Almis Udrys
Can Streetlights Save Democracy?
TEDxSanDiego 2015

Now that you’re all feeling very relaxed from the previous speaker, let me start with a question. Have you ever been stuck in traffic, the kind of traffic that makes you curse everyone around you and wherever the hell it is they’re going, the type that can’t be any better for our air quality as it is for our sanity?

Congestion on our roads costs American drivers $100 billion in wasted fuel and lost time every single year. In fact, American drivers spend 42 hours a year stuck in traffic. 42 hours a year. That’s just a bit more than an average workweek. Wouldn’t it be nice to spend that time with family or friends?
There’s an environmental impact as well. Traffic congestion contributes to the release of over 56 billion unnecessary pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

What about those times you’re circling around looking for a parking spot, or maybe you’re stuck at a red light at an empty intersection? We’ve all been there. Why is that light red? Can’t someone do something about this? What wouldn’t I give for a field of green lights right about now.

I’ve experienced all of these frustrations, but I’ve done my best to avoid them. I’ve always chosen to live within about 10 minutes from work or school and concentrate my daily activities to a two-mile radius of my house.

I’m lucky. Not everyone gets to do that, which brings me to one of my favorite topics: government. Please, hold the applause. Hold the applause.

As someone with a GenX brain and a millennial heart, I’m cynical about government. Despite that, I strongly believe that a 21st century government can engage with its citizenry to change the world. Thank you. I have one fan out there.

Before, if you have mentioned the words “performance metrics”, “data”, “analytics”, all in the same sentence as “the public sector”, I would have laughed.

Then, just last year, our new mayor selected me to run a department that swears by them.
Transformational change has begun at city hall. Yet, not everyone is as connected with each other or with their government, as recent election data suggests.

New York Times bestselling author Sharon Salzberg says that voting is the expression of our commitment to ourselves, one another, this country and this world.

If true, our democracy is in trouble. In the most recent presidential election, 55% of eligible voters between the ages of 18 to 29 didn’t vote. Fifty-five percent did not vote.

When we don’t vote, we hand over decision-making to those who do, even if they don’t represent the larger population. Voting gives us a unique opportunity to consider the impacts of proposed policies, not only on ourselves but on our fellow citizens.

For instance, I may not want to be a firefighter, but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t care that our city is able to provide trucks and equipment to our firefighters.

That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t care about the health plan we offer them, so that we can attract quality people to do the job. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t care that anyone in any neighborhood that needs a firefighter gets one.

Democracy is based on thoughtful participation in our society, not just showing up at a polling booth once every few years. Civic engagement requires caring about someone or something other than ourselves.

The decline in voting is a symptom of a more concerning disconnectedness and apathy that undermine our social fabric. Yet, Band-Aids to encourage more voting, like L.A.’s proposed lottery system, where voters can win cash, won’t solve the underlying problem.

In a self-centered culture, to reinvigorate democracy, we must institutionalize caring. Our best hope at building the connections that strengthen democracy lies in our cities.

Compared to other levels of government, cities operate the closest to the people, having the greatest impact on our day-to-day lives. Cities handle everything from paving the streets to proving drinking water to your homes to building libraries and having parks where we can stimulate our minds, our bodies, and our spirits.

By using data and technology in ways that were previously impossible, cities can bridge the gap between our residents and their government.

Here in San Diego, we’ve launched Pulse Point Respond and AED apps. Each minute a heart attack victim waits for CPR, their chances of survival decrease by up to 10%.

The first app allows our residents trained in CPR to sign up and receive health alerts notifying them of nearby emergencies where they can assist. The second app complements the first one by crowdsourcing AED locations, so our first responders can locate the nearest one, thus doubling the victim’s chance of survival.

Through apps like these, we can leverage technology to make a real difference and enhance social connections. On the other side of the country, the city of Durham, North Carolina developed Operation Bulls Eye.

By analyzing data of gunshots, gang member addresses, and resident incident reports, they were able to reduce crime in the most violent part of the city by 50%. Residents were very happy with the declining crime rate and city’s responsiveness to their incident reports.

These examples of institutionalized caring merely scratch the surface of the power that data and technology can bring to our communities.

Consider the things you see as you walk down the street. Imagine how we could empower these objects. Boston installed smart benches that can measure light, heat, noise and foot traffic.
If you’re a business looking for a new location, foot traffic data is invaluable to you, so you can see where people are walking and might become potential customers.

Other cities have installed smart trash bins. Yes, smart trash bins. They can tell us when they need to be emptied. Not only does this reduce unsightly overflowing bins, but it also saves time, saves fuel and saves money emptying bins that are only half full.

Now, let’s tilt our heads upwards. Take a look at the innocuous streetlight that lights our way home when we walk on the sidewalk.

Imagine: what if a streetlight could know and react to its environment? Just like your smartphone can do much more than make phone calls, a smart streetlight can do much more than just shine a light in dark places.

It can know when it’s out and alert a repair crew. Elevated 12 to 30 feet off the ground, it can be equipped with a variety of sensors. For instance, it can adjust its brightness depending on the time of day, the weather conditions, or the number of people in an area.

In San Diego, we’ve installed over 3,000 such streetlights, primarily in the Gaslamp and Little Italy districts downtown. These lights have been installed in a partnership with GE.

San Diego is one of the first cities to invest heavily in IOT technology. They’re connected by a mesh network that allows the lights to actually talk to each other, as well as communicate back information to a central source where someone at a computer can review the information. This is a technology that has an ability to significantly improve our lives, and San Diego is one of the first cities to have it.

The power of data and technology is limited only by the human imagination. That’s why I can’t stand up here and tell you all of the many things that have yet to be developed, but based on testing we’re doing just blocks away, here’s a glimpse of a not-too-distant future.

Picture this: streetlights continuously monitor air quality and emissions, communicating with your mobile device the optimal time for you to wake up in order to minimize your commute’s impact on the local environment.

As you drive to work, streetlights can detect your car, ensuring green lights along the way. Less traffic for you, better air quality for all of us.

When you come back from work, because of data the city is communicating with your car, your car pulls into a legal parking spot.

Because you parked legally, the city can then sweep the street of the various pollutants that accumulate, which otherwise wash into the ocean if it rains or if someone left their sprinklers on too long. I know no one does that, but just saying.

Beach goers are going to be happy because the ocean is cleaner. You’re going to be happy because you didn’t get a ticket. A single instance of smart city data use impacts a variety of stakeholders. That’s a civic connection.

In the evening, at night, everyone is sleeping and a fire breaks out in the nearby brush. No one’s awake to report it. A smart neighborhood streetlight can sense the increased carbon monoxide levels in the air and send an alert to the nearest fire station. A fire truck is deployed; the fire is put out. Lives saved. Property saved. The environment saved.

With support from all the different generations in our community, local governments can build these types of networks. By now, some of you might be thinking, “This is way too Big Brother.” I can appreciate the real concerns about cities collecting and using data in this way. However, the benefits far outweigh the potential costs.

Cities can be much more responsible users of information than private retail stores or social media applications, which are already collecting a much wider array of personal information.

In the private sector, you have very little control over what happens to your data. At the city, we can engage with civil technologists to help design privacy controls and data usage standards.

Cities have a special opportunity to use technology, to create dialogue, and engage residents of all ages. There are ample places, from traffic to public health, where we can institutionalize caring.

These technologies, like streetlights, can make our cities healthier, smarter and safer. Connected to each other, they can be good. Building connections with all of us, they can make us great.

As you walk down the street, think about the possibilities and support those who share this vision. See these objects in a new light. They can save democracy.