How to solve the problems you have today (and plan for the future, too)

It sounds like a smart cities project: set up areas to serve as living labs so smart technologies and applications can be tested as solutions for local problems. There is no dominant city in the area, so San Mateo County and its partners are using a smart region strategy. And there are challenges. The county's communities have very different needs and problems to solve: from irrigation water conservation to parking availability for EVs.

The story below highlights the issues and approaches being taken to resolve them. It also includes key takeaways for cities and regions that may have similar characteristics: citizen involvement is built into the county's initiatives, and all stakeholders are brought to the table from the very beginning. Also, the project strategy is to start small and be flexible as a hedge against risks that could be associated with quickly evolving technologies. —Doug Peeples


 SMC Labs, the Smart Region Innovation Lab for San Mateo County, is setting up two "innovation zones" intended to pilot use cases for a long list of regional issues. And IoT and sensors will be the backbone, eyes and ears for the initiative.

Council North American Associate Partner Fybr, which provides parking sensor management and additional solutions, will provide an end-to-end integrated IoT platform capable of sending data collected by its sensors to the cloud for analysis and real-time insights that will help monitor and guide the pilot projects SMC Labs takes  on.

SMC Labs is a critical element in a wider-ranging regional effort to assess how well smart technologies such as IoT, machine learning, data analytics and blockchain can benefit the region's citizens now and in the future. And it's collaborating with a well-rounded group of partners and stakeholders that include citizens, local governments, area universities, businesses, technology providers and others.

As the county's CIO Jon Watson put it in an article published earlier this month, "The SMC Labs innovation zones will feature technology for a wide range of use cases, all targeted at critical problems in the county. Our intended solutions are aimed at challenges like air quality monitoring, waste management, transport/traffic, parking, street lighting, pedestrian/bike safety, and public safety." Additional areas SMC Labs will focus on include irrigation water conservation with smart moisture sensors, real-time tracking and monitoring of mobile assets, pedestrian and outdoor space utilization.

For example, SMC Labs is pairing Fybr's parking sensors with EV parking spaces as a way to cut down on the anxiety that comes when EV drivers worry about where the next charging station is located. Connecting Fybr's parking occupancy sensors and Parking Genius app allows drivers to find charging spaces and gives them directions to them. The occupancy rates, space availability and other data the county collects will be used to inform planning and allocations for more future EV parking spaces.

Equitability is part of the equation
"We want to ensure IoT innovation is equitable to all parts of the county, even in rural or coastal areas where fiber, cellular and wireless connectivity is difficult to find. However, every IoT use case has its own connectivity requirement, meaning what works well for one application may not work well for another," Walton said. For that reason SMC Labs will test solutions available in today's market while keeping an eye on next-generation developments.

The conclusion to Walton's article contains some general insights other cities and regions may find useful to remember: "There is no one, clear path forward. But that's why the time we live in is so exciting. Smart solutions don't need to seem overwhelming. In fact, their very definition is so broad right now that you can find a solution to suit any scope or budget. San Mateo County has approached this problem with research and small-scale testing. However, your mileage may vary. And for right now, that's exactly as it should be."

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