David Graham, Deputy Chief Operating Officer, City of San Diego spoke to Jonathan Andrews about his passion for people–not technology–and the importance of upgrading existing infrastructure with connectivity
What has driven San Diego into becoming one of the leading US cities for smart lighting?
San Diego suffered from under-investment in infrastructure for many years. The last couple of mayors have really righted the financial ship but the damage had been done when it came to infrastructure throughout the city. As we looked at replacing and improving infrastructure, the key was how to use connected technology.
Since we were going to be investing and creating a more efficient infrastructure, we asked ourselves how could we also use communications and connectivity to have world-class infrastructure to help us achieve more goals than just the purpose for which the infrastructure was intended. That brings us to another big thing for San Diego, which is our focus on sustainability and climate action. If you take the problem of under-investment in infrastructure, the need to replace those assets, and a key focus on sustainability, street lighting is a perfect place to accomplish many of those goals and leapfrog traditional technologies around illumination.
We looked at the question of how to create a more efficient street lighting network. That clearly leads to LEDs, but if you are going to replace the bulbs it also makes sense to have those lights connected–wirelessly in our case–to each other in order to communicate data to the cloud and allow for us to control those lights–the brightness and when they are on and off. We have a great partnership with San Diego Gas and Electric [GE] around sustainability goals. Here we found we could work with them to get a meter grade–if we had every single one of those poles metered and connected through our communications network. That led us to standing up a few thousand of these smart street lights with adapted controls. We knew when they were on and off, and how much energy they were using. That’s when GE came to us and said, ‘You now have not just a lighting network but a communications network that has visibility on your streets and roads in these neighbourhoods. What if you could do much more than just manage a light network? What if those could also be sensors that could help you solve issues around parking, pedestrian safety and a whole host of other opportunities?’
So, we did a pilot in East Village Downtown with about 40 enhanced sensor packages with optical, auditory and environmental sensors. What we quickly found out was that we were creating significant savings, or could, through the adaptive street lighting network. We saw our energy usage drop by 60 percent and there were clearly monetary savings in having a connected LED network of street lights. Those savings could be put into enhanced sensor packages in the street lights that could then solve so many other problems.
You are spending US$30 million to install a further 3,000 smart sensing lights that can even inform people of free parking spaces. How will this be financed and what has the public involvement been?
The current programme that we are in the middle of is a US$30 million deployment of 13,000 street lights with 3,200 of them having the enhanced sensor package. It is estimated to save–just on the energy bill alone–US$2.5 million and we’ll use those savings to finance the entire network. GE Capital will provide the financing for that and that doesn’t take into account the reduced maintenance costs, or even the meter upgrade, so I would estimate the savings are actually twice that. We just looked at the energy bill alone.
We then went out into the community, we held a block party for street lights which was pretty fun to get people to tell us what a street light could do to improve their lives. We worked closely with technologists, our software development community, held hackathons around the utilisation of the data, and ensured that this deployment 100 percent covers our underserved neighbourhoods.
It was important for us to be inclusive in the deployment of smart technology in those neighbourhoods because we think that they are where we could have the greatest impact.
Does this make road sensors redundant? How are you choosing the technology you adopt?
Yes, it does. We look at the places where we are going to be investing to upgrade our infrastructure and then think abut the multi-use platform that that infrastructure investment can bring. That’s why the streetlights are absolutely perfect. You have these poles, at 30 to 60 feet [9 to 18 metres] in height that are nearly ubiquitous throughout your city that have a field of sensing where the highest amounts of pedestrian, bicycle and vehicle traffic are. That creates a perfect opportunity for being able to do all sorts of things that will help improve people’s lives.
You can undertake congestion management using the street lights, or gunshot detection and pedestrian safety. Think about the fact that we know our most dangerous intersections because of police reports but what about all the near misses, what about the jay walkers? We can identify and prioritise infrastructure investments in those areas because of the near misses. A human sized object and a vehicle-sized object, maybe they didn’t collide but there were 100 times when they came within several feet of each other.
And then how can you push that data back out to improve people’s awareness and improve mobility? So there is everything from parking availability, through parking optimisation, an app on your phone that we’ve tested out which tells you where there is available parking so you can make a decision instead of going round and round searching for a parking spot to know exactly where you can go. Also tying that into our smart parking meter system, to inform people who perhaps don’t want to pay for parking because they’d prefer to park in places where there aren’t meters, to where there is availability and the cost of parking and making decisions that way. All of what we are doing is helping to empower city officials and residents to make better decisions that we think are improving their lives.
I’ve heard from your colleague in Kansas City, Bob Bennett, that you have kept a record called ‘the smart cities hall of shame’, can you tell me more about that?
