Connecting Cities to a Smarter Future
Updated: Feb 22
Iveda Solutions CEO David Ly drives the integration of digital technology with municipal services to create smart city infrastructure.
In late 1979, the grandfather of four-year-old David Ly paid a fisherman in Ho Chi Minh City, Republic of Vietnam, to take his grandson and the boy’s aunt out into the South China Sea to escape the Communist government that had assumed power after the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
Aboard that crowded fishing vessel, Ly––he would become known as a boat baby––and his aunt did not know if they would make it to a refugee camp in Hong Kong, Malaysia, or Singapore––or perish at sea. Fortunately, they were both rescued by a Norwegian trawler and transported safely to Osaka, Japan.
Ironically, Ly’s lack of connectivity to the world at that time, and the uncertainty that anyone else in the world would ever know about or take action to change his circumstance helped inspire a career focused on helping cities create and maintain strong, self-healing connectivity among municipal assets and infrastructure.
Today, as chief executive officer and founder of Iveda Solutions, Mesa, Ariz., Ly guides the development of digital technology that can be integrated into municipal networks and services to create smart city infrastructure.
The company’s products include Internet of Things (IoT) sensors for smart networks, smart power systems, cloud-based video monitoring and data management systems, and AI-based video analytics.
Starting with contracts in New Taipei City, Taiwan in 2008, and more recently in Mexico City, Ly's list of smart city infrastructure customers now includes municipalities in the U.S., Japan, South Africa and Egypt.
“A smart city starts with connectivity,” he explains. “All of your devices have to communicate with one another and some central point of intelligence. That central node has to be smart enough to assess the incoming data, take action physically and alert humans to the situation.”
Discovering New Technology
Ly celebrated his fifth birthday as a refugee in Japan, but made it to San Jose, Calif. as a sponsored immigrant in time to start kindergarten. It would be three more years until he was reunited with his father – a former member of the South Vietnamese Army.
As a kid, Ly loved to draw and build imaginary cities from sand, sticks and rocks. At Mt. Pleasant High School in San Jose, however, his hobbies took a decidedly technical tack. William Carpenter, a science and English teacher at the school, introduced him to personal computers and CD-ROM technology.
Together, Ly and Carpenter founded Mt. Pleasant’s first computer club. Ly’s cousin, an employee of nearby Intel, added momentum to the effort by helping them secure computer donations from the chip giant.
Engineering a Career
The true harbinger of Ly’s career in engineering and technology, however, was his decision to join Mt. Pleasant's Manufacturing and Industrial Technology (MIT) program.
“We took some simple tests and went to school like everyone else, but we were in this awesome program,” recalls Ly. “We got to play with robotics and CNC [computer numerically controlled] machines; we learned how to build things and how to do things right, the engineering way.”
Oddly, he almost missed the engineering boat when he selected architecture as his major at San Francisco State University. Fortunately, his college counselor talked him out of it.
“She pointed out that as an architect, I’d be working frequently with civil engineers and designing things,” Ly reminisces. “She recommended that I get my degree in civil engineering instead and then pursue my design interests on the side.”
Selling the Dream
During college, Ly worked as a salesman, first for Radio Shack, and later for Metricom Inc., an early wireless communications company based in San Jose. Metricom had developed Ricochet, the first wide-area wireless data Internet access services in the U.S.
When Ly graduated San Francisco State in 1999—he earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering with a minor in international business—Metricom offered him a full-time job.
After being promoted to Southwest Application Engineering manager a year later, Ly and his wife—his high school sweetheart—moved to Phoenix, Ariz.
“Metricom was an awesome company,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, they went belly-up in 2001, leaving me and my wife effectively stranded.”
Fortunately, newly minted wireless technology experts like Ly were very much in demand; he found his way quickly to T-Mobile, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom.
Serendipitously, one of T-Mobile’s largest wireless equipment customers at the time, a security services company in Arizona, was wrestling with a problem they hoped Ly could help solve. The company was trying to figure out how best to validate real-time requests for mobile patrol services before dispatching officers to customer sites, often in sweltering,100-degree-plus summer heat.
