Text: Helene Laube | Reading time: approx. 18 minutesSmart citizens in a learning cityLike many of its counterparts all over the world, the city of San José strives to use digital technologies to make the lives of its citizens safer, more convenient, and more sustainable. We visited the Californian metropolis to see how San José is mapping out its future and starting to rethink and realign its strategies.
CHAPTER 1 – The city
CHAPTER 2 – The multi-stakeholder model
CHAPTER 3 – A dual-speed project
CHAPTER 4 – Company towns
Cities have access to a constant flow of new technologies, designed to help them boost efficiency, sustainability, and quality of life, even in the face of an increasing population density. The concept of the “smart city” – the digital, data-supported networking and control of city infrastructures and processes – is a hot topic in urban planning. San José is a place where you would expect everyone to be talking about the smart city concept. After all, the city – which is home to around a million people – calls itself “the capital of Silicon Valley”, a region on the Californian Pacific Coast renowned not only for its high-density population of technology professionals, but also as a major base for companies developing technologies that aim to digitalize our lives.
Kip HarknessDeputy City Manager, San José, California, USA
The aim instead is to transform San José into a city that is always learning, improving, and changing.
Harkness sits in his office on the 17th floor of the city hall building in the center of San José, an architectural masterpiece designed by Richard Meier. From this vantage point, he has an unobstructed view over the city and beyond to the Diablo mountain range in the east. Until around a year ago, Harkness worked for San José-based online payment company PayPal; now, he is employed by the city, and is responsible for innovation, as well as planning and implementing a digital strategy for the city.Directly above him, on the top floor, are the offices of San José mayor Sam Liccardo. In 2016, Liccardo announced that San José – having suffered a decade of financial decline entailing severe cuts and huge job losses – was aiming to become America’s most innovative city by 2020.
Image: City hall of San José, designed by architect Richard Meier
The cityThe cities of the future – cities that offer a high-quality and sustainable way of life – are not only difficult to realize in practice. They are also difficult to plan against the backdrop of an ever-changing technology scene.
Like many cities all over the world, San José has countless ideas for how to digitalize the city. Most of these ideas are still nothing more than “aspirational”, as Harkness puts it.Just like the majority of other aspirational cities, San José has only managed to lay the very first foundations for the beginnings of a smart city. However, the ultimate vision is clear: Technology and data-supported decision-making tools will eventually be used to help urban planners and authorities create a more sustainable, participatory, socially inclusive, safe, transparent, and accessible city.
In the San José of the future, public transport and infrastructure fitted with smart sensors will improve security and traffic management. Also on the to-do list: Deploy digital platforms and smart infrastructure to help rescue services prepare for and respond to earthquakes, flooding, and other natural disasters and emergencies more effectively, and use crowdsourcing to involve local residents in rescue efforts. And: Roll out dashboards that residents can use to access information about their local area, report issues, and work together to solve problems in their neighborhood. City planners are also looking at digital tools to tackle problems such as increasing levels of homelessness and a severe shortage of housing in the area. To prevent the city getting lost in a maze of complex and ambitious projects, San José is focusing on three central questions, which form the basis for its 22-project innovation roadmap:
Is the issue causing problems for citizens?
Is the issue one of the core tasks of the city authorities?
Can the problem be largely resolved either by using technology or improving processes?
However, America’s tenth largest city can only equip itself to learn if it focuses on flexing “three muscles”, explains Harkness: “The first thing we need is appropriately educated people, as the technology we need is driven by people who are committed to improving life for our citizens and who will put this at the center of everything we do. Secondly, these people need to use data when making decisions. Thirdly, they must work iteratively, learning by taking small steps forward and adjusting their path to what is happening in the real world. We won’t allow people to lock themselves away in a room and then unleash a new software program on the world two years later.”
Perhaps unexpectedly for the capital of Silicon Valley, San José has a number of additional hurdles to overcome in the race to develop and implement its smart city projects. The city is located at the heart of the valley of technology, and counts technology giants such as the Google holding Alphabet, Apple, Cisco Systems, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Oracle among its neighbors, and is also home to countless startups and other innovative companies.However, in spite of its illustrious corporate reputation, San José has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the US, coming second only to San Francisco – which has resulted in some areas of the city being cut off from the latest technological developments.Some neighborhoods are still without broadband Internet access; around ten percent of the population has no broadband connection or computer at home, often for financial reasons. In partnership with companies like Facebook, efforts are being made to close these digital divides.
The multi-stakeholder modelAs is the case in many other locations around the world, San José aims to involve all stakeholders in the planning and creation of a smarter city. The consulting process involves residents, industry, IT providers, construction companies, and city authority representatives, who participate in discussions, workshops, community meetings, and ongoing regional communication exercises, as well as engaging and providing feedback via social media and other online channels.
The city is working hard to reverse the established trend of “reactivity” rather than proactivity, explains Dolan Beckel, Smart City Lead in San José.“Until now, our process was approve a project, start the project,”says Beckel, the member of Kip Harkness’ smart city strategy team with responsibility for the policy and legislation associated with creating a smart city.
