A photo of a self-driving shuttle bus in Las Vegas.
Let it ride: Las Vegas launched a self-driving downtown shuttle service last year, part of a wave of high-tech pilots. John Locher/AP

The casino mecca is piloting countless new technologies in public spaces in a bid to boost its smart-city brand. Worrying about the risks will come later.  

Las Vegas is a famously watchful place. Casino cameras keep tabs on players and dealers from the walls, tables, and ceilings. Analytics software tracks and predicts credit-card swipes, game preferences, and buffet choices. Occupancy levels are closely counted; peculiar behaviors noted. It’s all with an eye to lock down the vast stores of cash that keep Sin City afloat. To keep the odds in its favor, the house is always watching.

Recently, the famed vigilance of the Strip’s casinos has been spilling into the city proper. A few miles away, the city of Las Vegas is testing out dozens of cameras, sensors, and internet-connected services, trained on what’s happening downtown.

At the intersection of Main and Clark in front of City Hall, devices hang from a traffic signal like so many koalas on a trunk. A motion-detecting camera, LiDar scanner, infrared sensor, weather probe, and sound detector variously measure pedestrian and traffic counts, air quality, odd noises, and vehicles turning in the wrong direction; they’re the products of the IT companies NTT, Motionloft, Hitachi, and Cisco. At Stupak Park, a half-acre patch of turf behind the Stratosphere, machine-learning software by Microsoft scans for trash, graffiti, and anything else that might demand the attention of a cleaning crew. And coming soon to downtown streetlamps are new “smart” photocells, care of Ubicquia, to control the city’s lighting and boost wifi coverage.

Look closely: This traffic signal at Main and Clark in downtown Las Vegas is laden with sensors, cameras, and extra utility boxes making “smart city” technology run. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

Those are just a few of the hundreds of pilot projects that have fallen under the “Smart Vegas” portfolio over the past few years, according to city leaders. They also include the self-driving shuttle from French manufacturer Navya that roved up and down Fremont Street last year, a demand-based parking meter system, and the “GoVegas” mobile app that lets citizens to pay bills and ping 311.

None of this is groundbreaking on its face. Many American cities are rushing to jam digital doo-dads into streetlights, sidewalks, and citizen smartphones, with the utopian-sounding promises of healthier, happier, more affordable neighborhoods. What’s different in Las Vegas is that, here, testing these technologies is seen as an end in itself. There isn’t an overarching “smart cities” master plan rationalizing these gadgets out yet. Las Vegas is launching as many pilot programs as it can, in order to a) get its hands dirty and b) try to raise its brand as a place that understands digital devices beyond slot machines.

“It’s not just about the technology,” Michael Sherwood, the city’s director of IT, told me over the phone this week. “It’s about letting companies know that Las Vegas is more than entertainment.”

Sherwood is the guy responsible for buying desktop computers and Xerox machines for city workers. He’s also in charge of a wide-ranging set of short-term, small-scale product tests in the public right-of-way. Sherwood arrived in Las Vegas in 2016, the year that the city competed in the U.S. DOT Smart Cities Challenge, a $50 million federal grant competition. It lost the contest, but it kept its downtown designated as an “Innovation District”—a come-one, come-all testing ground to lure tech vendors hoping to see how their wares fare in the real world. (Or, at least, what passes for the real world in Las Vegas.)

The LED-canopied Fremont Street Experience lights up a rainy visit to downtown Las Vegas. (Laura Bliss/CityLab)

Nevada is among America’s more lightly regulated and tax-friendly states, which is a big reason why hyperloops are under construction in its deserts and the Gigafactory pumps out (some unspecified number of) Teslas near Reno. The emphasis is on making business easy. In keeping with that theme, if you want to run your smart streetlights in downtown Las Vegas, there’s no bidding involved for a test-run. A simple phone call or intake form can start the conversation: The city government’s “Innovate Vegas” website is peppered with invitations to “Bring Your Business to Las Vegas,” soliciting vendors to complete a simple questionnaire and list of check boxes to pitch their products. Sherwood then reviews the submission to see whether it fits in one of six arenas that the city hopes to improve on, including mobility and public safety.

