City of San Diego's David Graham: People Powering Cities

San Diego was recently awarded a 2018 Smart 50 Award for deploying one of the most transformative projects in intelligent infrastructure in the world. While this honor stokes the fires of creativity and challenges us to achieve more, the only way our innovation will be sustainable is by remembering that people, not technology, are the fuel of a smart community. 

Misaligned priorities, raging distrust, and pensive “will-they, won’t-they” hand-wringing have been endemic in the relationships between cities, industry and universities. It’s been like that television show from the 1960’s, the Dating Game, where you know little about your potential partner other than a few answers to basic questions with other questions off limits. Neutral partners, in our case Cleantech San Diego, have been crucial in helping close the knowledge gap between seemingly disparate organizations who ultimately have priorities that should align. Without customers, vendors go out of business. Without solutions from vendors, cities cannot serve their residents. Without successful economies and governments, universities suffer. Align priorities with the help of a trusted partner and you can unleash the creativity of industry, academia and government for the benefit of all.

Our moments of alignment started with one of the first solar-to-EV demonstration projects and deploying electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, a task now being scaled by our local utility. It has impact on our carbon footprint with the Smart City Open Urban Platform (SCOUP) network that automatically tracks, benchmarks and reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and energy use in our city facilities with opportunities to scale to commercial buildings. It’s resulted in game changing intelligent infrastructure as we’ve built the world’s largest city-based IoT platform in the world – upgrading 14,000 street lights with adaptive controls, reducing energy costs by 60% and providing real-time sensor data to help us improve pedestrian safety, make parking more convenient, improve strategic decisions on bicycle infrastructure and create safer communities.

Sustainability may have been an impetus for smart community projects, but now digital transformation, mobility and inclusion have become drivers. In December 2016, Digi.City brought together city and industry leaders from the public and private sectors to discuss the practical needs of our communities and how industry leaders are partnering with cities in their efforts. You could see this on display this year at the Smart Cities Connect Conference in Kansas City, where I joined my colleagues Ruthbea Yesner (IDC), Bob Bennett (Kansas City, MO), Michael Pegues, (Aurora, IL) and Samir Saini (New York) to discuss what’s working, what’s not and how our efforts can have practical impact in our communities. Oh, and there were some conversations about bacon, pirates and colorful socks.

While our municipalities are unique and each differs in its priorities and smart city execution, one thing we all agree on is that these efforts must be for all people. This Forbes article by Padmanand Warrier - Smart Cities Need H.E.A.R.T. – gets at this - a point that leaders in this community have made their mantra. This year, San Diego is developing the first inclusive smart cities strategy informed first and foremost by our communities of opportunity in places like the Promise Zone, where rates of unemployment, poverty and crime are high. This is more than another shelf-sitting, dust-collecting glossy looking document. While the strategy is being developed through resident engagement we will be deploying intelligent infrastructure so that the promise of a smarter community is tied to tangible investments by the City. The learning from these engagements will scale to a citywide and ultimately a multi-city effort with people at the center of its design. If we forget about the people, then we’ve already failed the test of becoming a smart community.

People come first, but technology is an ultimate enabler. Think about the power of crowdfunding, projected to become an over $90 billion-dollar industry by 2025 – the entrepreneurs who have been funded and the non-profits who have been helped. The automobile and pedestrian deaths that can be avoided with enhanced sensors enabled by on-board and intelligent infrastructure technology. The power of big data to better understand our world and improve decision-making. The brilliance of creative people is magnified by the tools available today and borderless connections between people makes that creativity boundless.

Of course none of this can be done without the proper network in place. The pulse of next generation wireless networks and 5G are bringing cities to life. While more bandwidth is demanded by consumer wireless connections we must wrestle with the fact that traditionally disconnected infrastructure is becoming intelligent and consuming space on these very same networks. For our sake, and the sake of our residents, we must fairly address the impediments to deployment of 5G infrastructure in combination with potentially deploying alternative networks for applications that have low data transmission needs. We must also realize that with each traditionally disconnected asset we connect to fiber and the cloud, we are incurring on-going costs not contemplated ten to twenty years ago, but there is potential savings there as well.

Need proof? We’re saving approximately $2.4million per year on our energy bill alone from our upgraded lighting network. This connected technology gives us more insight in managing lighting infrastructure, but it also extends beyond city services by contributing to talent retention and recruitment. Residents, entrepreneurs and innovators alike want and need the advanced connectivity. They are using their talents through hackathons, meetups and connection to our Open Data Portal to create a thriving smart community. An empowered resident who is bent on doing good for their city becomes invested in its success.

I was asked the other day, “Why is San Diego a Smart City?” San Diego is a smart city because we recognize that we are becoming smarter but that is an effort with no end. Technology will continue to advance. The needs of the people we serve will evolve. Though it is daunting to play a game when the goalposts continually move out of reach, on our side of the equation is city-to-city collaboration like never before. Collectively, we in government with our business, academia and non-profit partners have the talent to be able to create smart communities that consider people first and always. If people are the fuel of a smart community and creativity is boundless the only limitation is ourselves.


David Graham

Deputy Chief Operating Officer, City of San Diego

David Graham is a veteran local government advisor having worked for the County of San Diego and City of San Diego as well as a stint in private sector public affairs. Serving on Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s Executive Leadership Team as Deputy Chief Operating Officer, he oversees a group of departments including Development Services, Economic Development, Library, Parks & Recreation and Planning.

Graham has worked for several San Diego Mayors and has represented the City on planning and civic innovation initiatives including Smart Cities San Diego and Envision America. He serves as the Secretary of the World Trade Center San Diego, is a Board Member of Cleantech San Diego, an advisor to Smart Cities Connect and is a 2020 Cities member. He is the City lead with the University of California San Diego on the national MetroLab Network and the San Diego Smart Gigabit Communities effort with US Ignite. His work includes the first all-electric car-share fleet in North America, an open-data platform for development permitting, the largest municipal IoT platform of sensors in LED enabled smart streetlights and integrating technology into climate change and resiliency efforts.

His passion for land use, civic engagement, mobility and intelligent infrastructure has led him to be a regular speaker from the metropolitan perspective including Minds + Machines, Smart Cities Connect, Smart Cities Week, and VERGE.