How one city's 'not afraid to fail' attitude is making it smarter

Thu, 2017-04-20 09:49 -- Doug Peeples

There's nothing wrong with being cautious about initial smart city projects and starting small. Pick the low-hanging fruit with a reasonably certain return on investment, plan carefully and implement a project that can accommodate additional improvements in the future. But Palo Alto, with a population of about 67,000, has consistently taken a different tack with its smart city initiatives.

You can read about what the city is doing and why in the story below. But what may be the big takeaway for other cities of similar size and smaller  is Palo Alto's strategy – and its attitude. The city routinely collaborates with its local university, surrounding communities and technology providers to stretch its resources and share knowledge and experiences. And city leaders don't necessarily see a pilot project that didn't work out well as a failure, but as a learning experience. While Palo Alto's strategy is certainly worth emulating, we're not saying all smaller and mid-size cities should or could strictly follow its lead. However, we are saying there are several paths to smart city success. And with careful assessment and planning (and citizen engagement early on) you can choose the right one for your city. — Doug Peeples

To say Palo Alto has huge smart city ambitions is an almost embarrassing understatement. So far the community has implemented or is working on more than 25 projects, ranging from smart grid and intelligent street lighting to a traffic flow and parking monitoring platform and an air quality monitoring system. And of course more are in the works.

Go to the City of Palo Alto website and type 'smart city projects' in the search box and it quickly becomes apparent the city is punching well above its weight for a city a small fraction the size of one of New York City's boroughs.

What are they doing and why are they doing it?
Among those projects in the works including testing a 52-inch digital wayfinding kiosk in the downtown area, a community sensor network, a sensor dashboard for real-time data tracking and the previously mentioned platform for monitoring traffic flow. The city also committed more than $13 million over three years to implement parts of its Smart Grid Roadmap to beef up the city's electric, natural gas and water networks, as we reported earlier this year.

In an interview with Statescoop, Palo Alto City Information Officer Jonathan Reichental conceded the city may have a different approach than others in its size range. "We embrace the idea of being a model. I'm giving ideas to others and equally I believe we learn from others, too. Not a lot of cities that are our size do this sort of thing  and we are kind of an outlier."

He also explained the city's strategy and motivation:

  • Digital innovation has a major role in meeting today's demands and needs
  • Real support from the mayor and city council are essential for success
  • Outside partnerships are essential for a city with limited resources
  • Be willing to fail

"I think an important part of innovation is to try things even when you don't know what the results will be, because you learn so much in the act of simply trying," Reichental said. He added that the city could have taken on twice as many projects, but the realistic approach was to focus on those pilots that had the most likelihood of success and provided the most tangible benefit for the community.

Also, the city aligns itself closely with Stanford University and has worked with the institution to obtain federal funding for city projects. And it works closely with its solution providers. For example, the city and Council Lead Partner AT&T worked together on a wired and wireless network upgrade and with Associate Partner Elster on a smart metering pilot.

Nothing new, nothing unusual
Palo Alto isn't doing anything new or unusual in terms of technology and that could help tamp down the reluctance of other smaller cities to engage in smart city initiatives, Reichental said. "Technology-wise, we don't do anything that's unique and I'd like to think that any one of these things can be done by any city if they are prioritized and part of their strategy.

"Every community can do something, because every community has strengths. I would encourage cities have an innovation agenda and whether it's one project, or five, or 35, they ought to be thinking about new ways to rethink city services."

Doug Peeples is a Portland, Oregon-based writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.