In a metro area where 44 percent of jobs are tied to the fluctuating fortunes of the gaming and tourism industry, leaders hope their pilot recruitment efforts will eventually lead to more positions in new employment sectors. If techies touching down into McCarran Airport for the Consumer Electronics Showcase in January or the mega-gatherings by Amazon or Hewlett-Packard at other times of the year see that the city is open for their kind of business, maybe they’ll consider locating there more permanently. Perhaps digital doo-dads in the right-of-way can give off the aura of a headquarters-friendly destination.

Las Vegas’ let-it-ride approach contrasts with the way other cities have deliberated over their self-digitization. Customarily, companies compete in response to a city’s request for proposals for a particular product or service in order prove that their offerings are the best. Other tech-curious mid-sized cities have released hefty RFPs in search of smart city solutions over the past year. Last year, Atlanta listed its wish for consultants to help it map best practices for its tech-ified future, rather than continue to implement piecemeal pilots. Columbus, Ohio, beckoned for IT gurus to help it build an open data portal and operational spine to organize various software-based endeavors. In June, Kansas City, Missouri outlined in novella-length depth its dream for a single vendor capable of supplying “a fully integrated suite of sensors, networks, and data and analytics platforms.”

“The amount of autonomy they’ve got is unrivaled,” Bob Bennett, the chief innovation officer for Kansas City, said of Las Vegas. “For us, we have to know it has worked technically someplace else before we try it. If we pilot something, from round one, it has to explicitly meets demands of a specific problem we’re trying to solve.”

In Vegas, such an approach would be too burdensome, in Sherwood’s view. “I wouldn’t even know what to write in an RFP,” he told me. That’s why he’s been focused on pilots, rather than fully fledged, permanent operations, he explained: Eventually, the city will learn what’s working and from there, establish goals and make longer-term investments from there. “You can’t write policy if you don’t understand the technology,” Sherwood said. “Will policy be needed? Yes. Will governance be needed? Yes. But how do you govern without understanding completely how it works?”

Letting companies launch pilot programs gives the city a chance to see how products operate, without risking too much. To illustrate this, Sherwood likes to tell the story about the smart streetlamp product that came with a plastic shade shaped like an Elizabethan ruff. Spiders quickly laid nests inside the folds, much to the alarm of city maintenance workers responsible for switching out the bulbs. “What if I’d bought 10,000 of those lights only to find out later that there’s a problem?” he said. “That’s why we’re more than happy to work with any vendor to do these pilots. I think we have an advantage by testing what we’re testing.”

So far, the city hasn’t invested much in its array of smart-city toys, according to Sherwood, beyond $250,000 laying fiber and prepping traffic poles in the Innovation District, and an estimated $200,000 on technology itself; many companies are essentially “donating” their wares at no cost. They, too, get the benefit of seeing how things work. Because there hasn’t been much public money spent, there’s less of an imperative to bid out every sensor and LED lightbulb in town, Sherwood told me.

But there are clearly risks. For one, if and when Las Vegas decides to pursue a more permanent smart-city agenda, the city could run into issues around fairness. Vendors that have already piloted there would logically have an upper hand in potential longer-term contracts, shutting other companies out. What’s more, its open invitation to the private sector, in the absence of a clear policy roadmap, risks letting profit opportunists call the shots in public space and with public resources.

Launching a series of pilots without a clear civic agenda can be dangerous, according to Ben Green, the author of the forthcoming book The Smart Enough City and a former fellow of Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. “When you open up to any company, you let the companies drive the show in terms of what they find interesting. You’re using your city as a test bed for their services or to sell them other cities,” he said. “It’s an approach that’s not problem-driven at all. It’s saying to companies: Come in and do what you want.”

What’s more, “piloting” gadgets in the public right-of-way could be viewed as anti-democratic, since impermanent, small-scale efforts are easier to slip past public review processes, in addition to traditional procurement steps. That means they might draw less scrutiny, feedback, and attention, period.

