3 Lessons from Chula Vista to Help Clarify A Smart City Vision
After Chula Vista voters approved a sales tax increase in 2016 to pay for a large backlog of deferred maintenance, the proverbial telephones at City Hall started ringing off the hook. Vendors were offering all kinds of smart streetlights, smart irrigation controllers, smart traffic signals and more.
At the same time, the City and the Port of San Diego were preparing to launch a 530-acre waterfront redevelopment that would transform an underutilized industrial site into a high-tech recreational, residential and resort destination. With unprecedented energy efficiency targets, the Chula Vista Bayfront project would require new and innovative technologies.
We knew we had many opportunities to be a smart city, but with so many factors at play it was difficult to know if we were making the right decisions. Should we do streetlights or irrigation first? Could our city network support a new Voice-over-IP telephone system? How could we ensure equity in technology and data deployments?
Our Strategic Roadmap Approach
Balancing competing priorities in a time of rapid change and limited resources is no simple task, so we set out to create a strategic roadmap. We needed a coordinated approach that could clarify for everyone — ourselves, constituents, vendors — what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it:
- The outcomes we want to achieve for our community.
- The policies we need to put in place to enable our work.
- The technological initiatives that will help us deliver.
- The key performance indicators that will tell us if we are on the right track.
Over the course of about six months, we worked with a consultant, Madaffer Enterprises, to conduct extensive interviews with key stakeholders in the city organization and also out in the community.
We sorted through existing documents we had – our Chula Vista Smart Waterfront Assessment reports, our General Plan, our Climate Action Plan, the strategic plans of individual departments — and looked for areas where we could find common goals and common problems that could be solved with technology and data.
We ended up with a set of four overarching goals, focusing on connectivity, responsiveness, transparency and innovation. Those goals filtered down to 10 specific objectives and 39 initiatives.
And in the year since we’ve been implementing the roadmap, we’ve learned a few things.
1. Collaboration is key to making big things happen.
Traditionally, cities have used technology to solve specific problems within a particular program or department. The library, for example, has its own database to track patrons. The public works department operates its own sensors to control traffic signals. The growing connectivity and integration of technologies, however, is creating new opportunities for efficiency and problem-solving.
One of the key elements of our smart city strategic roadmap was to establish new and effective ways for knowledge sharing, information gathering, and decision making through the establishment of a Smart Cities Working Group which consists of the City Manager, key department heads, and Police and Fire departments. This group of city leaders meets monthly to talk specifically about various technology initiatives. These regular conversations have yielded valuable insights and discussions: As we plan for a network of smart irrigation sensors, can we accommodate other network needs within the city? How can we use new fiber-optic connections between traffic signals to support economic development and public safety efforts?
Collaboration also extends beyond City Hall. Unlike a city like New York, where most government functions are under the purview of the municipal government, a city the size of Chula Vista (population 268,000) or smaller has to collaborate with regional partners, such as school districts, hospital districts, water districts, the port district, and neighboring cities. By keeping dialogue open and working together on major projects we’ve opened up new opportunities for economic development, smart cities pilot initiatives and education.
2. Get public buy-in.
In addition to the public outreach we developed our own roadmap, and we’ve also engaged in targeted community engagement efforts related to specific smart city programs.
As our police department has launched and expanded its use of small unmanned aerial systems to respond to emergencies, we’ve been upfront with our community about how drones are being used. We’ve given people the opportunity to weigh in on internal use policies and provided opportunities for comment and discussion in public meetings. We’ve also been transparent about who is involved in the program and who the public can contact for more information.
And as we’ve begun to spend that additional sales tax revenue, we’re taking extra steps to make sure our community knows. We’re setting up a website that helps people track progress on specific projects, without getting too deep into technical jargon.
3. Learn from others but run your own race.
Chula Vista finds great value in participating in various forums, such as Meeting of the Minds, that bring together city practitioners from all over the world to share ideas. Some have a global focus while others have more of a regional emphasis. We find it useful to talk to counterparts in other cities who are experiencing some of the same challenges we are.
At the same time, however, we stay focused on unique opportunities and issues that are specific to Chula Vista. We know that just because a trash can sensor delivered results in one city does not mean it’s the best use of funds in our community. With our strategic roadmap in hand, we know what our priorities are and we know what challenges we need to tackle first.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
I spoke last week with Krishna Desai from Cubic Transportation, and we discussed three big problems facing transportation, and the ways that Cubic is approaching these challenges:
1) If (or when) more workers return to traditional on-location jobs, but feel a lingering distrust of crowded spaces, people who can afford it may opt for private cars instead of using public transit for their commute. This will create a massive influx of cars on roads that were already crowded, and more financial woes for transit agencies already dealing with budget shortfalls. Krishna told me about a suite of optimization tools Cubic is deploying in places like Mexico and San Francisco to make public transit more efficient, more transparent, and, overall, more attractive to riders.
2) For the time being, though, we’re dealing with the opposite problem. How can transit agencies find ways to influence user behavior in a way that complies with social distancing and capacity requirements? How can you incentivize riders to wait for the next bus? (In a way that doesn’t alienate them forever – see #1). Cubic has deployed a loyalty/advertising program in Miami-Dade County that was originally intended to increase ridership, but is now being used to help control crowding and social distancing on transit.
3) Transportation infrastructure, in generally, was not built to accomodate 6-feet of separation between riders – or between workers. Little things like, for example, opening gates, requires workers to be closer than 6-feet to riders, and there are examples like that throughout every transit hub. Technology can help, but creating and implementing software/hardware solutions quickly and efficiently requires experience with innovation, deployment, maintenance and more. Cubic has a program called Project Rebound that shows the possibilities.
Advanced Urban Visioning offers a powerful tool for regions that are serious about achieving a major transformation in their sustainability and resilience. By clarifying what optimal transportation networks look like for a region, it can give planners and the public a better idea of what is possible. It inverts the traditional order of planning, ensuring that each mode can make the greatest possible contribution toward achieving future goals.
Advanced Urban Visioning doesn’t conflict with government-required planning processes; it precedes them. For example, the AUV process may identify the need for specialized infrastructure in a corridor, while the Alternatives Analysis process can now be used to determine the time-frame where such infrastructure becomes necessary given its role in a network.
The introduction of intelligent transportation systems, which includes a broad network of smart roads, smart cars, smart streetlights and electrification are pushing roadways to new heights. Roadways are no longer simply considered stretches of pavement; they’ve become platforms for innovation. The ability to empower roadways with intelligence and sensing capabilities will unlock extraordinary levels of safety and mobility by enabling smarter, more connected transportation systems that benefit the public and the environment.