David Graham, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, City of San Diego, spoke to Jonathan Andrews about his passion for people – not technology – and the importance of upgrading existing infrastructure with connectivity. Below is an excerpted version of the exchange.
San Diego suffered from under-investment in infrastructure for many years. The last couple of mayors have really righted the financial ship, but the damage had been done when it came to infrastructure throughout the city. As we looked at replacing and improving infrastructure, the key was how to use connected technology.
‘All of what we are doing is helping to empower city officials and residents to make better decisions that we think are improving their lives.’ – David Graham, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, City of San Diego
Since we were going to be investing and creating a more efficient infrastructure, we asked ourselves how could we also use communications and connectivity to have world-class infrastructure to help us achieve more goals than just the purpose for which the infrastructure was intended.
That brings us to another big thing for San Diego, which is our focus on sustainability and climate action. If you take the problem of under-investment in infrastructure, the need to replace those assets and a key focus on sustainability, street lighting is a perfect place to accomplish many of those goals and leapfrog traditional technologies around illumination.
We looked at the question of how to create a more efficient street-lighting network. That clearly leads to LEDs, but if you are going to replace the bulbs, it also makes sense to have those lights connected – wirelessly in our case – to each other and communicate data to the cloud and allow for us to control those lights – the brightness and when they are on and off.
We have a great partnership with San Diego Gas and Electric [GE] around sustainability goals. Here we found we could work with them to get a meter grade – if we had every single one of those poles metered and connected through our communications network.
That led us to standing up a few thousand of these smart street lights with adapted controls. We knew when they were on and off, how much energy they were using.
That’s when GE came to us and said, ‘You now have not just a lighting network but a communications network that has visibility on your streets and roads in these neighbourhoods, what if you could do much more than just manage a light network, what if those could also be sensors that could help you solve issues around parking, pedestrian safety and a whole host of other opportunities?’
So we did a pilot in East Village Downtown with about 40 enhanced sensor packages with optical, auditory and environmental sensors. What we quickly found out was that we were creating significant savings, or could, through the adaptive street lighting network.
‘It was important for us to be inclusive in the deployment of smart technology.’
We saw our energy usage drop by 60 percent, and there were monetary savings in clearly having a connected LED network of street lights. Those savings could be put into enhanced sensor packages in the street lights that could then solve so many other problems.
The current programme that we are in the middle of is a US$30 million deployment of 13,000 street lights with 3,200 of them having the enhanced sensor package. It is estimated to save–just on the energy bill alone–US$2.5 million and we’ll use those savings to finance the entire network.
GE Capital will provide the financing for that, and that doesn’t take into account the reduced maintenance costs, or even the meter upgrade, so I would estimate the savings are actually twice that, we just looked at the energy bill alone.
We then went out into the community, we held a block party for street lights which was pretty fun to get people to tell us what a street light could do to improve their lives. We worked closely with technologists, our software development community, held hackathons around the utilisation of the data, and ensured that this deployment 100 percent covers our underserved neighbourhood.
It was important for us to be inclusive in the deployment of smart technology in those neighbourhoods because we thought that’s the place where we can have the greatest impact.
Yes it does. We look at the places where we are going to be investing to upgrade our infrastructure and then think abut the multi-use platform that that infrastructure investment can bring. That’s why the streetlights are absolutely perfect.
You have this pole, at 30 to 60 feet [9 to 18 metres] in height that are nearly ubiquitous throughout your city that have a field of sensing where the highest amounts of pedestrian, bicycle and vehicle traffic are. That makes it a perfect opportunity for being able to do all sorts of things that will help improve people’s lives.
You can undertake congestion management using the street lights, or gunshot detection and pedestrian safety. Think about the fact that we know our most dangerous intersections because of police reports but what about all the near misses, what about the jay walkers?
We can identify and prioritise infrastructure investments in those areas because of the near misses. A human sized object and a vehicle-sized object, maybe they didn’t collide but there were 100 times when they came within several feet of each other.
And then how can you push that data back out to improve people’s awareness and improve mobility?
So there is everything from parking availability, through parking optimisation, an app on your phone that we’ve tested out which tells you where there is available parking so you can make a decision instead of going round and round searching for a parking spot to know exactly where you can go.
‘The best projects are multi-use in nature, they are cross-departmental.’
Also tying that into our smart parking meter system, to inform people who perhaps don’t want to pay for parking because they’d prefer to park in places where there aren’t meters, to where there is availability and the cost of parking and making decisions that way.
All of what we are doing is helping to empower city officials and residents to make better decisions that we think are improving their lives.
That’s one of the things that I, Bob and and others have spoken about. There is a whole group of us that are really working to help scale projects but also weigh up problems. When I kind of boil down the whole ‘smart cities gone wrong’–which I jokingly call it–the lessons that we find at the centre include incompatible partners and no rip cord.
By that I mean sometimes when you are going down the path with a pilot and you think, ‘You know this just doesn’t fit our needs, this isn’t what we want’, people continue to double down and invest more resources. You have got to pull the rip cord, because as we know in the start-up community, failing fast is not a bad thing. . . .
The best vendors are working with cities to learn and understand the beast that is city government. The motivations are often very different.
Every city has a unique political climate, history and background and they also have “dead bodies” littered across their cities where one thing worked or didn’t work and say, “We’ll never do that again.” Vendors may come with a solution that is brilliant but unfortunately some city tried it at some point and it created a huge kerfuffle.
‘You have to connect to the challenges that people deal with on a regular basis and show how communications, data and technology can help improve their lives.’
[Vendors] really have to understand that not all cities are created equal and they need to understand what is authentic in the city and who they are–the culture–in order to tailor solutions for them. . . .
Everybody is so incredibly busy with their lives that you have to connect to the challenges that people deal with on a regular basis and show how communications, data and technology can help improve their lives.
‘We need to compete with each other in order to be successful.’
We don’t take the approach of what is the next new cool gadget, software, or whizzbang thing. We take the approach of what are the toughest challenges the city is facing and how can we use data and technology to tackle those problems.
We recognise that there are a host of very talented people that want to give up their time, energy and effort in the software and data communities so we hold regular hackathons and conventions. They are able to use city data and come up with ideas, products and software that can use city resources to create solutions for people. . . .
Every project that we do is going to have its own set of KPIs [key performance indicators], so for the street lighting project, one of the big elements there was around cost savings, energy reduction and a business case to fund deployment and expansion of that network.
For something like our open data initiative, our chief data officer would say that it’s not about the number of data sets but it’s about the quality of the data and realisation of that data. . . .
I’m going to take a bit of a side bar to that, as what gets me the most excited is getting converts to want to deliver data and technology-enabled projects that are solving our toughest challenges. That goes for us here in the city and for around the country. That goes for North America. . . .
I have a passion for cities and always have. . . . I also love the idea that cities have thought that they need to compete against each other, when in fact we need to compete with each other in order to be successful.