Civic Innovation & How It Improves our Lives: Pasadena as a Case Study

Friday Coffee Meetup:  Jan 27, 2017

Presented by Andy Wilson

Blog Writeup by Jan Young

Andy Wilson is a serial entrepreneur having led, founded or invested in almost two dozen Southern California high tech start-ups. He also has a long history of service with local not for profits including leadership roles at Pasadena Heritage, Pacific Oaks College, the Gamble House and STEAM Coders.  Andy isn’t just a regular attendee at FCM, he was one of the original founders of the FCM speaker series, as well as a co-founder and board member of Innovate Pasadena, which is dedicated to advancing the east side of Los Angeles as a vibrant innovation community.

He frequently speaks to groups on the role of innovation to create high paying local jobs with the goal of enhancing quality life in our community, and he’s a strong advocate for thoughtful urban planning that protects neighborhoods and is committed to the Complete Streets and Active Transport concepts, making it easier for people to walk, bike, use transit and ride share. All of these passions led Andy to run for Pasadena City Council (currently running for his seat again) and to apply his background in innovation and entrepreneurship to community building and challenges facing the city. And so, on Friday, January 27th, Andy came by FCM to share some of his thoughts on civic innovation and how it improves our lives utilizing Pasadena as a case study.

When Andy was growing up, he lived in 12 different places. He moved twice in high school alone. After he met his wife, he wanted to settle down and live in the best place. Since he’s an engineer by training, he built a spreadsheet, leading him to two alternatives:  Palo Alto or Pasadena. His Mother-in-law was living in Palo Alto – so Pasadena it was. According to Andy, when you settle into a place, you take on an ownership mentality because you’re planning to live there in perpetuity. Eventually, he got his brother and parents to move to Pasadena as well. He wants to make it as good or better for next generation. His strategy is to get things done: for Andy, the real power is in building bridges, not walls.

Following is a recap of some of Andy’s thoughts he shared with us. You can also listen to the podcast here or on iTunes.

So, I’m running for city council, and it’s been a while since I’ve presented at FCM. Running a campaign is a huge amount of work, but Pasadena is an extraordinary place. Innovation and city building are two things that I care a lot about, and that has led me to civic innovation. It’s similar to why I started Innovate Pasadena– thinking about innovation in Pasadena, there are some great tech companies here, and I wanted to explore how to take great ideas and turn into execution for community impact. How to impact the real world. It’s the same with civic innovation. Applying innovation to infrastructure, to how cities work.  Pasadena is a microcosm: ~130k people, ~$700M budget. How things work or don’t work every day matters for our quality of life. I wanted more innovation in our city. I want to engage our government to think out of the box. Try new things. They say “Good ideas die in committee” for a reason. And in politics or the government, if you do something that doesn’t work out, your competitor points it out. But we know that innovation requires failure so that you can get to success. That’s very hard to do in civic innovation and in the political process. So I ask:  Can we recast and rethink what and how we are doing it?

Some examples in Pasadena are how we approach a parking garage that is for sale. Or recognizing that Old Pasadena and its old stock of buildings have value in creating a community identity. Old Pasadena has a shortage of parking, but is building another parking garage the answer? If you have an assigned parking spot, you do not use it 100% of the time. So how can you maximize private parking and use underutilized spaces? Can you match parking to the people who need it when they need it? Maybe we don’t need more parking garages, maybe we just need to use the parking we have better. Also, if had better public transportation, then we’d need less parking. Once you use your resources to build a garage underground, it’s hard to reuse that space for something else.

I’m also excited about the mobile app to report problems to the city. Not only can you enter a ticket without waiting to talk to someone on the phone, once you enter the ticket you can track it. You can see that it was received and that’s someone’s working on it. You know when it’s resolved. Now, accountability is possible. Mobile technology doesn’t just allow you to easily self-serve and report issues—it creates tangible government accountability.

When you think about urban planning the primary model is still from the 1960s: suburbia. The model requires you to drive everywhere. There are separate sections for living, playing, and working. But that’s hazardous to your health. All that time in your car, sitting in traffic, creating greenhouse gasses. Cars are really the bane of existence in LA. If you can live in LA and not be in your car every day? Success! Jeff Speck wrote a book about Walkable Cities and he has a Ted Talk—I highly recommend it. It’s about how to make cities walkable, bike-able. City planning changes over time. Mixed use is better, it’s more walkable. It includes public space and parks, and instead of a car-centric design, it’s pedestrian-centric. You don’t want to feel like you could be run over when you’re walking down the street. How should residential areas be different? Where are the nearby schools and work places? To give you an idea, Old Town’s walkability score is 100. Now, not everywhere in Pasadena is or should be transitioning to a 100 walkability score. But there is more we can do, and it can be supported. This is something that Millennials look for when they are deciding where to live.

There are lots of other things to apply innovation to. Bus schedules have a complex time table. Increasingly, you see real-time bus schedule tablets at bus stops that tell you where bus is and if it is delayed. But a Transit app would be even better—it can show every transit modality, including Uber/ Lyft, or whatever comes next.

