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With Panasonic’s help, Denver is building a smart city within a city

Your city is dumb. The potholed streets, coin-operated parking meters, and drafty brick buildings many of us interact with every day haven’t changed much in a century. But it’s finally happeningFrom Oslo to San Diego, cities across the globe are installing technology to gather data in the hopes of saving money, becoming cleaner, reducing traffic, and improving urban life. In Digital Trends’ Smart Cities series, we’ll examine how smart cities deal with everything from energy management, to disaster preparedness, to public safety, and what it all means for you.

You can’t really talk about what’s happening in Denver without mentioning what’s happening 5,800 miles away in Fujisawa, the Japanese town Panasonic built on top of its old factory outside Tokyo. Its 600 homes and 400 apartments — all sold out but still filling up — were designed to withstand earthquakes, are all outfitted with solar panels, and are all hooked up to the smart grid. It took over a decade to get Fujisawa up and running, but Panasonic wanted to reproduce it in the U.S. using an already established city.

And it chose Denver.

What’s Denver got?

“We had previously scoured 25, 30 cities throughout the United States.” Jarrett Wendt, executive vice president of strategic innovations at Panasonic, told Digital Trends. “We struggled, frankly, to come up with a business model and plan for replicability.” But Denver offered something special: Leaders promised Panasonic they wouldn’t push back as it tried to implement new technologies. “That was the most compelling argument we heard,” said Wendt. “Essentially the mayor and the governor said, ‘We’re in.’”

“With Pocketgov, residents can report problems, ask questions, and get information about vital city services.”

While the receptive government was helpful, it wasn’t the only factor that brought Panasonic to Denver. Near the airport, at the second-to-last stop off the commuter rail line is Peña Station. Look at it now on Google Maps, and it’s just a big patch of dirt, about 10 miles from the Denver International Airport. The 400 acres that Panasonic and its partners plan to develop aren’t subject to the typical processes that come with being part of a municipality. “Ultimately because of the partnership and the fact that we’re land investors, we essentially have the ability to pull the trigger on new and emerging technology.” Without having to wait for request for proposals, in 18 months, Panasonic has set up Colorado’s first microgrid, smart street lamps, and signed a partnership with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to test self-driving vehicles on a stretch of Interstate 70.

The city has also found ways to automate some services and reduce wait times at the DMV. If you go to the city of Denver’s website, you’ll see a list of things you can do online, from paying parking tickets, to adopting a pet, to checking recreational center hours. “Denver has also launched a mobile app, Pocketgov, as a one-stop-shop to city services,” said Jenna Espinoza, spokeswoman for the office of Mayor Michael B. Hancock. “With Pocketgov, residents can report problems, ask questions, and get information about vital city services like snow plowing, street sweeping, waste services, and more.”

If you wander around downtown Denver, you might notice IKE, which stands for interactive kiosk experience – though you might not realize everything it’s capable of. The interface has big bubbles reminiscent of a mobile phone. It can text you directions from its location, send you the selfie it just snapped for you, and give you real-time train data.

Putting on the brakes

It’s not just autonomous vehicles, but connected cars in general that are key to Denver’s vision of a smart city. By the end of 2022, 20 major car companies — making up 99 percent of the U.S. market — will make emergency automatic braking systems standard. If the system detects a collision is about to happen, for instance, it will apply the brakes.

But many cars already have onboard computers, and Panasonic wants to leverage all the information contained on them. “What we’re doing over the next four years is designing the real first holistic implementation of that integrated software stack,” said Wendt. That’s the in-car software that controls everything from windshield wipers to the traction control in your car, and Wendt thinks companies like Ford and Toyota could do a lot with the information.

Cars could use short-range radio frequencies to communicate with each other, as well as lights and highway signs.

On Colorado’s snowy stretches of highway, for instance, cars could use short-range radio frequencies to communicate with each other, as well as lights and highway signs. They could send each other information about the traffic or weather conditions, so if everyone’s swerving around some junk in the road, your car could alert you to slow down or switch lanes ahead of time.

Away from the highway, Peña Station Next, the neighborhood that will be connected to the rail line, ought to have fewer vehicles on the road.  Easymile will deploy its EZ10 autonomous shuttles in a couple months. The driverless, 12-passenger shuttles will bring residents from around the development to the train station. “Baby boomers are consistently saying they don’t want to be sent out to pasture,” said Wendt. With the shuttle and easy access to the train, cars become less necessary. For everyday travel, the 400 acres will be designed as mixed-use, live-work hubs. The main modes of transportation will be walking and biking, along with the EZ10s. As with other initiatives, the neighborhood, which Wendt calls a mobility center, will act as test-bed. “Let’s test it in a controlled ecosystem on this 400 acres, then we can maybe go to an outlier in the airport, then we have 18 or 19 positions within the city,” he said.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Shedding light

By treating Peña Station Next as a guinea pig community, Denver can dip a toe into new technology pools before jumping in with both feet. Take smart street lights. “There’s little debate whether or not this some of the more impactful technology that can really affect cities in multiple areas, but the deployment of them has been a bear,” said Wendt.

