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City CIOs gather to swap smart city experiences

A select group of city CIOs and other technology policy makers gathered recently at Harvard University to participate in the 2017 Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator. The order of the day? To report on their smart city initiatives, or the integration of technology and sensors into city infrastructure. The group was encouraged to have frank discussions about what’s working — and what isn’t.

“The goal is that they to leave with deeper strategic insight for their cities,” said David Ricketts, Innovation Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University. “That’s really what we’re trying to accelerate.”

Ricketts said the event was designed to give attendees the space and time needed for active participation and interaction. One of the issues Ricketts put up for discussion was about sensors on streetlights. Smart cities are often implementing smart street lights, which replace old-school bulbs for energy-efficient LED counterparts along with several sensors. The combination of LED lights and sensors on streetlights throughout a city adds up to more than the sum of its parts. As Ricketts put it: “It’s a mini-cellular network.”

Sensors can include Wi-Fi, but can they can also include things like movement detection and weather detection. The question for attendees was, do cities really need to be measuring all of it? Or are they falling prey to vendor pitches? One city revealed it decided to leave off the Wi-Fi sensor because it “already had local service providers providing the dense population with Wi-Fi, so there was no reason,” Ricketts said. The response was an “ah-ha” moment for the attendees who didn’t have Wi-Fi sensors but assumed they needed them.

“That’s why we’re focused on learning and on the bigger strategy picture as opposed to just talking about streetlights,” Ricketts said.

Necessary and rare
Opportunities for frank discussion and the exchange of ideas are rare and important, according to participants. “Frequently, smart city events are hosted by vendors, and the commercial interest drives a good deal of the content,” said Bob Bennett, chief innovation officer for Kansas City. “Harvard came at this from an academic and civic perspective, and the cities drove the content.”

One of the critical components for city CIOs and others is to figure out best practices, according to Bennett. “I can’t do the same type of public health data assessment that Louisville is doing,” he said by way of example, but he can work with his colleagues in Louisville to understand the benefits they gained from their work and bring those potential opportunities to his own city.

As David Graham, deputy COO for San Diego, jokingly put it: “plagiarizing equals iteration.”

“What’s happening in Boston that came from an idea out of San Francisco that’s being implemented in Kansas City that has applications for San Diego — that is how we get to the right solutions for smart cities,” Graham said. “If we’re not working with other cities, then we’re working in a vacuum.”