There are many districts in Pasadena—one of them is the Playhouse district. They got inspired by parklets like you see in NYC and other cities lately. They want to create an identity that is unique from Old Town. Concord in Northern California is another community with the same idea, another implementation. So, they’re developing the concept here. It’s controversial because it removes two lanes of traffic on a busy street, and people are asking how they can get through if it’s more congested. This is car-centric thinking. But what if the goal is actually to slow down the cars, and let people see the stores? There are nearby 4 lane one way streets that can probably absorb the traffic. Things change. There was a time that Colorado was part of Route 66, but now we have the 110, so cars go there. The good news is, parklets are removable. Think of it as an MVP (Minimal Viable Product), put it in, and give it a try. Don’t let it die in committee. Give it a try. If it works, you can always go from 2 to 4 to 6 parklets. Support a group of people in the community, let them try something new.

Another great innovation that we’re seeing in the US is Bike Share. It helps people get out of their cars. Mayor Garcetti is a big proponent of Bike Share, and I’m really happy to say that we’re getting Bike Share in Pasadena. We’ll start with 500 bikes by the middle of next year, and about 30-35 Bike Share kiosks. First, the question is where the bike kiosks should go. So, some consultants researched kiosk locations and came up with ideas. What I love about this is then they went out and crowdsourced a survey and got feedback from 700 people. When their feedback was mapped over the engineering solution, it actually led to changing ~5 locations. So Bike Share—a new mode of transit in our city, and engaging people through civic engagement, and getting insights into their everyday patterns, so we could figure out where the kiosks should go. Two elements of innovation at work together. Impacts the input, impacts the finalization.

Solar energy – that’s a whole other topic. I could do a whole presentation just about alternative energy. But I won’t today because of time constraints. Innovation in Pasadena can be applied to so many problems—so many opportunities. I’m going to quickly go through some of the innovative things going on in Pasadena. Like live traffic data. There are other parties like Google Maps or Waze that want to know about queuing at every intersection of our city in real time. Well we don’t have money to go do that. But they’re interested in the data, so there’s a third party called a public-private partnership that’s deploying at each of our signal controllers to add sensors so we can get the data and know how many cars are at every traffic light. They want the data. We want the data. They get to use it in their application; Pasadena gets it for free. So now our traffic control center can look at in real time Rose Bowl Parade traffic, queuing problems, and actually start managing traffic in real time. Our tax dollars are not going to work to get that data—a third party is installing the censors and doing the deployment.

Another initiative for traffic data with another technology company is helping the city measure city transit times in peak traffic across 30 different corridors. So now through a partnership with a mobile technology company—that is through an app that is probably running in the background of another app you already have—we can measure traffic in real time. So it’s no longer once a quarter some guy with a stopwatch, it’s using the speed that’s measured out of people’s mobile devices while they’re getting to and from work.

How we measure how bad traffic is:  It used to be how long people wait at a light. But now it’s how much do people drive? The real goal is to reduce how much people are driving. The only way to reduce traffic is to get out of your car. When I meet with constituents, they complain about traffic and they want to block their street off. But that just pushes the traffic to another street. So, the real way to solve the problem is getting people out of their car, and reducing the need to drive. Go to the core problem. Measuring vehicle miles travelled—we were the first city in California to measure that.

Planning—there’s all sorts of planning codes we’re looking to revise. Something we’re looking to use is called Form Based Codes – what does a street look like as a whole. There are streets that look way too big and ugly. We all know what that looks like. But if they meet the building code, as much as we try to review the design, we can’t change the shape. But you can consider what the street looks like as a whole; Form Based Codes let you consider what the street should look like as a whole. It’s like Legos—all of them need to work together—it allows you to change the mindset from being prescriptive to being more block based—as a sort of integrative system.

Smart irrigation – we’re in a drought—the city provides rebates if you get a smart controller that turns your water on and off. We’ve had that for a long time, what’s interesting about that is it’s a direct install from the city, and the reason we do that is then we get data for the city – and now we can tell through a collection of users how much water we’re saving. Getting insight into people’s behavior by paying for these devices allows us to better manage water. One note about that:  We use less water today than 50 years ago, and our population is 50% greater. That’s water conservation. So, it does really work.

Pulse point—it’s an app, you can put it on your phone. It allows you to know about any medical emergencies going on. It locates the closest person who is certified in CPR. Self-reporting overlayed with Fire Department data and EMS calls.

And the last thing I want to say is we have an open data strategy so anyone who wants to hack, we’ve done some city hackathons, the goal is not for the city to do all of the innovation, if that was our strategy, I can tell you we will fail. Open data—allowing innovators and entrepreneurs to come up with solutions.

I would argue that Innovate Pasadena is civic innovation. It’s community-based, not for profit, around solving a city problem or an opportunity around entrepreneurship and job creation. The Friday Coffee Meetup was spawned in a coffee shop where we were starting Innovate Pasadena. Innovate Pasadena and Friday Coffee Meetup is the heart and pulse of what makes Pasadena so great, so thank you.

There’s more! Listen to the Q&A on the podcast or watch the video (links above).

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