During the last Inria Industry Meeting organized by PRIME in San Francisco on Smart City, we had the pleasure to interview Timothy Papandreou. Papandreou is the Director of Strategic Planning & Policy at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. He shared with us his views and SFMTA’s initiatives on Smart City.

Why is SFMTA involved in smart cities initiatives?

We are a city: a lot of things in cities need to be fixed. Many of these issues are connected and they overlap across different departments and different disciplines. For example, understanding how much water a city uses or how much energy is being used. It is all about data collection and data analytics. Cities have constrained budget, therefore optimizing those budgets is really important to maximize the value for the taxes that people have paid. The ultimate outcome is to improve the quality of lives of people, to make it comfortable and safe. This is what smart cities are about. It is not about sensors, dashboards and screens. These are only the tools so we can make decisions to provide a vibrant and economically competitive city. And we have to make it accessible for everyone in the city.

How do you choose and implement these initiatives?

We have many ways to do it. We put sensors in the ground, on the traffic lights to learn how things are working. We also involve the community a lot because, for us, smart cities is about people. So we engage with the population and do a lot of crowdsourcing. We have learned a lot by asking them questions. We are becoming a smarter city because we are learning what our citizens actually want. Doing surveys and doing crowdsourcing is our smarter way of engaging the public as well.

We have also tested a city parking program with SF Park, a city app which is basically demand management for parking. So if the park is congested, the price will go up to free out the space and vice versa. It was a really good way to see how citizens react to this. They would be charged more for parking but they would find a parking spot quicker. It impacted two things : It reduced the main traffic on the road as 30% of congestion was actually from people looking for a parking spot and it also made the traffic safer because people knew where they could find a parking spot and were more focused. The parking demand management has very broad social improvement.

Why is it important to build technology partnerships with start-ups and projects that are so early stage?

We collaborate with about 30 or 40 start-ups just in my field. To me, it’s important for three reasons:

  • Awareness: You learn what is going on in the field, so that is a constant fresh knowledge of what is being tried. Start-ups are much faster, they can learn and test and fail very fast.
  • Influence: Being part of the discussion is important. What are the city problems that we need solving? Where do we need help that we can’t ask a big company to do yet because we don’t even know what the problem is. Having 3 or 5 start-ups think about it in different ways and present it back to us help us reframe and reshape.
  • The private and public sectors can really forge partnerships from a very early stage because they both come with honesty stating they care about and where we can work together. We have had very good examples of where we didn’t do that and we both got into trouble like the road sharing. Now, we’ve got very good examples where we worked together with car sharing and we are doing it very well. We made some mistakes but we’ve learned as well.

To get more information on this Inria Industry Meeting on Smart city and to see what has been presented, you can visit its dedicated website