Utility companies often own the existing poles. In Denver, 90 percent of the 50,000 street lamps, are owned by Xcel Energy. If the city wants to not only swap out incandescent bulbs for LEDs but also make them smart, it needs to appeal to utilities’ bottom line.

What proof is there that adding cameras or sensors will pay off? For one thing, pollution sensors could help officials know if the city is on track to meet greenhouse gas targets for its 2020 sustainability goals. Wendt says by deploying these smart lights in Peña, Denver then has real data about improved snow removal, enhanced security, and better parking. “You have to have kind of a playground where you can showcase and then implement with great alacrity,” said Wendt. He expects similar results to come of the carbon-neutral district. Ensuring the area’s buildings and homes meet LEED Gold standards will deliver valuable metrics and could provide a blueprint for future construction.

Denver’s green streak continues when it comes to energy options as well. Colorado is a founding member of the Governors’ Wind & Solar Energy Coalition, and Wendt thinks Denver’s diverse energy options give utility companies the opportunity to act as a service provider: “What I would suspect is that Colorado will lead the way in offering several options for customers to choose whether they want their energy from traditional fossil fuels or solar and wind or a combination.”

The nature of its location means Denver has some challenges not every potential smart city faces, like snow removal. With 4K cameras, officials could have a better view of streets. “Right now if it snows, there’s still a human decision,” said Wendt. “They deploy all of their trucks to the tune of $100,000 each time. If you could be more pointed, meaning you have access to what those intersections look or what those streets look like from a 4K perspective, you could absolutely map out a more strategic roll out.”

“Deployment of smart streetlights has been a bear.”

If the thought of being on camera whenever you step into downtown Denver makes you squirm, Wendt thinks you’re being naive if you don’t think it’s already happening in cities across the camera. “If you’re already on camera, let’s make those cameras actually legitimate and clear enough to actually mean something,” he said. “Instead of blurry images, let’s have imagery that matters.” And while the city may have use for measuring pedestrian foot traffic, he said with Panasonic’s system every facial image is blurred automatically. What about cybersecurity? Wendt mentioned Dallas, which recently had its sirens hacked to blare in the middle of the night. “I don’t think anything is hack-proof,” he admitted.

Espinoza said Denver’s Information Governance Committee adjusts policy as necessary to keep information transparent, yet protect residents. “For example, with property data, anyone could place a request for personal information on homeownership for a particular house, but technology has made it easy to look up multiple houses, by address or name, very quickly,” she said. “The availability of the data hasn’t changed, but accessibility has.” A real estate agent would have legitimate use for such information and it would make their job easier, but the consequences could be serious for someone escaping a domestic violence situation. “This requires more thoughtfulness on the part of government on how to treat these instances in a case by case matter,” said Espinoza.

The smartlight at the end of the tunnel

There isn’t a projected date for when Peña will be fully operational. Even Fujisawa isn’t 100 percent complete yet. In some ways, the transformation of Denver is just getting started. In others, it’s already been a long haul. “It’s almost like a hilarious statement to say that a baseball stadium spearheaded this, but it did,” said Wendt of Coors Stadium, which opened in 1995. “That moment in time began to transform the downtown area.”

“The city’s population has increased 25 percent since 2000,” said Espinoza. “We’re adding more than 1,000 people a month.” The city is feeling the squeeze, especially when it comes to traffic. “We recently spent $30 million to add one lane for one mile to a major north-south arterial, and we are preparing to spend $1.2 billion to add lanes to Interstate 70 and reconnect the urban street grid northeast of downtown,” she said. “These are important improvements, but they are built on an outdated supply model that we cannot sustain financially and which do not contribute to the human fabric of our city.”

If Peña turns out to be a reliable source for testing solutions that then get expanded, it could help Denver manage that growth. “I think you’re probably going to look at a city that has grown rapidly over 20 years but has managed to have a real roadmap,” Wendt predicted.

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Jenny McGrath
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jenny McGrath is a senior writer at Digital Trends covering the intersection of tech and the arts and the environment. Before…
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