The Urban Systems & Services Parallel Session was moderated by Barbara Hale, the Assistant General Manager of SFPUC. She focused the session on how cities are becoming massive interconnected systems and how to use technology as a tool to improve the quality of life of citizens.
Speaker 1: Modupe Ajibola, CEO, OTG Playa
First up to speak was Modupe Ajibola of OTG Playa whose presentation centered on the role of technology in Africa and how it is slowly moving from a luxury to necessity. For example, there are already over 140 million cell phones in Nigeria making it one of the world’s largest mobile telecom markets. These devices had a multiplier effect creating many new jobs and services that were not available before. The problem is that many in the educated workforce are content in taking these newly created middle class jobs when they should be working in the white collar sector. For example, many of the electrical engineers end up working in call centers because it creates a life much better than they had growing up. While the progress is noble, it should be taken a bit further. These engineers should be working in R&D creating products for Africans by Africans. People in Africa want iPhones and iPads, but they don’t want to pay a premium price. They end up buying Chinese knockoffs that break a few months later. Perhaps Africa could copy the U.S. and move to the subsidy model for mobile phones? By encouraging these engineers to start developing products and services for Africa and the rest of the world, the needs and wants of the people can be addressed while keeping the money inside the continent.
Speaker 2: Gianni Minetti, President & CEO, Paradox Engineering
Gianni Minetti followed by focusing on the open standards needed to network all the infrastructure for our cities. The shift from rural to urban is only accelerating, and he presented several facts to back this up. For one, 1.3 million people are moving to cities every week. This means that there are now 21 cities with over 10 million people. Paradox Engineering wants to put lighting, pollution monitoring, and power all together in one open system. While this may seem like something obvious to do, the problem is that many cities have separate systems for each infrastructure component. Not only is it expensive to build redundant infrastructure, it creates a spectrum crunch. By building an urban multi-utility network, we can make technology a tool, not a hurdle. By using open standards we can future proof the networks ensuring ROI protection for cities.
Speaker 3: Bill Oates, Chief Information Officer, Boston
Bill Oates spoke about how the city of Boston was using technology to solve its problems. The smartphone application, Citizen’s Connect, has proven immensely popular, which isn’t all that surprising considering 35% of the city’s population is between 20 and 34. With the application, citizens can report potholes, streetlight outages, graffiti, and other problems. After seeing how much citizens loved using the app, city workers got their own version allowing the city to more efficiently dispatch workers and catalog repairs. Version 4.0 of the app, slated to be released by the end of the year, will allow citizens to be notified when the problem they reported is fixed. Embracing the recent trend of gamification, the new version of the app will allow citizens to thank the workers who fixed their problem. The app has allowed citizens of Boston to interact with government in ways previously not possible. Taking the application a step further, the city of Boston unveiled Street Bump, which uses a smartphone’s accelerometer to passively detect potholes. Interestingly enough only 10% of the bumps reported were potholes; the other 90% were the 307,000 utility castings in the city. Using technology is essential for cities that wish to thrive in the 21st century. Bill Oats highlighted the point that if you stay at the status quo, you’re falling behind. Historically, government has been very risk averse, but technology doesn’t have to be risky. Those that avoid it completely will be left in the dust.
Speaker 4: Philip Playfair, CEO, Lowfoot
Last to present, Philip Playfair explained how his company pays people to use less energy when consumption (and thus prices) is peaking. The main purpose is to encourage consumers to shift power consumption from peak to off peak. His company has contracted with 6 companies with over 5,000 smart meters. In a way, the software can act as a virtual peaker plant. When demand exceeds supply, energy usage can automatically be reduced. The consumers are compensated for this inconvenience via monthly payments. Additionally, the software measures carbon savings to show consumers how shifting their energy usage benefits the environment. In order to increase engagement Lowfoot has added gamification aspects to the product. For example, users get badges for saving energy and can brag to their friends over Twitter or Facebook. While solutions like Lowfoot can marginally reduce power consumption, the main problem is that energy is too cheap to motivate people’s decision making. In order for huge shifts in consumer behavior, energy prices need to go up.
Whether it’s using mobile applications to encourage engagement or unifying infrastructure communication systems, technology is changing how cities operate. While governments have been traditionally viewed as slow and cumbersome, in order to keep up with the ever evolving world, cities need to speed up deployments of innovative solutions. The problem is that government procurement has been very slow and risk averse. In order to help solve this problem, cities need to adapt new processes to accept technology with open (but vigilant) arms.
Reported by Chris Mojaher