That’s one of the things that Bob, I, and others have spoken about. There is a whole group of us that are really working to help scale projects but also weigh up problems. When I kind of boil down the whole ‘smart cities gone wrong’–as I jokingly call it–the lessons that we find at the centre include incompatible partners and no rip cord. By that I mean sometimes when you are going down the path with a pilot and you think, ‘You know this just doesn’t fit our needs, this isn’t what we want’, people continue to double down and invest more resources. You have got to pull the rip cord, because as we know in the start-up community, failing fast is not a bad thing.
But the risk aversion of government to fail sometimes leads to doubling down on investments that end up not serving a purpose. Ultimately I think that the best projects are multi-use in nature, they are cross-departmental. They recognise that they can’t future proof but you can be future aware. City governments have been used to building assets that are supposed to last 30, 50 or 100 years and their tolerance for replacement has to go up significantly in the digital era.
Here is our big challenge: the smart phone changed the game on all of us, from what the expectations of our communities are as to how quickly we can do things, how efficiently we can do things and how convenient life can be. If cities aren’t thinking about the level of convenience that the smart phone provides and using that platform to deliver services, then they are going to miss out.
Ultimately when we talk about competitiveness, it’s not about acting against each other as cities but together as cities and providing that experience that people have come to expect from their lives that now needs to translate into their city as well.
It seems as though cities are learning through sharing both successes and failures. What do you think vendors need to learn from their relationships with cities?
The best vendors are working with cities to learn and understand the beast that is city government. The motivations are often very different. Every city has a unique political climate, history and background and they also have ‘dead bodies’ littered across their cities where one thing worked or didn’t work and say, ‘We’ll never do that again’. Vendors may come with a solution that is brilliant but unfortunately some city tried it at some point and it created a huge kerfuffle.
[Vendors] really have to understand that not all cities are created equal and they need to understand what is authentic in the city and who they are–the culture–in order to tailor solutions for them.
In some cities there are different tolerance levels for privacy issues around things like sensors and their adoption of smart technology, and you are going to find issues in certain cities that are going to be ‘top of mind’ always and that every single solution brought to them has to somehow touch on that.
In San Diego we have the benefit of optical sensors making a lot of sense because our weather is fantastic but in other cities there are challenges associated with that. One of the ones Bob Bennett [Chief Innovation Officer, Kansas City (Missouri)] and I have spoken about is that they have done some great stuff on data around predictive analytics for where potholes were forming because of a weather event. Sell that to me and you aren’t going to find a very interested city official, but take that exact same approach along to our utility and adapt it slightly to wildfire detection and predictive analytics of deploying fire trucks, and there you go, we are interested.
San Diego is the site of the first of its kind field trial of cellular connected car technology for AVs to be conducted by Qualcomm, AT&T and Ford. Qualcomm’s home is San Diego, how much has having such a high-tech ecosystem helped you in your role as CIO?
Absolutely crucial but just because a city may not have a strong tech community doesn’t mean it is disadvantaged in the smart city race. Tapping into tech companies, software developers, your local utility, is absolutely crucial and I think that creating a safe non-profit third party where those conversations can happen has been absolutely crucial to our success.
Ten years ago we created Clean Tech San Diego which is our industry cluster organisation in the energy utility and smart cities field which brings together the university, utility, businesses in those sectors and also the City of San Diego and now multiple cities around our region. You have to be intentional about bringing together your academic resources, business resources and city leaders if you are going to have a successful smart city approach. One of the things I find interesting is that Qualcomm has done some really fascinating projects like LinkNYC in New York and other things around the world. It’s sometimes worth reminding those companies that we are right here in their backyard and working with them on deployments is something important for cities to do as well and having an industry cluster organisation or non-profit venue where those conversations can take place really helps speed up the deployment of smart projects.
You oversee a group of departments including Libraries, Parks & Recreation, Development Services, Economic Development, Planning, and the Arts and Culture Commission. How does the governance structure work within San Diego for digital strategies and how does your role compare to other CIOs?
We believe in innovation across departments throughout the organisation. My role of having things like the planning department, economic development department, our chief sustainability office, parks and rec, libraries, is a very outward facing community connected group that is tasked with improving our communities. Having the chief sustainability officer and implementation of the climate action plan is also the strategy that a lot of the smart projects align with. But we have our director of performance and analytics that our chief data officer reports to. I almost think of it as a blockchain model of smart cities where multiple departments are working on multiple projects at the same time but centralised around some common strategies. The teams around our strategic plan and our climate action plan are what allow us to deploy and do more projects than some other places with a centralised CIO and everything running through that.
I don’t oversee the IT department or the performance and analytics departments but I work very closely with them from a clear mandate from our mayor to drive innovation throughout the entire city. Another good example is our public utilities department, we have a water and wastewater department the city also runs. They are in the middle of a pure water programme which is creating a new water source from wastewater. A third of our drinking water by 2035 will come from waste water.
