City Staffers Share Innovation Insights at Smart Cities Accelerator

In cities across the United States, the benefits of bike-sharing and electric scooters that can be easily rented with a smartphone app have often been overshadowed by controversy.

In Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, for example, complaints flooded into city offices earlier this year about the proliferation of “dockless” bikes cluttering sidewalks, handicap parking, and other public spaces. In San Francisco, grousing about the widely available scooters has spurred a social media backlash over “scooter-geddon,” with hashtags like #scootersbehavingbadly.

The furor has erupted in San Diego as well, where the coastal community of Coronado has declared that dockless bikes are a public nuisance, and ordered Coronado police to impound bikes left unattended for more than a couple hours.

Dockless Bikeshare Bikes Clutter San Diego Sidewalk (BVBigelow photo)

Bikes Share Sidewalk Near San Diego Convention Center (BVBigelow photo)

To David Graham, however, the bike-sharing phenomenon serves as an example of how local governments often struggle to keep pace with technology innovation.

“Smartphone-generated convenience that next-generation millennials expect from their city is not something that governments are traditionally prepared to do,” said Graham, who is the deputy chief operating officer for the City of San Diego. It is one of the chief reasons why Graham urged David Ricketts of the Harvard Technology and Entrepreneurship Center to recently hold a Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator in San Diego.

The three-day program was intended to help local government planners, CIOs, CTOs, and economic development leaders share insights and establish strategies for adopting innovative technologies, and to develop “actionable” digital plans for their respective cities.

About 70 government staffers from 27 cities attended the San Diego meeting, Graham said. “The main areas we focused on were Internet of Things, mobility, sustainability, energy, and general governmental efficiency.” Much of their discussion focused on parking and transportation, with case studies illustrating, for example, how improved signage and traffic control in Atlanta are intended to make it easier for roughly 70,000 football fans to exit the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Graham said.

“Even though we were all deploying similar hardware and software, we were taking different approaches in terms of data management, analytics, privacy, and in making the business case for technology adoption,” Ricketts said. He later added, “Smart City conferences are about projecting outcomes. We’re here for the innovation process.”

In San Diego, for example, Graham said municipal officials are using smart street lights to help optimize downtown parking and pedestrian safety. In Portland, OR, Ricketts said the priority is on enhancing city amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists. In Pittsburgh, Ricketts said, “it’s more about street lighting and energy efficiency.”

At the Harvard Technology and Entrepreneurship Center, Ricketts said he has been conducting research on the innovation process—especially in terms of “best practices” in how new technologies are implemented.

For Ricketts, an innovation scholar and the center’s inaugural fellow, the inherent challenge for cities lies in meeting the ever-escalating demands of residents and visitors for technology innovations they have come to expect in other walks of life. He said that for many U.S. city and county governments, it comes down to answering the question: “How can we add value with technology in the most meaningful way?”

Of course, sometimes the best intentions come down to simply trying to manage the impacts of innovation. In San Diego, for example, city officials so far have not adopted new regulations for dockless bicycles and electric scooters. Asked about the situation, Graham paused thoughtfully, and said, “We’re analyzing the deployment of dockless bicycles, and looking to see what regulations might be necessary.”

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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