Smart Cities, Shrewd Thinking

A 2017 ICMA study tour visited China to exchange ideas on key elements of evolving smart cities.

By Jim Hynes, Chris Augenstein | May 27, 2017 | ARTICLE
While touring in Quingao, China, ICMA’s 2017 study tour participants saw environmental impacts and potential mitigations for Quingdao planning and development efforts. 

By Jim Hynes and Chris Augenstein

Smart city technologies are increasingly being used in communities around the world, including those located in China and the United States. In Berkeley, California, and the Silicon Valley, for example, these technologies are part of a set of strategic tools in meeting ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. From levels recorded in the year 2000, Berkeley’s goal is to reduce emissions 33 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

This is exactly how smart city technologies should be used. Berkeley’s smart city and green city goals are nearly identical and at times can also address economic development goals, as the smart parking plan described in this article will illustrate. Increasingly and aggressively, Berkeley policymakers are embracing policy, plans, and regulations aimed at the global warming threat.

Cities in China have a central government in Beijing that recognizes the environmental and economic perils of global warming and the role of smart city technologies in addressing these perils. This is evident by these recent actions and policy initiatives: reduction in coal power plant construction, $145 billion committed to renewable energies, and 67 percent of all solar panels worldwide produced by China.

The time has never been better for U.S. local governments and their counterparts in China to collaborate in sharing technologies and developing new ones for both economic and global environmental health.

A study tour sponsored by ICMA and the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA) held in April 2017 highlighted these collaborative opportunities. To a primarily Chinese audience, foreign experts made presentations on technologies deployed in their home communities and then shared their insights about what worked, what didn’t work, and why. Likewise, Chinese experts described their experiences with innovation and technology, as well as their emerging interest in planning approaches that employ community engagement.

ICMA’s June 2017 Public Management (PM) magazine includes a special, members-only LGR: Local Government Review article “Community Engagement Tools, Goals, and Successes” that should be of particular and timely interest to these Chinese experts and planners. The article surveys local U.S.-based governments’ use of 16 different community engagement tools, both traditional and cutting-edge ones based on technology and social media.


The Berkeley Experience

Since Berkeley is a post-industrial community with most of its manufacturing base moved during the past 75 years to China, India and Mexico, carbon emissions today derive mainly from the transportation sector.

Consequently, as with some other U.S. cities, Berkeley’s efforts are primarily aimed at innovations and smart technologies in public transportation systems, bicycle planning, parking, pedestrian safety, and other incentives for reducing the use of private automobiles. It is anticipated that the role of Big Data will increase significantly in the near and far future to improve effectiveness and efficiency in all of these areas.

Here are Berkeley-based smart city innovations that were highlighted during the study tour:


  • Smart freeways: The I-80 corridor through Berkeley offers real-time information directing drivers to alternative lanes and routes on arterial streets in an effort to find the “path of least resistance,” reduce frustration and road rage, and decrease carbon emissions.
  • Smart parking meters: Solar powered pay and display kiosks to improve customer service, reduce energy use, and provide greater flexibility.
  • Smart buses: Real-time arrival and departure information is provided in an effort to increase convenience, increase ridership, and reduce the use of the private automobile and carbon emissions.
  • Smart street lights: Street lights were replaced with low-energy LEDs, and clearly there is room for additional future innovations. Of note: New development projects in China typically include solar and battery-powered street lights, and there is some discussion underway that future street lights outfitted with traffic sensors and cameras may serve multiple purposes for communications, parking management, and traffic control.
  • Smart Buildings: The city of Berkeley currently has one public building that is carbon neutral—the West Berkeley Library. A second building in the design phase is the mental health services building. All future new or renovated public buildings will to the extent feasible adhere to the goal of carbon neutrality.
  •   Smart Parking Garage: Currently under construction, the parking garage is designed to hold 700+ cars. It will include electric car-charging stations, substantial and secure space for bicycle parking, and micro-grid and battery storage technology that will power city hall in the event of an earthquake and loss of power. Of note, the planning work for the new garage started before the advent of the “shared economy” with Uber, Lyft, and autonomous vehicles, and now there are some community leaders already questioning the need for the parking garage.


