The Smartest Place I Know: Seattle

Mike Steep, visiting scholar at Stanford Engineering, believes Seattle is the most digital place in the world — so far

November 2016

Seattle skyline

Words by Mike Steep

“Smart is the outcome of digital — it’s not the other way round. There are all these new technologies that can dramatically change how a city operates”

I don’t believe any city is yet at the point where it is quote-smart-unquote. Nowhere has really taken it far enough. People overuse the term. Cities will claim to be smart when really they haven’t yet made a major impact on the quality of life of the inhabitants using digital technologies. Smart is the outcome of digital, it’s not the other way around. There are all these new technologies that can dramatically change the way that a city operates and truly make it digital — leading to smart.

Right now, I’d say Seattle is the most digital place. It’s the first major city that has been digitized [in a project led by WSP], meaning that all the data regarding its utilities, its roads, buildings and infrastructure is now being captured. Then they can use 5D modelling to project the economic impact of change. That’s a major innovation — it makes it possible to have intelligent data about the economic impact of a new bridge or tunnel or development.

I’m heavily involved in early-stage technologies, working with companies that are looking at disruptive innovation and trying to understand the implications. Because I sit in Silicon Valley and I’m continuously talking to companies like Airbus or BMW, I see how emerging technologies are being integrated into products and services and how that will connect up. Most of my work is on how technology could change city infrastructure. So it’s dramatic scientific improvements or new forms of data analytics. For example, I’m working with insurance companies to understand the role of predictive analytics in healthcare, to forecast what procedures are good or bad.

Technology is moving ahead so fast that most companies are simply not aware of many of these capabilities or they don’t know what to do with them. Cities are at just as much of a loss. A city is an enormous entity to manage, and most don’t have chief technology officers. London is probably the most advanced in terms of putting the governance in place. I’m a member of the Smart London board, overseeing digital projects in different sectors. There’s a 3D-modelling project called Virtual London and the Open Data Institute is analyzing datasets to see how healthcare is being delivered throughout the city.

I’m also working with companies like Japan Rail. They have installed condition-based maintenance, a new type of analytics that can predict when a train is going to malfunction and recommend a fix before it does. Door jams are a minor irritant for most people, but they’re one of the biggest causes of delays in Japan. All jams happen because of power fluctuations, so we can use software to monitor track and power grids, predict when there’s going to be a jam and adjust the power to the train.

Autonomous vehicles will make a big difference. Instead of thinking of AVs as things that take you from point A to point C, with LiDAR technology they could scan buildings as they’re driving by and identify structural problems. They could inspect buildings automatically and compare the data against predicted wear and tear. And an AV has its own network — it’s a moving wi-fi, it’s a mobile phone. With millions of these vehicles on the road, they could create a wireless network throughout the city. That’s about five years out.

From The Possible, issue 01

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Things we would never know existed are likely to have a huge impact on our quality of life. There’s a new scientific advance called “meta-materials” which makes it possible to design extremely low-cost materials that leverage the physics of energy. For example, as roofing, these materials can drop the temperature of a building by 7°C without using any external power. So all of a sudden, we could reduce the carbon footprint of buildings across an entire city. That’s starting to be rolled out in prototype form, and usually when something goes to prototype it’s five years from the market.

There are very few people who can see how new technologies will create new business opportunities.It’s so mind-boggling that people don’t really know what to do with it. Think of it like the Model T when the car was first introduced. We’re probably just pre-Model T now.

Mike Steep is a visiting scholar at Stanford Engineering and former senior vice president of global business operations at PARC Xerox

Photo: Shutterstock

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