Why San Francisco Can Be the World's First VERGE City

Maybe it's a West Coast thing. While the VERGE discussion at last week's GreenBiz New York City event centered on the city's famous competitive edge in finance, research and development, and, ahem, football, the folks on the San Francisco GreenBiz Forum panel concluded that a VERGE city should focus on "how does it make living in a city better."

Not that a VERGE city is about peace, love, and understanding. It's about data. With sensor networks, complex buildings systems, traffic management systems, and water distribution services, the goal of any VERGE city is to manage the data of its infrastructure. "And where it gets interesting from a VERGE standpoint, is when you start layering software on top of that," said Stephan Dolezalek with VantagePoint Partners. "What are the applications that we can build that make you enjoy a city more?"

Indeed, the business of any city is harnessing the huge amount of data in traffic reporting, transportation monitoring, and utility services, said Gordon Feller, Director of Urban Innovations at Cisco. Just as the San Jose-Calif. based networking giant has spent 25 years perfecting the delivery of high-speed, low-latency data, smart cities can build information networks to deliver high-quality city services to constituents without the users even knowing how it got there.

To demonstrate how city resources can be optimized to serve city residents, Brian Dalgatty, Director, Strategy & Product Management with IBM, said Rio De Janeiro, Brazil has implemented an automated system for emergency preparedness. In the event of pending flood conditions, the city, using IBM software and partner solutions, can orchestrate resources to predict traffic and weather conditions, dispatch emergency responders with fire and police resources, and tap additional support for hospitals.

Achieving city efficiencies is not a technology problem, agreed the panelists, it's a human and political governance challenge. "It's about bringing parties together in the public, private, and independent sectors," said Feller. "I believe San Francisco is doing it more intelligently than a lot of other cities … in how to utilize city services to improve the quality of life."

San Francisco mayor Ed Lee, who opened the SF GreenBiz Forum, outlined the city's commitment to improve the quality of life in reducing city-wide carbon emissions, implementing aggressive renewable energy goals, deploying public EV charging stations, and touting the hiring of the nation's first "chief innovation officer" reporting directly to the mayor.

It is this leadership, says Melanie Nutter, Director, Department of the Environment at the City of San Francisco, that it's possible for San Francisco to be positioned as the first VERGE city. "The mayor and city officials get it, [allowing] us to work with early adopters, forward thinkers, and leading companies to achieve our ambitious goals."

Nutter admitted there's no roadmap to become a VERGE city but getting city agencies to stop working in silos and collaborate, share data, and operate more efficiently is a step in the right direction. "Things are changing, agencies now understand where the data lives and can be shared," said Nutter. "This helps us leverage technology to do things better and make sure things are integrated."

Unleashing data to help cities find new ways to monetize products and services is critical to the future of smart cities, said the panel. Parking spaces, for example, could have sensors to reveal availability. This application would help reduce congestion and idle times, optimize parking revenue for the city, and enhance the driver experience.

Stephen Dolezelak wondered what other city government services, through the use of innovative data applications, could help citizens feel secure and connect to the city and each other. "How do city infrastructure networks begin to monetize a better quality of life in order to make the city more profitable and more enjoyable?"