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Smart city movement picking up steam

The smart city movement is taking the country and world by storm especially over the past two years.

You don’t know what a smart city is? You’re not alone. In fact, even the experts haven’t settled on a universal definition because they say what it means to make a city smart depends on several factors.

“One of the things that holds this whole effort back is that nobody can define a smart city,” said Jim Waring, executive chairman of CleanTech San Diego. “It varies from community to community, city to city, place to place and even from neighborhood to neighborhood.”

Envision driving downtown and having your phone tell you where parking spots are available, and then being able to pay for a spot on your phone, instead of a meter. Or a backhoe driver knowing that a particular road was just paved to avoid driving over it and undoing the work.

Or having sensors constantly relay water-monitoring information instead of a city employee physically going to read a monitor once a week. Or fire and rescue crews being able to get real-time images and information regarding a building they’re going to enter.

“Part of our idea of what makes cities smart is, first of all, communications infrastructure,” said Rick Azer, director of development at Black & Veatch and a panelist at a CommNexus event Wednesday at Morrison & Foerster.

“So it’s the ability for people, systems, things to communicate with each other, to be collected, analyzed and controlled. And that’s something that’s really developed over the last two years, where we’ve gone from voice communication to data communication and now to M2M [machine to machine] communication. ... In many cases, it’s not even people talking to each other, it’s things taking to each other and providing data that then gets analyzed and acted upon.”

Kiva Allgood, senior director of Global Market Development at Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM), said Chicago is at the forefront of the smart city movement in North America, and is integrating all 40 of its city departments into standard procurement and communications platforms, making information sharing easier.

Before this standardization, departments would acquire communications platforms that weren’t integrated. Now data from one department can be shared with others, allowing new apps to provide relevant services to both residents and city employees.

On an international level, India is creating two new rail systems — a commuter rail system on the east side of the country and a 1,900-kilometer industrial line from Delhi to Mumbai — with plans to build five or six smart cities from the ground up along the line.

Terry Mohn, CEO of General Microgrids, is involved in the project, which has $100 billion in funding from India’s government. He said each city will have microgrids, among other smart technologies. San Diego is ahead of much of the United States as it has already deployed smart-grid and microgrid technology.

A microgrid is a localized grouping of electricity sources that can work with a traditional centralized grid or disconnect and work autonomously, depending on need.

Panelists’ thoughts on what’s holding back the movement nationally, and in San Diego in particular, centered on three elements: ubiquitous gigabyte infrastructure; standardized, interoperable platforms; and strong leadership.

“I think we are on the cusp of a very important public policy decision in our country, and that is: Is ubiquitous, fairly priced, non-monopoly controlled gigabit infrastructure a basic utility that people are entitled to?” Waring said.

“If we’re really going to do what technology and the Internet and communication will allow us to do, we have to have ubiquitous, fairly priced multigigabit infrastructure available to all people. And the cities that figure it out will be the cities of the future, and the cities that don’t figure it out will be the cities of the past.”

Mohn stressed the challenge and importance of creating interoperability standards at the physical and cyber levels, without which wiring and information sharing are for naught. He said these standards don’t exist and will take considerable discussion and cooperation to craft.

Mohn said leadership particularly applies to the local level. San Diego comes in a distant 20th on the City Energy Efficiency Scorecard, despite its perception as a green city that is ahead of the curve.

“We really need an advocate,” Mohn said. “If there’s no political will behind it, then it doesn’t happen. I think from my experience outside the U.S., it needs to be political.”

Panelists said more cities have started transitioning to smart platforms over the past 12 to 15 months, as technologies, communication prices and energy demands converge to create a need and desire for more efficient systems.

As energy prices rise and communications technology prices drop, the experts say we’re poised for smarter cities — whatever that means exactly.

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