While completion of the smart parking garage is a fait accompli, this suggests that the rate of innovation is exponential and increasing so quickly that by the time plans are finalized and projects are constructed there is a risk that the projects’ smart technologies have already become obsolete. This also suggests that projects should be approached with an eye toward this phenomenon of exponential innovation growth and be built in such a way that emerging technologies can be more easily incorporated in the future.

Given the Berkeley focus on transportation, this does not mean that the focus is exclusively on the transportation sector. Berkeley continues to focus on innovative financing programs to increase the number of private households with solar energy, green building roof initiatives to help make buildings more carbon neutral, green business programs, as well as zero-waste goals through programs to reduce and reuse materials that would otherwise end up in the landfill. This reduces methane, carbon, and dioxin emissions that degrade air quality and add to global warming.

Chinese audiences also heard about innovations building on the previous year’s ICMA/SAFEA study tour theme of “Sponge Cities” and Berkeley’s experiments with green water infrastructure. This includes permeable surface parking lots and street surfaces, along with rain gardens that hold storm water longer and use bioremediation technologies to remove containments before flowing to the San Francisco Bay. These projects are helping to better manage stormwater, to reduce water pollution, and to maintain the city and the region as a beautiful and healthy place to live, conduct business, and attract visitors.

One example of Berkeley’s use of smart cities technologies not covered in the Qingdao or Shenzhen presentations demonstrates just how much smart cities thinking dominates the policy and planning agenda of the city. As recently as April 4, 2017, Berkeley’s councilmembers took action to address problems for and from drivers who need to search for parking spaces in relatively congested commercial business districts.

This includes installing cameras and embedding smart sensors in roadways to signal drivers through their smart phones of the availability of a parking space. The transportation program will initially cover 700 parking spaces in the city’s main commercial zones. Building on Berkeley’s innovative GoBerkeley program, the smart parking system will improve parking accessibility, reduce carbon emissions, increase economic conditions and jobs, and maximize use of parking spaces.

It is estimated that 30 percent of city traffic comes from people hunting for parking spaces and 60 percent abandon an activity because they can’t find a space. Street sensors, cameras, data analytics, and machine-learning techniques (e.g., Big Data) will measure parking data duration and occupancy, as well as anticipate trends to optimize the cost, reduce environmental impacts, and better manage parking.

Based on pilot programs in San Francisco and San Carlos, California, Berkeley anticipates a 10 percent reduction in traffic congestion and a 2 percent increase in gross domestic product (GDP). Drivers will be provided real-time parking space updates within the city, and businesses will receive increased customer access.


Silicon Valley Experience

Silicon Valley is centered in Santa Clara County, California, and is part of the larger San Francisco Bay Area. The county is home to the 10th largest city in the country, San José, and many high-tech firms, including Tesla, Google, Intel, Cisco, eBay, PayPal, and Apple. It is also consistently in the upper ranks of the per capita highest GDP counties in the United States and in 2015, some 10.5 percent of all patents issued in the United States were issued in Santa Clara County.

On the transportation side, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is exploring components of smart transportation technology. VTA’s new strategic plan is centered on the action values of creativity, collaboration, and leadership—create, collaborate, and lead—and it is believed that through these same values, smart cities will thrive.


Data’s Future

In the smart city of the future, data will guide everything: The future of smart transportation and smart cities is connectivity, interconnectivity, information sharing, data analytics, and automation. In this context, cities in Silicon Valley are pursuing these examples of smart cities:

