real opportunity is seeing how that piece fits into the bigger infrastructure picture.

How does a city wake up and become innovative? Graham says cities must be fearless and shameless. "That's what it really takes when we're talking about these disruptive technologies."

And another critical piece? Data, data, data. "Data can really begin to shift attitudes," Graham says, and political will.

More on San Diego…
Why San Diego wants to be a "system" (and why your city should too)
Video: San Diego's LED Street Lighting Project
Monetizing street lights: A bright idea being tested in San Diego