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San Diego Seeks Public Buy-In for Smart City Upgrades

“If we forget about people when it comes to smart cities, then we will have forgotten about why we did all this.”

(TNS) -- As San Diego races into a tech-heavy future, business and civic leaders say public buy-in is still necessary to success.

“If people aren’t brought in within the organization or the community, then we will have resistance and we won’t be able to deploy as much as fast or as broadly,” said David Graham, deputy chief operating officer of the city of San Diego. “If we forget about people when it comes to smart cities, then we will have forgotten about why we did all this.”

Graham was a panel member at a local Urban Land Institute breakfast forum Tuesday that touched on robots in hospitals, sensors at recreation centers and perfectly coordinated traffic signals.

But things are changing so fast that that even those in the know are worried about keeping up.

“It’s harder and harder, particularly for those of us looking into the future, to have a clue what’s going to happen,” said Nancy Johnson Sanquist, vice president of global strategic planning for Planon, a facility management company. “What scares me most is what I don’t know.”

A member of the audience asked if residents movements and personal information will be tracked on city streets.

Jason Anderson, president and CEO of Cleantech San Diego, a clean-energy industry group, said people already share personal information online with supermarkets and other retailers to get a few cents off on a product.

Graham said such user data information could help manage city assets. As an example, he said park planners could schedule recreational center classes better if they knew that only three people were going to show up at a pilates class or 10 for a weaving class.

On the other hand, he acknowledged that sometimes experts’ plans and customers’ preferences conflict. That was the case with the confusing bike lane design on Fourth Avenue from Bankers Hill to downtown, said one attendee at the breakfast forum.

In the big picture, the panelists said San Diego local governments are trying out new technologies even as Silicon Valley software engineers attract attention for state-of-the-art products. Anderson said San Diego and Chula Vista’s efforts will be showcased at a May smart cities conference in Santa Clara.

Anderson said he may be “scared” by the “discourse at the national level,” but he said he sleeps better having moved from Texas to California.

“We’re not losing here, we’re winning here,” he said, citing the Golden State’s global reach and economic power.

However, San Diego innovators still need to pay attention to trends around the world. When asked about robots, Sanquist cited a new hospital in Scotland, where robots are deployed to deliver supplies from the basement to upper floors via elevators.

“It’s not a question that robots are necessarily taking over, but that we have to work with robots,” she said.

Graham said planners and traffic engineers also don’t have to fear for their careers because of great quantities of data available.

“It’s just going to be much more data is available to use in a real-time way,” Graham said.

For example, he said, new sensors in traffic lights will be able to make adjustments automatic rather than wait for a city worker to physically adjust times on red and green lights.

Other sensors will make it easier to find parking spaces, he said, and new transportation services, such as bus rapid transit, extended trolley lines and free shuttles will give workers an alternative to driving to work.

©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.