Palo Alto CIO: What are smart cities?

Sensor and the Internet of Things create the background for cities to offer higher quality of life to residents and visitors. A prominent local government Chief Information Officer explains why.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

The Internet of Things (IoT) is among the promising and interesting parts of digital transformation. The application of sensors, cloud and mobile devices to improve life in urban areas is often called smart cities.

Palo Alto, California, located in the heart of Silicon Valley has taken a lead in developing smart city services. For this reason, we invited Palo Alto's Chief Information Officer, Jonathan Reichental, to be a guest on the CXOTalk series of discussions with leaders and innovators.

During the conversation, Jonathan explains the background of smart cities, describes the leadership challenges associated with this kind of innovation, and offers specific examples.

Here is a short clip from the conversation. You can see the entire, 45-minute video and read the complete transcript on the CXOTalk site.

Reichental's comments from the clip (edited):

I'll use two examples. When you enter an urban environment, come to Palo Alto, there is a lot of traffic in the downtown areas. The general number that's thrown about is that about 40% of the congestion is people looking for parking spaces This is pretty consistent worldwide; it is not an American or Californian phenomenon but global. If we find ways for people to identify available parking spaces so cars can go directly to them, you can reduce the amount of overall urban center congestion.

So, a smart city approach would say, "How do you share knowledge that a parking space is available?" Well, you might have a sensor and, yes, in Palo Alto we are experimenting with sensors in parking spaces. Once a sensor knows whether a car is in that space or not, it then transmits that information to a cloud resource, which in turn is consumed by an app, and then the app can inform the driver.

But let's continue the thought around transportation because it is definitely among city governments' top five big challenges.

In the city of Palo Alto, we have gone recently from analog traffic signals to Internet Protocol (IP) based traffic signals. As traffic signals become nodes on a network, they become potentially more intelligent. We can control them through software.

Now we can do new things with this network. For one, [light changes} can be dynamic and change based on conditions. That's not entirely innovative; it's happened for a while even on analog systems, but we can have a granular level of managing those signals.

The next thing we can do is have a series of sensors on traffic signals that can count different types of traffic: bicycles, pedestrians, cars, trucks. And, the sensors can tell us in which direction these different entities are going.

Once we can collect that information in real-time, 24 hours a day, we can inform decision makers who are planning infrastructure, redesigning dangerous intersections, or making them more efficient. We're working on that smart transportation, having the infrastructure respond to human needs in a more organic and intelligent way.

As leaders, technologists, entrepreneurs and innovators we must educate and then build the storyline around how a smarter city helps to solve some of these other issues like the better use of water.

If we have small and cheap sensors on water systems, for example, we can detect leaks easier and lose less fresh water as it is distributed around cities. This is not a big problem in the US, but it's a huge problem in places like India, China and across the world.

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