“I suggested they put up webcams at each customer site, then log on and take a look before sending officers,” Ly recalls. “If they saw something funny, respond as usual; if not, it was probably just the wind or an animal that had triggered the alarm.”
That brief interaction got him thinking about how emerging video monitoring tools and network technology could potentially help cities, corporations, and even private citizens remotely monitor and respond to security threats on their property.
In 2003, Ly founded Iveda Solutions to address this new opportunity. He took the company public in April 2022 (NASDAQ: IVDA).
Building Sustainable Infrastructure
The ideal smart city, Ly emphasizes, should be able to take care of minor municipal snafus without having to inconvenience or cause extra work for its citizens.
“We can use smart sensor technology in say, municipal water systems, to detect abnormal flow conditions, automatically shut off errant pumps or valves, and then alert humans to the problem,” he proposes. “Once a technician has had time to diagnose the problem, repairs can be made. In the meantime, municipal infrastructure won’t be left in jeopardy.”
Cities can also make their urban infrastructure smarter, Ly suggests, by investing in “smart (utility) pole” technology. Smart poles typically integrate intelligent LED lighting systems, Wi-Fi communications devices, video monitoring cameras, and even battery systems that can provide electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure. Smart poles can also be networked into a micro-grid to provide power for smart city infrastructure in the event of power outages
“Most modern cities already have powered light poles,” he notes. “With the addition of smart power management and wireless communications technologies, those poles can talk to each other, creating a network that can stream and analyze video footage, or manage local IoT devices such as water meters, electric meters, valves or sensors.”
Facing Infrastructure Challenges
Still, Ly admits, there are very real challenges, both physical and philosophical, to creating smart cities. For one thing, smart networks need power, a requirement usually fulfilled by municipal power systems, or, in remote locations, by renewable energy such as wind or solar. Smart network nodes, like cell towers, also need to meet a community's aesthetic requirements.
Some cities are also concerned that the large amounts of data collected by smart city infrastructure could be hacked, stolen or manipulated, potentially violating the privacy of local citizens or causing municipal functions to grind to a halt.
“With most Iveda clients, we develop the network and provide basic health monitoring of that network,” Ly emphasizes. “Our customers own the software that collects, manages and controls their data. We do not collect, store or analyze any data, unless our customer specifically asks for that service.”
He believes that Iveda’s customers are not focused primarily on privacy issues but rather on using smart city infrastructure to address municipal concerns such as transportation scheduling, security breaches or tracking of city assets.
Embracing a Smarter Future
Work days begin early in the comfortable, two-story home in Chandler, Ariz. that Ly shares with his wife, three kids, three dogs and three pet rats. He does his initial problem-solving for the day on a stationary bike, then grabs a cup of coffee and hops in his car for the 20-minute drive to Iveda’s headquarters in nearby Mesa.
The municipal infrastructures of Chandler and Mesa, Ly admits, are not yet as smart as he would prefer.
“My goal every day is to keep building out proofs of concept of smart cities in as many locations as possible on as large a scale as possible to help people adopt and adapt, then bring that experience back home,” he says. “It’s going to take time to build smart city infrastructure from the ground up.”
Going with the Flow
In the meantime, Ly has taken to channeling Bruce Lee and the late actor and martial arts expert’s philosophy to “be formless, shapeless like water.”
"Smart city infrastructure is still evolving, and we have to be one with the environment and change as necessary,” he suggests. “We can’t be rigid in our thinking, but rather allow ideas to be flexible and interchangeable. In business and in life, I try to be like water, learning along the way, making changes and adapting.”
Starting Small, Thinking Big
Ly is cautiously optimistic, however, that smart cities and smart infrastructure will gain momentum. Starting small is key, he believes, but starting is essential.
"A smart house will beget a smart neighborhood which could beget a smart city. It requires action and it won’t happen overnight, but if we’re not willing to change, we’re never going to be smart.”
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