Smart city spotlight.
No city will boast it has a low IQ, of course.
But what makes a smart city?
How the use of the latest in technology and data can actually change the infrastructure and the very fabric of a city, creating winners and losers, and where Denver fits into the smart city eco-system, were some of the big picture issues addressed by city and state politicians, entrepreneurs, educators and big thinkers last week.
“Smart cities mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” noted Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, one of the speakers at the smart city forum, Real Solution for Real City Problems, held last Thursday.
Topics discussed and dissected at the conference ranged from the pending sea change caused by autonomous vehicles to the importance of diversity in all aspects technology.
Many, if not most, of the 100 people invited to attend the smart city forum were so well-versed into the nuances, technical issues and potential unintended consequences of creating a smart city that they, too, could have been presenters at the forum sponsored by WeWork, AECOM, Arrow Electronics, Zayo Group and the Downtown Denver Partnership.
For example, Rutt Bridges, an activist businessman who attended the all-day conference at the McNichols Civic Center building at 144 W. Colfax Ave., actually wrote a book about driverless cars, “Driverless Care Revolution, Buy Mobility, not Metal,” while his son, Rep. Jeff Bridges, D-District 3, gave a presentation on what a game-changer autonomous vehicles will be Denver and for cities across the U.S.
Even the format of the conference, where Gov. John Hickenlooper was introduced as the “next president of the United States” by Dan Caruso, chairman and CEO of the Denver-based Zayo Group, before Hickenlooper gave the closing remarks, was outside of the traditional conference box.
After national and local speakers gave presentations on talent, policy and civic infrastructure, audience members broke into small workshop groups to discuss, brainstorm, and provide observations and insights into what had been presented on the stage.
For example, Rep. Bridges, during his presentation, made the provocative statement that “Buses are almost dead and buses are just the start.”
(Later, he made it clear to me that he isn’t saying that driverless cars will kill buses, but rather the market will likely kill all but the most well-used bus routes, as autonomous vehicles in most cases will likely be far less expensive and more efficient than taking the bus.)
“Generally speaking, transit takes you from where you aren’t to where you don’t want to go. And it takes twice as long to get you there,” Bridges said during his presentation.
Yet, during the breakout session, he was challenged on the demise of bus routes by some who pointed to popular bus routes along places like East Colfax Avenue and the insanely packed 16thStreet Mall buses. Bridges conceded there are some outlier routes that might still make sense even after driverless cars become popular. Rutt Bridges noted that driverless vehicles won’t all be sedans but will include van-sized and minibus electric vehicles.
Not only will driverless cars be safer and less expensive than personally driven vehicles, but also they will have a huge impact on real estate.
Rep. Bridges, using research from Ryan Keeney when Keeney was a graduate student at the University of Denver, posted a slide that showed 237 acres in downtown now dedicated to parking could be freed for other uses, such as housing, retail, parks and wider sidewalks, when driverless cars are ubiquitous.
One common thread running through the conference was a need to include a diverse group of people, including women and minorities.
“If you aren’t at the table, you are the meal,” one person quipped.
At a breakout session with speaker George Burciaga, managing director, Global Innovation & Innovation for CIVIQ Smartscapes in Chicago, a local entrepreneur said she feels pressure at her start-up to hire white, male Stanford grads when she knows that someone who graduated from the University of Alaska or a technical school might be a better fit.
She highlighted three students who graduated from Flatiron and quickly got good jobs as entry-level computer engineers. One had been studying mechanical engineering but never got his degree so became a bartender and worked in a bike shop. Another had gotten a degree in public health and wanted a career change, and yet another had a degree from Harvard but found she lacked technical skills to really make a difference in today’s technical world.
Keynote speaker Megan Smith, described as someone whose brain works at “twice the speed of light,” has the curriculum vitae of tech royalty.
She was the chief technology officer of the United States and assistant to President Barrack Obama. She worked for Apple in Tokyo and was a big shot executive at Google. She started a company called shift 7, whose mantas is “life is a team sport- we always work in partnerships,” and “cross pollinates” by teaming up with local, national and global businesses, associations and public institutions.
Smith has an undergraduate and master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. In engineering, you typically learn “all the stuff” you need to know to be an engineer during the first three years and your senior year in college you start to do the cool stuff, she noted.
A better way would be to have kids, including women and minorities, start doing “cool” engineering stuff when they are in kindergarten so they realize later that there is a purpose to learning math and science.
Notes from each of the breakout sessions were posted on the walls so everyone could benefit from them.
Later, the tables were turned when people who are used to being interviewed became the ones asking questions. For example, Mayor Hancock at one point on stage interviewed Padden Murphy, the global head of social impact and public policy for WeWork.
He said “innovation is everywhere,” whether you are talking about robots, the “dawn of the time” of autonomous vehicles, crypto currency, 3-D printing or more effectively “harnessing the sun for solar energy.”
Denver, he said, is at the vanguard of becoming a true smart city.
“Denver is at a special place, at a special time,” Mitisek said. “There is not another city like us in the U.S. right now” as far as realizing the dream of being a true smart city