According to Beckel, part of the reason for engaging more closely with these parties was the fact that the city’s infrastructure – virtually unchanged since the 1950s – would alter rapidly with the introduction of new technologies. A street light that was previously almost indistinguishable from a 19th century Parisian model can now be fitted with sensors and other digital equipment such as cameras and WiFi routers, and be networked as an element in the Internet of Things (IoT) to form a mesh that spans city services.
“Residents benefit from these cameras and sensors because they provide information on traffic congestion or shootings,” says Beckel. “But we also have to provide information on topics such as light output and the design of wireless devices, and of course on data collection and data protection.”
As part of the transition from a two-hundred-year-old infrastructure to a 21st-century version equipped with digital and other technologies, it will be essential to ramp up communication with residents and other stakeholders, Beckel continues:“We have to make sure that they understand and support our security policies and our privacy policies,” says Beckel. San José is keen to focus on the concerns of residents rather than those of IT providers, who are investing large sums in the promotion of their smart city technologies.
A “truly smart city”, according to Chris Conley, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), goes beyond what we see in glossy advertising brochures to develop technical initiatives and define its path.In this multilateral partnership, a great deal of give and take is required on all sides. San José’s vision for smart city solutions will not please everyone, says Rob Lloyd, the city’s Chief Information Officer (CIO).
“The most important factor in involving the community is to bring together a range of voices that represent the various groups of residents – including minorities, immigrants, low-income residents, and others who might have different ideas about the costs and benefits of these kinds of initiatives,” explains Chris Conley.
“Some stakeholders will need to invest and won’t get anything back. Some people might feel neglected because they’ll have to wait for a solution that benefits them,”says Rob Lloyd.
A dual-speed projectThe transition is made more challenging by the fast pace of technological developments.
“Technology is moving so fast right now that our IT people can’t keep pace, and our customers can’t keep pace,” says Lloyd. San José needs to find ways to not only keep the knowledge of its IT team up to date, but also to ensure that all users and managers within the city authorities have all the latest information. “It’s almost like we’re building a Porsche now rather than a Toyota because you want high performance and responsiveness and that takes an engine that’s a lot harder to run than just an easy, simple four-cylinder banger and just running along,” says the CIO.To ensure that the city’s development and some of its long-term projects are not outpaced by rapid technological progress, and to enable it to respond flexibly to new innovations, Lloyd reports that San José no longer purchases IT products, but instead invests in platforms integrated into technology ecosystems that can be expanded with new products and services.
Audio: Rob Lloyd
“We have ecosystems where they have lots of partnerships and we know that that solution is going to have a lot more both feature viability but also temporal viability over time,” explains Lloyd. “We’re not going to be stuck in a silo with one vendor, with one product, that keeps us from touching other solutions.”The city jokes that the future of technology is like “serial dating, not marriage”.
Audio: Rob Lloyd
One example is the Internet of Things, which San José plans to invest in heavily. Lloyd rejects IT providers whose technology is not compatible with the full spectrum of IoT services, or who are offering solutions that cannot be integrated into other packages.“We have smart street lights, smart trash cans, smart manholes and more – somehow, all of these elements need to be linked to the same system, and we need solutions that do that.”These solutions must also keep options open for the future and allow for the infrastructure to grow.
The basis for the new technological infrastructure will be a platform and a data set that encompasses dozens of departments in the city administration. According to Kip Harkness, the after-effects of some of the decisions made now will be felt for the next 20 years – so these decisions cannot be made by a single IT manager in a department. “We need to make careful decisions, particularly when selecting a path that will prevent us going in another direction.”
For some of its innovative projects, San José works with startups and major players in Silicon Valley. Projects involving self-driving and connected cars, for example, which Harkness believes are the transport of the future in North America. “We don’t yet have any idea how these technologies will affect the form our cities take and how they are managed,”says the Deputy City Manager. “We’re experimenting in partnership with companies and lots of very intelligent people, who don’t know much more than we do. Hopefully this will show us what it means to not have to park your own car because it can drive away and park itself, or to not even own one because a robotic car will be available right when you need it.”
For people like Michael Steep, Director of the Digital Cities Program at Stanford University in Silicon Valley, progress towards the smart city is still too slow.Steep’s Digital City Program, launched in 2016, aims to “fundamentally change” how companies and city governments think about and approach the transition to digital urban centers.
In his view, change processes will only start to gain momentum if companies have the opportunity to bring their smart city technologies to cities independently and via their conventional sales channels. The city authorities lack the resources and expertise that is essential for agile development and to realize ambitious smart city visions.
“In US cities in particular, local government is dominated by political structures that date back to the 1930s and 1940s, and nobody thinks about how the role of the state could be redefined,” says the former Microsoft manager and employee at PARC, the Xerox research center. “Cities are so rigid and inflexible in their infrastructure that they are rendered unable to respond, or too slow to respond, to new technologies; they are not equipped to manage their relationships with technology companies.”
Steep believes the eventual change will be driven by the power of consumers, through the “democratization of technology”. “Consumers and consumer demand can force political agendas in a certain direction,” says Steep, who was previously also a member of the Smart London Board set up to assist the mayor of the UK capital with London’s smart city strategy. He cites the example of San Francisco-based transport provider Uber, which is also planning to roll out self-driving cars and trucks.