How West Hollywood Flipped the Smart City Switch

Many West Hollywood mass transit stops have recently been replaced with connected shelters adorned with LED displays and USB charging ports. They're part of the WeHo Smart City initiative, an effort that aims to "weave technology into the fabric of the City of West Hollywood to enhance quality of life."

Continue Reading Below

That includes rolling out connected transit, developing a municipal fiber network, expanding the EV charging network, and retraining the City Hall team on the finer points of data science. With 37,000 residents, West Hollywood is not California's largest city, but it wants to be the smartest.

Ahead of the Cities of the Future summit in Los Angeles on June 5, where WeHo's Innovation Manager Francisco Contreras will speak, we talked to him and Innovation Analyst Kate Kigongo to find out more.

Being inland, West Hollywood doesn't have ocean frontage, but it's still considered part of Silicon Beach. Which local tech companies are you bringing into this plan?

[Francisco Contreras] Tech companies in West Hollywood focus on everything from fashion, design, and health, to music and dating apps. Grindr, Tinder, and Match are part of our city's local digital ecosystem. Many of them contributed to the development of WeHoX, the city's innovation and technology program, which laid the groundwork for our smart city strategic plan.

[Kate Kigongo] And as we continue to innovate in the city, we always look to our local tech community for inspiration and best practices.

Let's dive into some of the proposals in the Strategic Plan, which launched almost exactly a year ago now. What's been achieved so far, and what's next on the agenda?

[FC] Year one has focused on laying the foundation for our greater smart city efforts. We've launched the Smart City Privacy Guidelines; installed a prototype of our smart city bus shelter system; are piloting intelligent public safety camera technology; and are developing a data training academy to teach City Hall staff the basics of working with data and how data can provide insights to improve the services we provide to the community.

Next, we are preparing a pilot that explores introducing Smart.Node technology throughout city. The Smart.Nodes integrate energy-efficient lighting as well as 4G/5G wireless communications, Wi-Fi, environmental sensors, electric vehicle charging, and more technology in an elegantly designed structure. This smart infrastructure will help us better prepare for 5G and similar future-forward technology.

Street lighting is a key feature of Smart City planning. Tell us about your ENE-HUB Smart node pilot, and what features it will afford you. Did you collaborate with the L.A. Bureau of Street Lighting (BSL) in your vendor selection? We wrote about their street light upgrade last year.

[KK] Street lighting presents enormous opportunities to try smart city technology first-hand. Our smart streetlight pole pilot project sought vendors who could provide smart city services [such as] Wi-Fi, emergency communications, small cell integration, and various sensors, as well as electric vehicle charging and improved lighting in an integrated pole without pole attachments.

The City selected ENE.HUB's Smart.Node as it was the only product that best met the city's requirements and design standards. Since the City of West Hollywood owns all of its own street light poles, we did not directly collaborate with BSL during our vendor selection, but ENE-HUB's pilot project in the City of Los Angeles showcased a thoughtful design and an integrated solution that merited our attention.

How are you addressing concerns about the increase in surveillance through CCTV in these smart poles?

[FC] We are currently working on a smart public safety camera pilot project with three vendors at five locations throughout the city. We have been explicit with our community about the fact that we are not conducting surveillance. Cameras are not being monitored. Instead, law enforcement is able to search through time-limited stored video footage in case of a reported incident. In addition, the city has full ownership of all stored video data, we have eliminated facial-recognition technologies from projects, and are developing protocols for public review of video data. With these protections in mind, and the fact that the same video footage can also help us enhance our transportation system with pedestrian safety and mobility analytics, the community has been supportive of the project.

Since I decided to go green, quit driving, and take mass transit, I've been using the free shuttle to get to the nearest Metro station. You've been developing apps around that, right?

[KK] Using our local entertainment shuttle ("The PickUp") API, a local tech company employee created a branded app for PickUp arrivals. Once the city discovered the app, it's worked with the creator to support their efforts, and is proud of the civic data hacking that led to a service for our community. In addition, our new smart bus shelters include LED screens with real-time arrival information for the multiple transit options that share each bus stop. There is even a "Push to Talk" button for audible arrival prediction announcements for our residents that are visually impaired.

Are you expecting most residents are digitally savvy today?

[FC] Half of our population is under 40 years old, so many of our residents are digital natives. But even our seniors who might not identify as techies are tracking their steps on a Fitbit, controlling their thermostat with Nest, and using their iPhone to FaceTime with their grandchildren. So we've learned that any smart city conversation with our community needs to focus on the benefits of the technology, not the details of the tech itself. The benefits apply globally to all residents whether they understand the nuts and bolts of the technology or not.

The Google Waze Connected Community Program (CCP) is mentioned in the plan. Have you traveled to other regions to see how this is implemented?

[KK] We have not traveled to other regions, but we have talked to other cities who are part of the CCP. All of our communities are benefiting from the ease with which we can report street closures or turning lane changes and restrictions that can improve traffic in real-time throughout the city.

Francisco, you've been with the city for 13 years, and majored in Urban Studies at Stanford, then a double Masters in Architecture and Urban Planning from UCLA. Why is City of West Hollywood a perfect place to roll out a strategic plan like this?

[FC] West Hollywood has a progressive ethos that is hard to find anywhere else. City Hall cares about the well-being of the community. Neighbors care about neighbors. Our city leaders care about the greater good and provide a voice and platform for just and noble causes. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to work here after I graduated from UCLA. And as a student of cities, I've learned that technology can have great impact on the built environment. Cities are wrestling with the impact that connected and sharing technologies are having on traditional government services like transportation and housing. In West Hollywood, we believe that technology should not disrupt communities, it should enhance them. So as we explore weaving technology throughout the fabric of the city we always have this in mind first and foremost: what are the benefits of this technology for our community?

Kate, after your Masters in Urban and Regional Planning at UCLA, you went north to work in San Francisco. What did you do there?

[KK] As a Program Officer at the Low Income Investment Fund, I was responsible for implementing a $6.5 million energy efficiency retrofit program for child care centers across California. At the time, energy efficiency was a new concept, and "curly light bulbs" or compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) were being introduced in the consumer market. By managing energy efficiency audits, retrofits and impact reporting for over 1,000 child care facilities, I learned to translate between the utility companies, the lighting manufacturers, and owners and operators of child care facilities. That ability to translate complex technical concepts to people outside the field has played a pivotal role throughout my career.

Finally, ahead of the Cities of the Future (RICS Summit) taking place in LA this week, give us a Ray Bradbury-style vision of West Hollywood circa 2050. Will we have jetpacks and a monorail running down Melrose Avenue?

[FC] Here's a utopian-dream vision for West Hollywood in 2050:The streets and skies of West Hollywood will look different than they do today. Electric autonomous vehicles will travel seamlessly throughout the city and electric flying air taxis and personal aerial mobility devices will shuttle people from the Sunset Strip to areas beyond. Traditional roadways will carry fewer land-based vehicles and will feature larger sidewalk areas and a limited number of electrified roadways will traverse the city. Subway stops throughout the city will connect the region to one of the most thriving, humanistic, technology-advanced communities in the country. At West Hollywood City Hall, all services will be digitized, allowing for maximum in-person interaction for those who want or need it. Business in the city will boom, citizens will be happy, and we will all continue to grow and adapt to modern times.

This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.