Las Vegas’s downtown “Innovation District” has seen countless pilots of “smart city” technology in recent years. (City of Las Vegas)

Indeed, few Las Vegans are aware that the local government is mounting surveillance cameras and sound recorders around downtown, said Chris Stream, a professor of public policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It wasn’t designed with a lot of citizen inputs,” he said. And the “smart” pilots he’s seen so far largely ignore the major social issues that Las Vegas faces: namely, educational opportunities—Nevada schools are among the lowest-ranked in the U.S.—and more social services for a growing homeless population.

It’s also not clear how streetlight sensors translate into jobs or revenue for the city, which hasn’t seen any such economic benefits yet. But Las Vegas is still learning, and the pay-off will come in time, Sherwood said. He said his department also plans to assist in digital literacy and training programs in local schools, as a way to respond to the city’s educational gaps, and that they’ll do more to include the community in planning processes. As for legal landmines ahead, he acknowledged the possibility with a shrug. “We’ll find out if there are legal challenges,” Sherwood said. “For now, we’ve got to take a little risk.”

From one angle, the Vegas approach might look like a case study in what’s misguided with “smart cities” movement writ large. Critics say that such private-sector-led efforts can juice city coffers and ignore the workaday needs of most citizens, for whom a new app or traffic signal is of little use. Too often, “smart” is an empty term when virtually any technology can count, whether or not it succeeds in serving a public purpose.

But that’s certainly not how technology leaders in other cities see it. Las Vegas’s do-first, think-later charge down the path of urban innovation has made it the envy of its peers. In January, at a smart cities symposium hosted by Harvard University in downtown Vegas, tech administrators from other mid-sized municipalities marveled at the city’s seemingly limitless “smart” horizon. “The scale of what they’re doing here is incredible,” said Shonte Eldridge, the deputy chief of operations for Baltimore, which has recently begun to test free public wifi and a new real-time crime alert app. “The question is, how do we become like Las Vegas? That’s such a big hurdle.”

Steve Massa, a project manager for Riverside, California’s economic development division, praised Sherwood’s relentless courting of businesses. “He’s setting the bar for us all to follow.”

And Bennett, the CTO out of Kansas City, celebrated Las Vegas’s eagerness to be a guinea pig that other cities can learn from.

Attendees also acknowledged that it might not be possible to replicate the Las Vegas model back home. There’s a resounding lack of public debate here regarding what critics could easily call a giveaway of public space—in striking contrast to, say, the controversy that has erupted in Toronto over Sidewalk Labs’ plans to build a sensor-studded neighborhood that would harvest citizen data. It also contrasts with the vocal protests that greeted Amazon in Queens, where the $3 billion in tax incentives that New York planned to hand the company to build a second headquarters led to the shipping giant’s shocking pullout this month. What’s happening in Vegas seems to be staying in Vegas, in that it also seems detached from big, national conversations about trust and personal privacy related to Facebook, Google, and other internet companies.

The apparent lack of discourse might be partly cultural. Las Vegans have shown somewhat more relaxed attitudes than the average American with respect to concerns about watchful technologies, surveys have shown. But if people aren’t talking about “Smart Vegas” much, that might also be because it’s still on a small scale.

Vegas has a long history of frontier-style, trial-and-error city planning, Stream said. It’s connected to the boom-and-bust cycles that have defined the city’s economics: Think of all the casinos built only to be blown up a decade or so later, or all the marketing strategies the Strip has adopted and discarded—Vegas for families, Vegas for sports fans, Vegas for urbanists. The city government tinkers around the edges, too: An experimental, open-air courtyard for the homeless that launched last year is one example. “The city’s willingness to small-scale innovate, test, and learn sets it apart,” Stream said. “A lot can be learned from little failures.” But he acknowledged that there's a downside to this iterative approach to city making: a lack of big-picture thinking can mean big-picture problems go unaddressed.

So far, smart Las Vegas is a bunch of bets with some as-yet-unknown risk factors. But in a city that lives by an ethos of small wagers, that might not be the worst thing. It’s like the city’s playing penny slots on a whole bunch of machines, hoping to hit a jackpot. Right now, the stakes are low, and no one really knows what the payout might be. But as anyone who’s ever been to Vegas knows, you won’t win anything unless you play the game.

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