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Smart City, San José

By Dennis Jones

With “smart” innovation, the cities of Silicon Valley are starting to catch up to the tech companies they host.

Smart City, San Jose

Depending on who’s in the driver’s seat, Santa Clara Valley has been running on two speeds: lightning or lagging. The tech companies that dot the Silicon Valley landscape have set the pace at break-neck, with (almost) daily innovations. In contrast the cities that house them often seem stuck in reverse, busy solving yesterday’s problems. Well, “no more,” says at least one city. San José, facing a population explosion over the next decades, has given the green light to a series of measures and partnerships to transform itself into a “smart city.”

What exactly is a smart city? The media is certainly abuzz with smart city news stories, especially of trendsetting cities of the future, like Songdo in South Korea, Masdar City in the UAE, and the unpopulated CITE (Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation) city in the New Mexico desert. To simplify, smart cities deploy digital, information, and communications technologies, notably improvements in wireless connectivity, to improve the quality of the urban experience. The goal is to reduce costs and consumption by monitoring use patterns made available through big data across Wi-Fi networks.

For large municipalities, like San José, smart means using technologies like powerful sensors to measure street light and street traffic more efficiently. These technologies offer cash-strapped municipalities concrete ROI, by lowering energy costs. Other spin-offs of the same practice include using sensors to check water mains for leaks or air quality for high pollution levels. The marriage of digital, information, and communication technologies has empowered public actors to make data-driven decisions concerning the allocation of municipal resources.   

For one, San José is becoming the Valley’s leading test case for private-public partnerships, harnessing technology formerly under private incubation, to become leaner and greener. The city has recently embarked on a pilot project with the Sacramento County-based, software startup, anyCOMM. anyCOMM is making the leap from the digital home market to the smart city, providing San José with nodes, equipped with sensors, to monitor traffic data as well as to sense movement on roads and sidewalks. In addition to regulating street lights more efficiently, these sensors will play a seismologic role in the tremor-plagued valley, sending earthquake warnings based on ground shifting data. And finally, the sensors double as Wi-Fi hotspots, keeping residents connected when they’re on the go.

San José has essentially agreed to be a beta-tester for anyCOMM’s sensors. After the pilot is over, the startup will eventually report its findings to the city to determine whether its sensors will become permanent fixtures.

Irrespective of the city’s determination on anyCOMM, Smart City, San José doesn’t seem to be losing any steam, as does the larger smart city trend, with even the Obama Administration pledging to allocate over $160 million dollars towards federal research on smart cities solutions.

Improved wireless connectivity and the Internet of Things are the technology trends in the background, powering and enabling the smart city revolution. It’s fitting that the smart city will be crucial test cases for both. Wi-Fi is a local area network; therefore, it’s reliability (and security!) over the large distances sprawling cities like San Jose encompass will be interesting to track. And finally, with the smart city, the same IoT technology that began in the connected home is making its big debut on the public stage.