Q&A: What Asia can learn from Silicon Valley’s smart city initiatives

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We hear a lot about the potential benefits of smart cities, from better and more efficient services for citizens to transforming the city itself into a digitally-focused innovation engine attracting global investment and talent. But any meaningful smart city initiative is a complex undertaking involving numerous stakeholders, and success is not always guaranteed.

That’s why it often helps to hear what first-mover smart-city initiatives are doing and learning from their experience. Dr Sean Randolph, senior director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, tells Disruptive.Asia editor-in-chief John C Tanner, about his experience with smart-city projects in Silicon Valley and the lessons that APAC cities can learn from them. First lesson: size matters not.

Disruptive.Asia: What are the minimum qualifications to becoming a smart city in terms of infrastructure, oversight, city size, etc?

r Sean Randolph, senior director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute
Dr Sean Randolph, senior director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute

Dr Sean Randolph: At the minimum, a digital city needs the right infrastructure. High speed broadband, preferably universal, is essential. This is important not just for large companies that move a lot of data, but also for smaller businesses, startups and education. City size doesn’t really matter. You can have a large city or a small one – what matters is its digital capacity and its ability to provide a platform that enables sophisticated operations and the efficient flow of data.

Digital education is important, in public schools as well as through private service providers. More and more of the jobs being created today, even in manufacturing, require digital skills and the educational system much be prepared to deliver them, not just in primary and secondary education but through lifelong learning as technology and jobs change.

Civic leadership also matters, where government functions can be digitized and made more accessible to the public, and the creativity and innovation of the public and business community engaged to address civic challenges.

Finally, I’d point to the value of harnessing the creativity of startups that can create innovative new hardware and service companies. That can happen through incubators and accelerators, which can be public or private, or be supported by universities – which can play a particularly important role in licensing technologies and enabling company formation. It can also be enabled by experienced mentors who are willing to share their time and expertise with entrepreneurs, and even by larger companies that may want to nurture younger companies in their filed that might one day help their business grow.

What have you been doing in Silicon Valley along these lines? 

Urban high-speed broadband is nearly ubiquitous, but we still complain about gaps. The City of San Francisco has created an Office of Innovation, with a chief innovation officer to help engage the startup community on urban challenges and perhaps provide a market for their solutions. While it’s probably the most advanced, other cities like San Jose are doing similar things. Universities like Stanford have supported entrepreneurs for a very long time, but all of our universities are now actively running incubators, accelerators, business plan competitions, and other programs designed to enable innovative faculty and students to test their ideas.

Cities and other jurisdictions are also offering themselves as test beds for new technologies such as autonomous vehicles, changing regulations to  assure that the public’s interest in things such as safety are protected, but trying hard not to get in the way of innovation. If that can enable new technologies to be adopted in those cities earlier it can be a competitive advantage that supports new companies and services.

What were the biggest challenges to overcome?

Not all of the challenges have been overcome. Sometimes, for example, there’s resistance in the local community to new technology being sited in their neighborhoods. Though important to deal with, that can greatly extend the time required to complete the process. These are longstanding issues, which are largely the product of rapid growth. Growth always brings change, which can be disruptive and lead to push-back. Because that resistance is often personal and institutional, it can be difficult quickly or easily address. So some of this is about cultural change, and showing people how they can benefit.

How much of your experience in California translates to Asia? What lessons can we learn from your experience?

California is deeply connected to Asia – by trade, investment and demographics. In particular, cities in the Bay Area are leading the US in developing smart city strategies. In part this is because so much of what is driving digital innovation globally is coming from the region, so many technology companies are located there, and so many technologically trained people live there. The other driver is that the cities in the region are environmentally oriented and focused on sustaining a high quality of life – which is important to attracting and retaining talent. So there’s a huge opportunity to leverage technology.

We need to do this because, like other places, our cities face growing challenges. Congestion and the lack of mobility is a particularly difficult problem. Improving energy efficiency and the deployment of green technologies is a priority. Managing and improving public services is another. Most of these challenges are the product of rapid growth – which Asian cities are also experiencing. So I think there’s a big opportunity for dialogue around a wide range of topics, including mobility solutions, energy and governance.

One of the criticisms of smart cities is that they may become “digitally gated communities” that draw investment away from the rest of the country – is that a valid concern, and if so how can this be mitigated? 

I don’t see “digitally gated communities” being a major issue, at least in California. The issues that we see have more to do with getting technology into schools and communities in some less advantaged areas. So while the standard is generally high, there are gaps and pockets that must still be addressed. This is also true for rural areas where lower population densities reduce the incentives for broadband providers to provide premium service.  Supportive public policies can help address these market gaps. On the upside, the need for competitive service can open the door for smaller, innovative service providers to create a market. Colleges and universities can also serve as community resources, providing expertise and resources and catalyzing private sector partnerships.

Dr Randolph will be discussing his experience with smart city projects during a panel session at the IoT Asia conference this week in Singapore. Disruptive.Asia is an official media sponsor of IoT Asia. All the details are here.

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