San Diego’s lightbulb moment: Think like Amazon

Street lighting is the backbone of San Diego’s smart city initiative. That came about by asking the question: What would Amazon do?

“I like to think of cities as the operating systems on which we run our lives,” Erik Caldwell, Economic Development Director, City of San Diego, told delegates at Smart City InFocus in Yinchuan recently. “But cities are more than that, too. We’re also very similar to companies like Amazon. We’re both in the service business.”

However, a crucial difference in the way tech giants like Amazon and Alibaba deliver services is that they are paperless. In many cities, including San Diego, paper is still the main form of communication – people have to fill in forms, post or deliver them and often wait in line to do so.

When buying from tech companies like Amazon and Alibaba, we wouldn’t dream of, or accept, going through such manual processes.

“But as cities, even though we’re in the service business, that’s what we make our customers do,” Caldwell said. “So in San Diego, we started asking ourselves this question, and it became the driving question behind how we built the smart city. We asked ourselves: ‘What would Amazon do?’”

A light went on

Working back from this focal question highlighted that San Diego needed more information about how its citizens interacted with the city, and where, as well as how they ideally want to interact in the future. The question then was: How can the city gather this information, pull it back to a central location, and use it to reduce operating costs (which helps with putting money back into services and providing better services)? In fact, these conversations began around 2006 and weren’t initially focused on the route to becoming a smart city; they were focused on how to avoid bankruptcy, which the city was in danger of at the time.

San Diego leaders concluded that to capture the required information, they needed to invest in inexpensive sensors throughout the city.

“We started looking for the right infrastructure and asking: What do we own in the urban environment that we could use as the platform on which to put those sensors?”

The common denominator was streetlights.

We did it anyway

General Electric (GE) presented San Diego with a lighting solution that offered more than just money-saving LEDs. The system could be controlled centrally – a certain area could have the lights dimmed or brighter, for example. The lights gave predictive maintenance alerts too.

This began to dovetail with San Diego’s early smart city plans. Again, the city was asking: What would Amazon do? They realized, through the partnership with GE, that sensors on the 30,000 streetlights, which already had power, could provide the network they required.

GE had never implemented a deployment like this before, so, “We did what any good smart city would,” Caldwell said. “We did it anyway,” using a pilot project of 49 streetlights.

Together, GE and San Diego learned a number of important lessons. They could put microphones on the streetlights to detect gunshots, triangulate the location and automatically deploy law enforcement in real-time to a potential crime in progress. They also could use cameras to detect traffic and pedestrian flow, and use sensors to check the quality of the air.

This pilot program has become the basis for GE’s City IQ solution.

Spotlight on data

As Caldwell noted: “Of course, what we’re really here talking about isn’t streetlights. Or infrastructure. We’re talking about sensors and data, and using those sensors and data to improve service, delivery and community. For San Diego, streetlights are the answer. At the end of the day, streetlights may not be the right answer for your particular community.”

The city is deploying almost 10 percent of its streetlight network as intelligent streetlights over the next 18 months. It estimates this will save $2.3 million a year, which is enough to pay for the infrastructure deployment, as well as avoiding $30 million in costs over the next five years.

“But,” Caldwell said, “That’s not big enough for us. We’re asking ourselves again, what would Amazon do? How would it leverage those 3,400 intelligent streetlights to provide better services?”

One idea is using the streetlights to avoid parking tickets – the camera in the streetlight could see when a car has parked illegally, read the license plate and text the owner to let them know that they need to move their vehicle or pay for additional time using their smartphone. Another idea is using cellphone accelerometer data and reporting when and where users hit potholes, so that they can be fixed and road assessments reduced. This data could also be used to help other drivers avoid identified potholes.

The infrastructure is just the beginning of the conversation – San Diego is talking to its citizens about the possibilities of the sensors and data, and getting feedback on the services that could be improved. It’s also teaming up with local students, developers and engineers to see how they can use the data from the streetlights to develop software and services to help the city solve its challenges, and create new products and revenue streams for themselves.

Learning from each other

“We did a lot of things right, and we did a lot of things wrong [during the pilot phase],” Caldwell said. “Today we have what we believe is a world-class deployment of IoT.”

He concluded, “Other cities in this room are working on other things. If we share those ideas, a year from now, we will be sitting in this room, watching some amazing things that have happened.

“That’s what I get from this conference, and that’s the exciting thing about smart cities. We can accelerate the deployment of IoT in the urban environment by working collaboratively together.”

TM Forum takeaway

Carl Piva, Head of TM Forum’s Smart City Forum, comments, “Thinking as a start-up or a disruptive player brings something new to city government. This quality will be more important in cities going forward.”


    About The Author


    Sarah is a freelance writer and editor with an interest in new technologies and how they impact our everyday lives.

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