INTERVIEW: San Diego Deputy COO David Graham Shares Civic Engagement Strategies

June 26, 2018

While tech is one of the most often discussed components of Smart Cities, it's hardly the only one. Without citizen outreach, sustainability, political will and partnership ecosystems, true "smartness" will remain out of reach. None of this is news to David Graham, the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for the City of San Diego. During his time with the city, he's helped oversee a variety of initiatives that have reduced the city's carbon footprint, engage citizens and scale solutions past the pilot stage. At Smart Cities Connect 2018, Graham agreed to an interview with Smart & Resilient Cities, opening up about Smart City best practices that have empowered San Diego.

Smart & Resilient Cities: You mentioned in one of your panels, that smart city projects failed by having incompatible partners, and you also said that finding compatible partners is essential to making long lasting projects, how would you recommend to help identifying the right partner for a smart city project?

David Graham: It really starts with what challenges your city is facing, and then developing credible relationships with partners to solve those challenges. Good partnerships move beyond selling tech solutions and really moves into collaborative partnerships for public good. It's like a dating relationship. When you go on that first date, you're trying to get to know the potential partner. It's the same thing with smart city projects and vendors.

One way you accomplish this, though, and you can speed date is by using mutual third parties like academic institutions or trade industry organizations. In our case, that's Cleantech San Diego, and they're part of the vetting process to help match up the right partners who can help cities solve their problems.

S&RC: On subject of Cleantech, you mentioned you're developing an inclusive strategy with them. Is that in development now or is it in practice? Could you tell me what it looks like?

DG: In 2018, we kicked off our inclusive connected communities project, which goes into our underserved neighborhoods and engages with organizations and with residents to understand their biggest challenges. Then we partner with vendors to address those challenges. Our concept is that, in the neighborhoods that have received the least investment and have the most aging infrastructure and the biggest challenges around mobility and sustainability, bringing smart cities solutions to those neighborhoods helps inform a grand strategy for how to do that in all neighborhoods throughout the city. At the end of 2018, when that work is complete, it will be the centerpiece to a regional strategy that we're going to work on for the entire county, about 3.3 million people.

S&RC: In scaling up this project, what are some tools or strategies you've used in the past that have helped bring projects into a larger scale?

DG: In a lot of cases, we used our project case studies as learning to identify how we can scale. When we do a pilot, the point of the pilot is to actually move to an ultimate procurement, so we start again with that challenge-based procurement where we know this is an issue. The pilot is intended to work the bugs out of a solution. The smart street light is a great example of that. We knew that LEDs would reduce our energy usage by 60 percent and would save us about two million dollars a year on our enegry bill alone. Because we had built that business case, what we really needed was to pilot and see if an enhanced sensor package could help us with things like parking optimization, pedestrian safety and further carbon reductions.

We knew going into it that there was a business case for savings to the city that could be invested back into the ultimate solution, and that’s how we got to the largest municipal IoT platform in the world. 14,000 connected street lights, 3,200 of them having enhanced sensors.

S&RC: Arriving at this, knowing that there’s a viable business case here, did you collaborate with peers and other cities to learn how to do it or did you go do some other method?

DG: Yes, we collaborate. No one had done anything at scale in the US. We're on the leading edge of it.

S&RC: How did you build momentum and political goodwill to pursue that strategy?

DG: Direct community engagement. We held a block party for streetlights. We worked with third-party organizations like Cleantech and we helped to demonstrate how this could really change people's lives.

S&RC: In your last panel, you mentioned surveys and focus groups as a ways of engaging with communities. Are there any other strategies that you'd recommend other city leaders to use and bring in stakeholders for the long-term?

DG: Go to where people are and use tools that are familiar to them. In some neighborhoods, that’s a block party. In some neighborhoods, that’s a digital survey. In some neighborhoods, we're doing old mail surveys. Ultimately, it’s figuring out the demographics of the people you want to reach and using the appropriate tool to get maximum response.

S&RC: If you were to break down San Diego's core smart city strategy, what are some of the main pillars that would stand out?

DG: Sustainability. We have a very aggressive climate action plan that aims to, from a mobility perspective, move to half of trips being multimodal. Getting people out of their cars and into biking, walking and using that as transit. Very aggressive carbon reduction goals. We’ve converted our trash trucks and most of our heavy vehicles to renewable diesel which reduces emissions by about 80 percent. The hallmarks of San Diego's strategy are really sustainability and a human-centered approach to neighborhood problem-solving

S&RC: Could you elaborate on that neighbor centered approach?

DG: Rather than a top-down, here’s the fix for you, we use things like our libraries, community meetings and organizational partners to really understand the top issues that neighborhoods are facing, then tailor solutions that make sense with that.

S&RC: Is there anything else you'd like to mention that you think is critical to San Diego's smart city success?

DG: One thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is that there are some people who are never going to be interested in smart cities. Ultimately, though, there’s an economic development advantage to creating that more convenient, competitive city. San Diego aims to not just be the place that is addressing big issues like climate change, but the place that’s creating the products and services to help the world tackle our toughest issues.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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