Silicon Valley’s Smart City

Jonathan Reichental, CIO of the City of Palo Alto, spoke to ITP about how the US centre of the technology industry is embracing the smart city

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Silicon Valley’s Smart City Reichental: Palo Alto is focused on a holistic approach to smart city development.
By Staff Writer Published  December 5, 2016

The City of Palo Alto in California is the economic centre of Silicon Valley, hosting some 7,000 businesses, including leading technology firms such as HP, Tesla Motors, Skype, Xerox and the famous Palo Alto Research Center, and acting as the birthplace of other tech giants including Google and Facebook. The city is also home to Stanford University, and its population of around 67,000 ranks as the most educated in the US, (by number of Masters and Doctorate degrees).

With such a smart population and a focus on technology, it is not surprising that the City of Palo Alto decided five years ago to become one of the smartest cities in the world, with an emphasis on digital services and connectivity. Since then the city has launched a number of programs in areas such as transport, energy efficiency, environment and public safety, and has embraced digital initiatives including cloud, open government data, mobile apps for government services, social media, and the IoT. In 2013, the city was named the number one digital city for its size by the US Center for Digital Government.

Jonathan Reichental, CIO for the City of Palo Alto, explained that the city has focused on using technology more broadly to efficiently serve the constituents of Palo Alto, rather than regarding ‘smart city’ as a single, standalone project.

“It’s a mistake to think of a Smart City as a project. This makes it appear like there is one set of objectives and once they are met we are done. In my view, the work we do to make our cities better places to live, work, and play is never done. Therefore, a smart city is never finished. It keeps evolving. The needs of a city like Palo Alto today will be different from its needs 30 years from now,” Reichental said.

The main focus for Palo Alto at present is to develop the framework for the different smart city projects and initiatives. Palo Alto is part of a group of 21 US cities which are working together to develop a common set of guiding principles for smart cities, including developing policies and procedures for the IoT, and ensuring openness and transparency around the use of public assets and creating dialogue among all stakeholders to ensure technologies bring the maximum public benefit.

The city has already developed a number of initiatives that will fall under the smart framework. Traffic was a problem for the city, but it has now switched from an analogue traffic signal network to a completely IP-based traffic system, to form a part of an intelligent transportation system which gives a far greater degree of control over traffic, and allows data to be used to gain insight and develop more solutions in future.

Palo Alto is also a centre for autonomous vehicle research, with many car manufacturers having innovation labs in the city, and the smart transport network will provide a foundation for self-driving vehicles, Reichental added.

The city has also committed to clean energy, with all homes now powered by renewable energy sources, and all businesses set to make the switch in a few years. To support this, Palo Alto plans to expand its existing smart grid, and deploy more sensors to monitor energy and water usage. The city has also carried out a test deployment of smart solar streetlights. Connectivity for the city and its smart initiatives comes in part from a 31-mile dark fibre ring for ultra-fast Internet access.

The smart framework will accommodate all these projects and more, Reichental said: “It includes leveraging city data for improved decision-making, transparency, and community engagement. There will be hundreds of smart city projects in Palo Alto over the next 30 years. Our framework for this will need to improve liveability, workability, and sustainability.”

Reichental explained some of the issues facing the project: “We’re a small city, so our challenges are always about resource constraints. We also have to be very good at prioritisation. We believe that once we have our smart city framework well-defined and agreed upon by all the relevant stakeholders, then we will have the basis for prioritisation and sequencing. Our challenges are going to continue to be building buy-in, educating a diverse constituency, and maintaining focus in a rapidly changing environment.

“We never lose sight of the contemporary risks associated with technology and connectivity. We continue to invest in new security technology. We also continue to look for weaknesses in our security. Anyone working on city-scale technology needs to ensure that information security is a priority. I’m concerned that too many cities are making it an afterthought,” he added.

The city has made significant progress in putting in place smart government systems both for citizens and for partners. Over 60 services are available online, ranging from reporting crime, to requesting a permit, to paying a parking ticket, to borrowing an eBook; and the city has three open data platforms including a general system, a system dedicated to geo-spatial information and one for financials, with over 100 valuable datasets available through the platforms.

In future, Palo Alto plans to build on all of these projects and add more, Reichental commented: “Our future smart city roadmap includes executing on our climate action plan (CAP); further enhancing our intelligent traffic signal system so that cars move more efficiently around the city; continuing to create incentives and broaden the use of solar panels on homes and businesses; we plan to find ways to expand a fibre optic broadband network to reach all homes; we want to move more services to apps and online services; and we’ll work on reducing waste management and improving water management.”

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