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From Smog City to Smart Mobility Hub: L.A.’s Leap into the Digital Future

It’s 2019, the year of the Blade Runner. And we don’t have flying cars. But there is a lot of exciting stuff happening in Los Angeles. And the reality is not as dystopian as Ridley Scott imagined it back in 1982.

The city leadership has gathered some strong smart technology partners to accelerate L.A.’s digital transformation and tackle some of the most pressing problems the city has been struggling with in the past. If you’re from Los Angeles, and you were born early enough to remember the birth of Nintendo, chances are we share some childhood memories. Whether you grew up listening to the Doors in the 60s, Guns ’N Roses in the 80s, or Ice Cube in the 90s, traffic was always bad, and schools closed when the smog veiled the city in a thick haze. L.A. is infamously rooted in its (combustion) car culture. And you just can’t get around without your own set of wheels. But a lot has changed in the last 30 years.

Los Angeles is one of the six cities featured in the Atlas of Digitalization.

My work at the Siemens City Center of Competence

Previously, I have worked for the city council for nearly a decade, and gleaned extensive first-hand insight into the city’s policy making, public finance, infrastructure and urban development projects, it’s energy usage and environmental agenda. I then made a career change into the private sector and have now been the chief city strategist for Siemens in California for the last 6 years, appointed by the City Center of Competence (CoC), Americas. The CoC was created to help cities tackle the digitalization of their infrastructure leveraging Siemens’ deep portfolio in infrastructure solutions and smart technology.

2019 LABC Sustainability Summit: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; Dennis Rodriguez, Chief City Executive – Western US; Chris King, Chief Policy Officer, Siemens Digital Grid

It is an exciting time to be involved in urban development in L.A. The city’s push for digitalization is enormous. It means taking an existing infrastructure that’s been in place, digitizing it, and making it think on its own, laying hands on its assets to improve them in a smart and cost effective way. 

The city’s push for smart technology and sustainability

In the past years L.A. has experienced an unprecedented concentration of tech leadership, innovation, and investment, turning the city into a hotbed of urban digitalization and leader in renewable energy generation. Mayor Eric Garcetti launched the ambitious Sustainable City pLAn in 2015, setting goals like 100% renewable energy generation by 2050 and 45% passenger travel by transit and active transport, a remarkable outlook for a city with a history so deeply rooted in the combustion car culture, individual ownership, and fossil fuels. 

City Performance Tool (CyPT)

Furthermore, the city has set the goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 60% in 2035 and 80% in 2050 relative to 1990. Siemens is supporting this endeavor with its City Performance Tool (CyPT). The City Performance Tool is a dynamic simulation tool which studies a series of more than 70 technologies from Building, Transport and Energy Technologies – at different time periods and implementation rates. It is designed to reduce the environmental impact of everyday activities in cities. It covers greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and transport, as well as air pollutants such as particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). It also looks at the creation of new local jobs to install, operateand maintain city solutions.

The CyPT report for Los Angeles: “Climate LA. Technology Pathways for LA to Achieve 80X50 in Buildings and Transportation” (download here) shows that these ambitious benchmarks are actually feasible, as also demonstrated by the Sustainable City Plan’s annual reports on the progress towards achievement of its targets.

Smart and sustainable transport

With the 2028 Olympics in sight, L.A.’s metro rail system and bus fleet are being expanded, while simultaneously advancing the conversion to electric propulsion. Recently, electric vehicle car sharing has been introduced to low-income neighborhoods and is gradually growing to service more areas of the city. Siemens has tested the first eHighway with overhead electrical power supply for cargo trucks adjacent to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. 

The setbacks in air quality indices after many years of constant improvement make clear how pressing these infrastructure developments are. Hooking all this sustainable infrastructure up to the Internet of Things and reaching maximum connectivity will turn L.A. into a full-blown smart city and digitalized mobility hub. Digitalization of infrastructure is at the core of L.A.’s endeavor to reach it’s climate targets and goals for sustainable economic growth.

Technological revolution in the mobility sector

The city’s car culture heritage is undergoing some fundamental changes. While individual ownership and gasoline cult are on the decline, and the veil of smog is gradually lifting, L.A. is once again spearheading a technological revolution in the mobility sector. This transformation is driven by smart data and smart technology. In the next years the traditional way citizens move around in L.A. will be overthrown. In the end, the city will be well appointed with smart mobility hubs coming along with fully integrated apps getting people from A to B by automatically choosing the most time-efficient and energy-efficient mode of transportation. Explore the impact of shared, connected eMobility on Los Angeles in our collaboration with CityLab.

Admittedly, individual car ownership is a habit hard to break. People simply feel at home in their car while other modes of transportation expose them to public space. Still, with Los Angeles being the most congested city in the world, and smart connectivity rendering public transport more efficient, passenger journeys ever more effortless, and smart mobility hubs making it easier to step over from one mode of transportation to another, more and more citizens will leave the congested highways, and switch over to eBikes and eBus lanes where possible.

Smart connectivity and urban traffic

In addition, smart connectivity can help make existing car traffic more efficient, reduce peak time traffic jams by optimizing traffic light cycles and diverting and evenly distributing traffic in real-time. Future car travel is bound to become autonomous, zero-emission electrical cars that think on their own and make travel decisions based on analysis of real-time connected data of traffic situations. If you were an L.A. commuter in the 90s, you just did not have many options. You hit the highways and ended up in heavy traffic with somewhat of a heavy conscience on top, as by then there was no way of not knowing that your car’s exhaust fumes were adding to the city’s smog veil. The art of beating traffic in those times resembled reading from tea leaves with no real-time data to rely on other than that occasional already outdated radio traffic broadcast.

There is a lot of work to be done. But I believe we have some powerful new tools at hand, and a city leadership in adamant pursuit of implementing this smart technology to drive the digitalization of infrastructure, reduce GHG emission, and increase the ease and accessibility of commuter travel for all citizens. While we are still on hold for flying vehicles, Angelenos do not have to dream of electric cars. They have become a visible reality on the streets and among public transport and cargo vehicle fleets. 

I am excited to make my contribution and help drive L.A.’s transformation into a fully connected, smart, and sustainable city with high livability, a seamless web of smart mobility hubs for effortless commuter travel, new jobs in the digital sector, and environmentally compliant economic resilience for the digital age.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences on this platform or connect with me on LinkedIn where I regularly post on the topic of infrastructure, smart cities and of course, Los Angeles . Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences. What do you regard as the most pressing problems to be addressed with smart technology and digitalized solutions?