smart city

From Sin City to Smart City: Inside Las Vegas's plan to digitize

Vegas wants to become an “iconic leader” in smart city tech
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· 6 min read

“Sin City'' is more famous for its casinos and hotels than for being an up-and-coming tech mecca, but city officials like Michael Sherwood hope to change that narrative. In particular, he wants to do that via smart city projects.

“It's about Vegas thinking differently. Let's innovate,” Sherwood, the chief innovation officer for the City of Las Vegas, told Emerging Tech Brew. “Let's do things here that people aren’t doing elsewhere. We are that iconic city. We are that iconic leader in technology and smart city technology.”

Vegas is one of many global cities whose government is interested in smartification—IDC estimates that over 200+ cities worldwide spent $124 billion on smart city projects in 2020. The idea is to make cities more efficient by continuously collecting, analyzing, and acting on data about all aspects of city life.

Las Vegas is five years into its smart city program that draws from tech providers like NTT Data, Cisco, Ubicquia, and Baicells, all of which are angling for the city to run trials of their products in hopes of landing long-term contracts. The tech companies pay for the pilots out of their own pockets, allowing Vegas to throw stuff at the wall without breaking the city budget. Most of the tools are straightforward, allowing Vegas to track crowd size, or count how many cars pass down a road.

And the city has largely piggybacked off of existing physical infrastructure to build its smart city projects.

“They already made a lot of investment in internet of things (IoT), some of them more than others, but they want to see the value of that investment rather than ripping and replacing just to put a data system in like ours,” Bennett Indart, SVP of smart solutions at NTT said. “We can go in and allow them to see that value from their existing IoT infrastructure.”

For many of these technologies, like autonomous vehicles and crowd monitoring, Vegas is a guinea pig. Sherwood estimates that40% of the pilots are successful, while the other 60% fail to meet the mark for widespread adoption.

Case studies

NTT, one of Las Vegas’s biggest partners, oversees much of the data collection and analysis, and is building out a network of sensors to help with managing traffic flow, park use, crowd management, and public safety.

One of NTT’s initial pilot programs was wrong-way driving detection on a street near the city courthouse that saw frequent accidents (including a federal judge being hit). City officials tried to track the number of incidents with manual observation, but were unable to get reliable data. By using an array of NTT’s optical sensors, the city recorded up to 25–30 incidents on the street per day and instituted some basic solutions like signage, blinking lights, and, finally, a traffic light. After that, incidents dropped to zero.

“In real-life conditions, that saved them from having to send people out to look at accidents. The police didn't have to go out, they didn't have to file reports. The police could actually be doing other police work,” Bill Baver, VP of Smart Platform at NTT, said.

Some private enterprises in Las Vegas are able to access and contribute to the city’s traffic database for things like autonomous vehicle (AV) research and development. One example is Motional, an AV joint venture between Hyundai and auto tech company Aptiv, which began testing driverless cars (albeit still with a human minder riding shotgun) in Las Vegas this February.

Motional’s driverless cars travel the city equipped with their own array of sensors and cameras, but they also utilize NTT’s data-sharing network to find optimal traffic routes and to report incidents they encounter. For example, if a Motional car comes across a downed street light, it reports the issue to the NTT data center, allowing the city to see it and address it.

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“Our vision is to be part of a multimodal solution in the cities we serve. We understand that our cities are complex places,” Gretchen Effgen, VP of go-to-market at Motional, said. “It is incumbent upon us to understand the transportation goals of the cities we work with.”

Smart security

With consumer-focused ventures like Motional working in concert with IoT-powered databases like NTT, Las Vegas’s vision of a smart city connects several aspects of city life under one umbrella. That raises a new challenge: keeping all this data secure.

Centralizing data from streetlights, cameras, infrared sensors, and the like in one place is a much bigger security risk than spreading it across a bevy of mini networks and infrastructure.

“Any smart city does need to have a really clear policy on privacy and to show why it's not going to cause any privacy issues and it’s not infringing [on] anybody's rights,” William Webb, CEO of Webb Search Limited, a smart cities consultancy, said.

Sherwood said the city requires its partners to have strong cybersecurity measures implemented, and a governing board dictates how the data is ultimately used while being cognizant of protecting personal information.

“It's not just our data anymore. It is data of many systems and many system owners coming together as one,” Sherwood said. “Safety and security of that data is extremely critical.”

Webb also pointed out the importance of digitized cities having clear security and privacy policies, as even mundane scraps of data can paint an intimate picture of someone’s life when enough of them are compiled.

“On its own, garbage collection information probably doesn't tell you much, but add it to a CCTV feed and parking information and other things and you might be able to work out, ‘That house hasn't had its garbage collected for a while, and there's no car in its car parking space, therefore it's probably unoccupied.’ The more data you centralize, the more there is a risk of that kind of thing happening.”

Smart city critics have also raised concerns about government surveillance—particularly when it comes to embedding facial recognition technology in these projects. For its part, NTT said it isn’t providing Vegas with facial recognition tech, explaining that they use infrared sensors to track crowd size, but do not use software to identify faces.

"The potential exists to utilize facial recognition cameras and we tested that originally, but since then have pushed to optical sensors that do not have identifiable capabilities, so we align with the city policies,” Baver said.

Vegas’s transition to a smart city has already reshaped how the city allocates resources, diagnoses issues, and responds to them. Sherwood hopes that Vegas can serve as a model for other American cities that are looking to transition to smart cities in the near future.

“A city that is technologically efficient is a city that's going to be able to provide more services and education and public safety,” Sherwood said. “It's going to be able to shift. We aren’t going to be spending money keeping old legacy systems. So you'll continue to see more opportunity through technology than a city that has to continue to revise and rely on manual processes.”

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew informs business leaders about the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts and more to help them make smart decisions.