  • San José is piloting the installation of “SmartPoles” that not only serve as an important connected light source that can be managed remotely, they also house technology to improve mobile network performance across the city. These connected street lights save energy, reduce cost, simplify maintenance, and optimize operations. Ultimately this type of connected technology could monitor traffic flow through Bluetooth readers, boost WiFi signals, eliminate cellular dead zones, and enhance 4G/5G connectivity. It also could help set up a foundation of connectivity by allowing connections with other devices and minimize or eliminate the need for investments in proprietary technology. SmartPoles like these are being installed in such other places as Los Angeles and Barcelona, and they have been called the digital real estate for the Internet of Things (IoT), where all devices are connected to the Internet and/or to each other.
  • Mountain View is operating electric shuttles funded by the tech giant Google. This type of public private partnership will undoubtedly continue and expand to other companies and cities.
  • Cities are banding together to form smart waste stations in pursuit of zero-waste goals. Zero waste is considered a smart approach to waste management and the use of resources. It transcends the end-of-the-line treatment of waste and promotes both the three “R’s” of waste management (reduce, reuse, recycle) and centers on a whole system approach to the use of resources, including composting and conservation (rot, restore). Zero waste seeks to eliminate negative impacts of designing, producing, using, and discarding products and packaging. Smart strategies are helping Silicon Valley cities to meet such goals as reaching greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, recovering waste materials for their highest and best use, and sending little or no materials to landfills or incinerators.

On the transportation side, VTA is working with a range of smart transportation concepts that:

  • Monitor bus and light rail vehicles in real-time on smart phones, tablets, and desktop computers.
  • Integrate vehicle real-time information, automated passenger counters, and rail supervisory control and data acquisition systems.
  • Provide open source and open data multimodal trip planner that allows users to bundle together all modes—walking, biking, transit, and car—and select useful options of fastest trip, safest trip, lowest-cost trip, and healthiest mode for the desired trip. Information gathered from this application also helps VTA better understand where and how people want to travel around Silicon Valley, and that in-turn helps the agency improve transportation services and infrastructure.
  • Use Internet-based, crowd-sourcing applications in project development and public information campaigns; crowd sourcing allows the public to offer geographically-based comments on projects in real time.
  • Offer a virtual transit trip visualization program that allows people to take a virtual transit trip on any VTA transit line and see what’s around an area before they get on and off a vehicle.


VTA also is researching and monitoring private sector innovations to develop programs that include on-demand and subscription bus transit, robotic security monitoring of vehicle maintenance yards, and shared electric bikes for employees. Long-range planning will include emerging innovative transportation solutions like automated vehicles and on demand, shared ride/transportation network companies.


Perfect Opportunity

This most recent study tour was an opportunity to share technologies and their applications and to learn from each other’s successes and failures. China’s interest in planning processes involving community engagement, which was mentioned by Vice Premier Ma Kai and other Chinese keynote speakers on the study tour, represents an area of collaboration in which U.S. experts can definitively help, especially experts from local governments that have residents who thrive on and are actively engaged in smart cities and broader planning efforts. Whatever the theme for the 2018 ICMA/SAFEA Study Tour, there is no doubt that China’s nascent interest in community engagement will be even more pronounced.

While the technologies in and of themselves are important, their applications and outcomes will increase precipitously with a focus on community engagement. China seems to newly recognize that how projects are planned and executed are just as important as what the technologies are.

It is an exciting time in China. Enlightened leadership, a growing middle class and highly educated populous, a robust GDP growth, and a focus on meeting all people’s basic needs makes the future bright for foreign experts to have a role in helping to create a healthy and forward-looking China. Every person, in every country on this planet, can benefit from the rewards smart cities offer. If China and the United States find ways to collaborate with the process, those rewards will come that much quicker.


Jim Hynes, recently retired from executive management in Berkeley, California, is principal, Berkeley Consultation Services. He is a senior consultant to the Chengdu Research Institute and the municipality of Qingdao, China ( Chris Augenstein is deputy director of planning, Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, San Jose, California. He is also a senior consultant to the municipality of Qingdao (


Smart Solutions: Technology Serving Communities

This e-book, being brought to local government leaders by ICMA and IBTS (Institute for Building Technology and Safety), describes how local government administrators are enhancing effective management and superior service delivery through the astute use of available new technologies.

Managers can learn about what constitutes a “smart city,” how to adopt a smart city approach in leadership and planning, and how jurisdictions of all sizes are deploying new technologies to benefit their residents. 





You may also be interested in