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All-Star Lineup Headlines Smart Cities Now Forum

The event boasted a stellar cast of public- and private-sector leaders who had assembled to engage in ongoing dialog about continuing the transformation of the world’s cities.

by Chad vanderVeen / December 10, 2014

Amid almost comically pleasant weather, the Smart Cities Council, the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA), and Qualcomm hosted the Smart Cities Now forum on Tuesday, Dec. 9 at the Qualcomm global headquarters in San Diego.

The event boasted a stellar cast of public- and private-sector leaders who had assembled to engage in ongoing dialog about continuing the transformation of the world’s cities. Speakers included former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and recently elected San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

The theme of the event was a practical approach to establishing the principles and practices of smart cities. While differing definitions of what, exactly, makes a city smart were espoused, a general agreement was seemingly reached – specifically smart cities are those that recognize the value of the data a city generates (or can be made to generate) and using that data to make actionable decisions.

“Just putting sensors out there and collecting data isn’t the big win,” said Peter Sweatman of the ITSA. “The big win is using real-time data at the edge to solve a specific problem.”

Transportation seemed to be the problem most were interested in tackling first, as the topic dominated discussion early in the day. Parking was singled out as a significant issue for cities but also one that can be managed far better when intelligence is added to the system.

Kevin Welsh of Verizon noted that in a typical large American city 20 to 30 percent of the people traversing downtown at any given time are actively looking for parking. The result of this perpetual hunt is increased congestion and emissions.

The issue is such a nuisance that many startups have begun working on technology solutions specific to parking, such as San Francisco-based GetAround. Presenting at the event, GetAround’s Padden Murphy explained how its applications allows car owners to easily rent out their vehicles to others via mobile app.

But parking, and even transportation, are only pieces of the smart city puzzle. Data is what ties the whole thing together, making the city-as-a-system concept possible. And that data has to be good enough to help city leaders make informed and even prescient decisions.

“We all want our cities to be smart because then we all get better service,” said IBM’s Eric-Mark Huitema. “Today real-time data is not enough. We have to predict the future. Data can help you get insights but then you have to analyze it to help you predict incidents”

Like any other project, however, the strength of the technology isn’t itself enough to move forward. Infrastructure projects in particular need a comprehensive vision, argued Bev Scott of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in perhaps the most passionate dialog of the day.

“You have to have a foundation in terms of vision,” she said. “What do we want our community to be? What do we want to accomplish?”

Scott also said smart cities are especially important because they will go a long way toward helping elevate the impoverished and pled with attendees to ensure smart city architecture is built for openness.

“Please give me open, open architecture,” Scott said.  It’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it. That is massive to making these projects happen.”

Later, in a surprisingly open and often hilarious one-on-one interview with Smart Cities Council Chairman Jesse Berst, former state legislator and Mayor Willie Brown told a number of charming stories about his coming of age as an elected official. Brown, while entertaining and thoughtful, seemed more interested in talking about his experiences than answering any specific questions. Still, he provided some insight, admitting that as a state legislator, he’d spent his career trying to strip cities of their power, preferring the state to have authority. Once elected mayor, Brown conceded he learned “you better build support for whatever you have in mind.”

That support can be hard to come by. Former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood implored audience members to demand more of their congressional representatives. LaHood, generally regarded as a strong advocate for innovative transportation solutions, said the smart city won’t materialize until industry, mayors and governors start pressuring Congress for change – specifically an innovative transportation bill.

“It will only happen if you all get involved, it will only happen if you convince your legislators,” LaHood said. “If we do that we will get America back to being number one and the wonderful things we’re talking about, this technology, will be institutionalized in transportation.”

Several audience members bemoaned the advice, saying they’d already done that with nothing to show for it.

“Democracy takes a long time to do big things. Don’t stop talking [to Congress]. If it’s worth it you have to keep doing it,” LaHood responded.

The day’s main event was a smart cities soliloquy by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Sworn into office in March 2014, Faulconer has sought to restore San Diego’s reputation following the exit of his disgraced predecessor Bob Filner. Part of that effort seems to be positioning San Diego as one of the nation’s smartest cities.

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.”

Faulconer said that while such projects can prove costly, they’re the “right thing to do” if cities wish to remain prosperous in the face of the ongoing human migration to urban environments.

“It all fits into that ever elusive quality of life,” he said. “You have to be digital, a city that competes globally, and a city that is sustainable and resilient.”

The mayor also proudly made note of the fact that San Diego is going to be one of several subjects in a forthcoming National Geographic documentary on smart cities of the future.

“It’s a great time to be in city government,” he said.

The Smart Cities Now Forum continues Wednesday.

This story was originally published by FutureStructure.

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