Building a Smart City in San Jose

Shireen Santosham, Chief Innovation Officer, Office of Mayor Sam Liccardo, San José, CA
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Shireen Santosham, Chief Innovation Officer, Office of Mayor Sam Liccardo, San José, CA

There are numerous definitions of what it means to be a smart city but, for me, a smart city is about building “technology for the people.” As the Chief Innovation Officer for Mayor Sam Liccardo in San José, California, the largest city in Silicon Valley, we are home to the most innovative companies on the planet as well as to the bright employees of these companies who populate our city. We have a front row seat to cutting-edge innovations that will change the way we live and work for years to come and the opportunity to engage our residents in new ways through these technologies.

The benefits should not be underestimated. For example, cities like San José, which is set to grow by 40 percent by 2040 or an additional 470,000 residents, need to find ways of delivering services more effectively as city budgets won’t keep pace with this growth. Transformative technologies such as autonomous vehicles, if coupled with a shift to shared mobility and electric vehicles, could help reduce traffic congestion and environmental impacts, while building a safer transportation system in the long term. We also know that smart city technology, such as sensors and real-time data, can help cities more efficiently manage energy, more effectively deploy resources, and save time and money.

At the same time, we know our residents are going to demand increased gigabit connectivity–especially as the Virtual and Augmented Reality industry grows. The digital infrastructure needed to support this technology, including Internet of Things (IoTs) networks, Wi-Fi, fixed wireless, and mobile networks, as well as fiber investment are complex for cities to coordinate and manage—especially given the myriad companies involved. How cities across the country deploy these networks can have tremendous impact on how new technologies develop and how quickly we can realize the benefits.

  Transformative technologies such as autonomous vehicles, if coupled with a shift to shared mobility and electric vehicles, could help reduce traffic congestion and environmental impacts 

Too often companies will come into my office and spend too much time pitching and not enough time understanding our needs–in some cases spending 25 minutes of a 30 minute meeting on a pitch and only 5 minutes asking for our perspective on the “use cases” that mean the most to our city. Sometimes they also fail to appreciate the realities of managing stakeholder and public engagement as we introduce IoT technology on public infrastructure that are essential steps in building public trust.

To deal with this complexity in San José, we recently launched an effort to create a comprehensive digital inclusion and broadband strategy, and with support from the Knight Foundation and the NetGain partnership, were able to augment that work to take a closer look at IoT and how to responsibly deploy cameras and sensors for public benefit.

Some lessons learnt from our experience that could benefit other cities include: 1) learn to collaborate more effectively with the private sector, 2) build internal capabilities to effectively take calculated risk, make strategic investments, and ensure public benefits are realized, and 3) lead the way in developing guidelines around data privacy and security, including proactively managing the public dialog around these issues.

Try before You Buy

Working with the innovative companies that are paving the way to building smart cities is an exciting prospect. But, many new technologies such as IoT are still in their early days–with shifting standards and heterogeneous applications. Learning to experiment and learn, and to take calculated risks can be beneficial for both parties in this environment. Too many companies promise the moon, but lack clear use cases for cities that help justify large investment of scarce budget dollars on unproven technology. In San José, we developed a “demonstration policy” that allows us to work with pre-commercial applications to test and learn alongside corporate partners to prove out technology solutions that will benefit our residents. More cities should consider these models to learn how best to both leverage and deploy new technologies. For example, we are currently working with Facebook to deploy Terragraph technology which is a 60 GHz, multi-node wireless system that will provide free gigabit-speed internet to parts of our city. Facebook will test the technology in San José and hopes to deploy it around the world once it is stabilized.

Build Muscle Memory

One of the reasons that cities are hesitant to take these calculated risks is that technology moves so fast and the IT talent and the mechanisms to assess these new technologies are in short supply in local government. Lower pay in the public sector can make it difficult to attract and retain talent. In order to address this issue, we recently restructured to create a new Office of Civic Innovation and Digital Strategy in our City Manager’s office. This team is charged with driving innovation in our city as well as revamping our IT organization to ensure we have the right skills and governance structure to tackle this challenge. The team is staffed with top-level talent from companies like Amazon, Google, and PayPal.

Broadband and, eventually, IoT networks will be seen as and are essential “digital infrastructure” on par with roads, streetlights, and traffic signals that will help usher in the new wave of innovative businesses that can improve the lives of the public and foster economic development. With this lens, building out IT capabilities and new governance models to assess smart city applications becomes a core part of city business, rather than a “nice-to-have” function.

Trust is Earned

Finally, we now live in a world where the pace of technology advancement has outstripped many legal frameworks. Cities, as they are deploying new applications, have few guidelines and “rules of the road” to help manage issues around data privacy, data usage and monetization, as well how to effectively engage the public in conversations around smart city applications and closing the digital divide. As a result, some cities shy away from these technologies. Moving forward, working together with industry, academia, and civil rights organizations will be essential in creating frameworks that will help provide guideposts for smart city applications.

In San José, we are interested in using our city as a platform for the most innovative companies and applications and are excited to help lead the way in the smart city space. We are streamlining our processes to more effectively partner with autonomous vehicle, IoT, and others companies that need to work with cities to scale. For corporations interested in working with cities, helping to make clear business cases, staging investments, and testing and learning are all effective ways to partner with cities in the long term.

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