There would never be the capacity in a CIO’s department to run something like that but because that and the advanced metering infrastructure that they are creating meets the need of our department and meets the need of the region, we can tie that into cross departmental approach and really get at water sustainability which for San Diego is crucial.
How do you get residents involved in the smart city programmes?
Everybody is so incredibly busy with their lives that you have to connect to the challenges that people deal with on a regular basis and show how communications, data and technology can help improve their lives. We don’t take the approach of what is the next new cool gadget, software, or whizzbang thing. We take the approach of what are the toughest challenges the city is facing and how can we use data and technology to tackle those problems. We recognise that there are a host of very talented people that want to give up their time, energy and effort in the software and data communities so we hold regular hackathons and conventions. They are able to use city data and come up with ideas, products and software that can use city resources to create solutions for people.
Everything doesn’t have to be a city-purchased created application, in fact it really shouldn’t be. There should be some centralised basic functions that are improving and creating more efficient services and then the rest should be pushing out data so that people can create their own apps and solutions for people and then hopefully create companies out of that. Part of this smart city approach is that we’re creating an environment where people understand that the city is pushing innovation, is open and is a place that wants to have them involved in creating the future of their city. Because it is those sorts of folks that come here that are the talent that our companies want and need and through them are creating the companies of the future.
What metrics do you put in place to evaluate the programmes you manage?
Every project that we do is going to have its own set of KPIs [key performance indicators], so for the street lighting project, one of the big elements there was around cost savings, energy reduction and a business case to fund deployment and expansion of that network. For something like our open data initiative, our chief data officer would say that it’s not about the number of data sets but it’s about the quality of the data and realisation of that data. So we really pride ourselves not on our open data platform, we pride ourselves on the automation work that he’s doing so that when new data is created it is automated and pushed out through the open data platform and that data is of high quality. It’s clean data and then we have analytics around who is using this, how many people are using it, what are some things that we can do with that, how can we bring those folks in to help us understand what other data sets would be useful for them. Every smart city project has to have its own set of KPIs but it boils down to the question of, ‘Are we being more efficient and delivering services and are we making real improvements to the way people live?’
Which projects are you working on currently and how do you see your future role in San Diego?
I’m going to take a bit of a side bar to that, as what gets me the most excited is getting converts to want to deliver data and technology-enabled projects that are solving our toughest challenges. That goes for us here in the city and for around the country. That goes for North America.
My most passionate focus is how do I get our city leaders and civic leaders engaged and excited and deploying their projects in this space? It’s funny to say that the thing I am most dedicated to has nothing to do with technology and has everything to do with people. So the more departments that I can get working on projects that I’ve never even heard of but telling me that we are deploying this project because it solves these issues but also, here are the six other departments that can use what we have created, that gets me extremely excited. It gets me very excited that we have an operational excellence academy that is teaching employees things like basic operational improvements that they can deploy in their own jobs. I get excited about a management academy that we have here that as you go through it you are directly helping solve a city problem. So theprojects that I am working on have to do with leaders around the country deploying their projects better, more efficiently and creating this network that hopefully technologically and personally can help cities of any size or any type, be smarter.
Here in the city, obviously the smart street light network is a big one that we are working on. We are beginning some work with SAP on how their platform–which is so crucial to so many cities from a financial perspective–can be used and leveraged for smart projects. I’m working on expanding our Free Ride Everywhere Downtown that uses parking meter funds to move around free EV shuttles. I want to expand that to the entire urban core. I’m also working on a self-sustaining kiosk programme that approaches the mobility question in a different way than other kiosks have done.
I’m also working with our transit agency, our city departments, around the big questions on mobility because the transportation sector has now eclipsed the energy sector in terms of carbon creation and so mobility is a perfect place to work to reduce carbon emissions but also, especially here in southern California. One of the greatest headaches for any city here is traffic, so how do we use and approach both in the way we plan our neighbourhoods, but also educate people on the available options they have that begins to lead to behavioural change.
Where I get excited is when I see a newspaper article about a project that involved the university, the city and the community, that I didn’t have to touch at all. That puts the biggest smile on my face.
And what about your future, personally?
I have a passion for cities and always have. From the first time being an intern in a mayor’s office I realised that local government is what I cared about because it was the best way to directly impact people’s lives and set the stage throughout our communities. I see my future in continuing to be that connector, to break down barriers especially those that have been long held. If somebody says we can’t do this, or won’t work with them, that is the first place that I want to go and tackle. I love the work that I get to do, because I can walk down the street and see the changes that have been made.
I also love the idea that cities have thought that they need to compete against each other when in fact we need to compete with each other in order to be successful. I rely a lot on CIOs and leaders from around the country to help inform what I do here and I hope that I do the same in reverse for them.
We are in a time of unparalleled cooperation at the local government level when we are seeing the exact reverse in many of our other levels of government. It is unprecedented the level of cooperation, care and concern and it is because we realise that without each other, the ‘global tsunami’ will drown us.