May 10 2021

Street Smarts: Carlsbad, Calif., Is Working with Residents to Create a Connected Community

The city wants locals to be part of the decision-making process for transportation and other tech integrations.

The city government in Carlsbad, Calif., has a basic framework for its smart technology plans, known as Connected Carlsbad. It serves as a civic innovation roadmap and is both a comprehensive look at the city’s existing initiatives and strategic guide for the future.

City officials, however, weren’t the only ones to weigh in on the current and proposed digital projects. Residents are also playing a key role in shaping the city’s plans, and that logical move helps ensure the end results are effective, according to David Graham, Carlsbad’s chief innovation officer.

“Ultimately, we want to be creating a more convenient city for all,” he says. “You can only do that when you understand the priorities of the public and you engage with them to bring them along in the process.”

How Carlsbad Includes the Public in Proposed Smart City Endeavors

Carlsbad’s general approach has been to try to determine what citizens want from the city instead of engaging with them about which specific type of technology to implement. City officials can then figure out a way to use technology to deliver that service or experience, says Kristina Ray, the city’s director of communication and engagement.

For several years, Carlsbad has been experimenting with different online platforms to give people an alternative to public meetings. Such meetings are often public agencies’ default for gathering input, Ray says, but can draw a narrow section of people due to scheduling conflicts and other reasons.

The city has been able to exponentially expand the amount of people who are involved in discussions about civic technology, Ray says, thanks to new outreach efforts that include online surveys, email and text updates, social media advertising and other elements.

“We tend to hear from people through different methods — speaking at city council meetings during the comments, email, social media,” she says. “We’ve opened up all these channels and have an ongoing conversation. We want to be where people are.”

Resident response has helped the city identify what the most effective digital initiatives would be, such as adaptive traffic signals. The city is currently in the process of installing those, something Ray says the community has been excited about.

Instead of data feeding into a traffic management center where a human being must consistently reprogram the signalization, the traffic signals, which have been deployed in three corridors, are able to communicate with each other and react to current conditions. The signals also leverage artificial intelligence-based software.


Carlsbad has installed smart traffic signals that leverage artificial intelligence-based software. Photography by Chris/Adobe Stock

“We all get so annoyed when we’re sitting at a red light and nobody is coming by on the cross traffic,” Graham says. “A lot of that is because of the way the signal timing is set up. With these adaptive corridors, essentially AI will be making those decisions based upon some basic algorithms.”

LEARN MORE: Intelligent transportation tools help cities manage traffic during extreme weather.

Carlsbad Installs Smart Water Meters to Boost Efficiency

A number of other tech tools have been added to enhance residents’ day-to-day experiences in recent years, including an on-demand shuttle to take commuters from the mass transit train station to the main business park area in the city and smart meters that, coupled with data analytics software, monitor residents’ water usage.

If a preset leak perimeter is exceeded, the system sends a notification email, helping to prevent water-related damage and hefty water bills, according to Mario Remillard, meter and customer services supervisor and conservation coordinator for the Carlsbad Municipal Water District, a subsidiary of the city. The meters have also allowed the city to increase efficiency by allowing on-demand reads without requiring someone to undertake a manual assessment.

The system utilizes in-ground meters from the previous drive-by meter reading system; collectors and repeaters just need to be installed for information to be sent via RFID connectivity, Remillard says.

Almost all are located on streetlights, except for two situated on city building rooftops and one in a reservoir area, where streetlights weren’t an option. “The higher you put it, the more range it’s going to have,” Remillard says.

Data from the meters can be viewed on desktop computers in the district office or by meter readers, who use Panasonic Toughbook laptops to check information when in the field.

DIVE DEEPER: How does smart water technology help cities?

Connectivity Efforts Are Setting the Stage for Future Tech Integrations

To support its growing smart tech functionalities, the city is also working to establish a robust digital information network, which will utilize already-installed third-party fiber, lit up by Cisco equipment.

When the network is complete, speeds at libraries, parks, city hall and other public facilities will increase from the current 10 to 100 megabits per second to a minimum of 10 gigabits per second.

David Graham, Chief Innovation Officer, Carlsbad, Calif.
Ultimately, we want to be creating a more convenient city for all.”

David Graham Chief Innovation Officer, Carlsbad, Calif.

The network, May says, won’t be available to the public but will help the city manage its data.

“Smart traffic signals can transmit information over that network, or city operations can utilize it,” she says. “Being able to have that superhigh-speed network enables more possibilities; the city is able to operate so much more efficiently and offer better digital tools. The average resident may not necessarily think about those things going on in the background, but they’re important.”

To help close the digital divide within the city, Carlsbad is also looking into providing public Wi-Fi, Graham says, which would address online access-related workforce needs and skill building.

Not having to build out the new network saved the city between $9 million to $15 million, according to Graham. Still, as in most major infrastructure projects, some costs are involved. And even if the end result will increase a city’s efficiency and improve residents’ lives, convincing the public to spend several million dollars on something they may not initially see results from can be a tough sell.

However, it’s necessary to have a conversation about avoiding the cost of adopting technology your system can’t support, or tools that support services people don’t need, Graham says — something the city plans to continue doing with its constituents.

“With each new challenge, we’re engaging with the community,” he says. “with the speed at which technology changes, we have to be dynamic in our approach and involve our city leaders, business community and our public in really prioritizing the areas that we should be investing in — and be adaptable as we’re doing that and find out what the public may want, as opinions may change.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: Explore citizen services with these eight smart cities to watch.

Art Wager/Getty Images

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