Carlsbad, CA: How Mid-Sized Municipalities Can Seize Big Smart Cities Opportunities

While New York City and Los Angeles might be your first thought when you hear “smart city,” when it comes to innovation, medium-sized municipalities like Carlsbad, California—population 115,000—are generating plenty of buzz.

Carlsbad is widely known for “Connected Carlsbad,” a roadmap for civic engagement and communitywide digital transformation, and one of the largest smart traffic management systems in the region. The roadmap includes data-driven initiatives to improve traffic flow and a remote traffic management center, which monitors signal data and makes adjustments in real time.


“Anything new can be more easily replicated and socialized in a mid-sized city,” said City of Carlsbad Chief Innovation Officer David Graham. Working for a mid-size city can also spur broader, deeper perspectives, he added. “Medium-size cities aren’t siloed, so people have to wear more hats.”

We talked with Graham about how the City of Carlsbad has been meeting demands for greater connectivity, convenience and information—and what other communities can learn from their experiences.

Starting the process with LEGO® pieces and “pesky problems”

Graham became Carlsbad’s very first chief innovation officer in 2018, bringing decades of local government experience that included a stint as deputy chief operating officer for smart and sustainable communities in San Diego.

Carlsbad was no stranger to innovation. The city maintains 40 percent open space and is home to LEGOLAND, the Museum of Making Music and the country’s largest and most energy-efficient seawater desalination plant. Yet Graham encountered numerous challenges when he started his new position, including legacy systems and a team of “good people who did not necessarily consider themselves innovative.”

To change the latter, he brought everyone together to start playing with LEGO® pieces (when in Carlsbad…). This gave people the opportunity to learn about innovation concepts, imagine what their city could look like, and see themselves as pioneers who could make those visions a reality.  

When it was time to move ideas into action, Graham started with the “pesky problems no one could fix,” like the municipality’s underused Microsoft Teams application.

“I volunteered my team as a proving ground,” he said.

The first step was using Teams for all meetings. This gave them the opportunity to explore all of the application’s capabilities and develop a “story” for encouraging broader adoption throughout the organization.

Encouraging data-driven decisions

We all have data, but we don’t all know how to maximize its power, according to Graham.

For Carlsbad, he hired a citywide data expert. “Data Dave” became part of the IT team’s branding to help employees see data as approachable and essential to innovation.

“Helping pry people’s fingers off their data and showing them what it can do is an important first step in data-driven decision making,” Graham said. “In most cases, you’re using data you already have and translating it into useful insights.”

Recently, the City of Carlsbad, which has one of the highest 55+ populations in the region, has used data to develop its first Age-Friendly Action Plan. By collecting information and learning from the community about ways to increase livability, the city is setting policy and program goals to enhance quality of life.


“This is how we can make shifts internally while demonstrating significant value to our community,” Graham said.


Planning ahead and prioritizing “human ROI”


What advice does Graham have for other municipalities engaging in smart cities projects?


First, plan ahead. For example, while he applauds the innovative approach of Carlsbad’s traffic management system, he recognizes a missed infrastructure opportunity. “The changes weren’t done on fiber,” he said. “A citywide fiber network would have saved us millions.”

“When we do a big project now I like to think ‘what are we missing?’” he said.

Secondly, understand that money is only one part of the smart cities equation. As with COVID-19 efforts and the Age-Friendly Action Plan, the value question isn’t always going to come down to dollars saved, he said. “Often, it’s the human ROI we should focus on.”

Learn more about Connected Carlsbad by visiting their website. Watch the video about how Carlsbad is transforming their traffic management solutions here:


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