What Does it Take for a City to Become Truly Smart?

In this Q&A, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer talks about what defines a smart city and what it takes to achieve smart city status.

by / December 17, 2014
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer welcomes attendees to the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con. Photo: Wikipedia

On Tuesday, Dec. 9, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer was the keynote speaker at the Smart Cities Now Forum. The newly-elected mayor is seeking to position San Diego as one of the nation’s smartest cities.

During his remarks, Faulconer said that a “smart city is one that creates an environment for you to be successful.” As evidence of that, Faulconer noted that San Diego was recently rated by Forbes as the best place to launch a startup in the United States.

The mayor highlighted several of San Diego’s smart city projects, including requiring new home construction to be wired for electric vehicles and a water recycling project that is one of the largest in the country. Faulconer also said that “we’re moving the city of San Diego to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035.”

Following the forum, Faulconer took some of FutureStructure’s question about what it takes for a city to become truly smart.

What do you think defines a smart city?

San Diego is a world-class city that, like all smart cities, displays a high level of livability, workability, and sustainability. Smart cities are places with a vibrant and sustainable urban ecosystem; communities that combine technology and creativity to solve problems and overcome shared challenges. They are the kinds of places where government works in harmony with community to create opportunities for and improves the lives of all residents in all neighborhoods.

Is there a benchmark or yardstick for cities to measure against to know they’ve achieved smart city status?

There is no one way to define a smart city, but it doesn’t hurt to have rankings that demonstrate a city’s successes in innovation. San Diego has recently been ranked by Forbes as the Best City for Startups. Prominent biotech magazine, The Scientist, gave five of the top 10 innovation awards for 2014 to San Diego companies. National Geographic is featuring San Diego in a documentary as one of the world’s smart cities, making the point that some cities will succeed as the massive migration of people into urban cores creates new opportunities, while other cities will fail to keep up.

One of the telling signs of a smart city is its ability to adapt and change; it is able to respond more efficiently and effectively to local and global challenges. For example, the City of San Diego is moving forward with a climate action plan to make San Diego more sustainable and resilient, focusing on the installation of electric vehicle charging stations, moving to solar and renewable energy, and promoting walking, cycling and public transportation options. Leaders in smart cities know that local government must reflect the innovative spirit of the residents it represents.

You mentioned at the Smart Cities Now Forum that a smart city is one that creates an environment for you to be successful. What do you imagine then that a smart city looks like to the average citizen?

Living in a smart city is as much about how it feels as how it looks. Residents know they’re in a smart city because they find a livable, workable and sustainable quality of life there.

You also spoke about San Diego being 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 – what steps are you taking to achieve that?

My administration has released a climate action plan for public review. Once approved by the City Council, the City will consider various initiatives to ensure San Diego meets its goal of using 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. One of the strategies we may use includes adding more solar panels to City-owned properties. Another is allowing consumers the option to purchase electricity that comes from 100 percent renewable sources.

Many city leaders talk about sustainability and resiliency but what does that mean for you and for San Diego? What do you want the city to do in terms of water, waste and energy?

Sustainability means being smart about the way we use our resources and implementing new strategies to realize our long-term goal of improving the quality of life for every San Diegan. The City is planning innovative programs that will increase the efficiency of water, waste, and electricity utilities. Our "Pure Water" recycling proposal will provide one-third of our water through purified wastewater by 2035. Our "Zero Waste" objective will divert all solid waste from landfills by 2040. And the Climate Action Plan I mentioned previously seeks to cut greenhouse gas emissions 49 percent from 2010 levels by 2035.

Transportation is a big issue – and connected and autonomous cars are being touted as a solution. Is San Diego prepared to make the infrastructure investments needed to facilitate a connected and more automated vehicle environment?

We are investing in technology today to solve the problems of tomorrow. The City is currently in the process of creating a city-wide traffic signal communication master plan. By upgrading our traffic signal infrastructure, the City is working to add the necessary components to meet the demands required of a more automated vehicle environment.

You made mention of a water recycling project – can you explain in more detail what that will entail?

I'm working to bring together a diverse coalition of businesses, environmentalists and community leaders to solve San Diego's water challenges. Pure Water San Diego is the City’s innovative program to provide a safe, reliable and cost-effective drinking water supply for San Diego. Proven technology will be used to purify recycled water into drinking water. The program is designed to purify enough wastewater to provide one-third of San Diego’s water supply after all three phases are fully operational in 2035. The 20-year capital improvement project calls for the construction of a water-purification plant as well as the installation of advanced purification at two of our water reclamation plants. The program is environmentally friendly and will provide San Diegans with clean, reliable water source that makes our region more resilient against drought, climate change and natural disasters.

This story was originally published by FutureStructure, sister publication to Government Technology.

Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.