Nicole Dupuis, National League of Cities; Cheryl Brothers, Fountain Valley, Ca.; Eugene Grant, mayor, Seat Pleasant, Md.; Jennifer Robinson, councilwoman, Cary, N.C.; Terry Yates, smart cities innovator, Cary

Oct 04 2017

Smart Cities Week 2017: 3 Tips to Help Small Cities Make Connected Tech Possible

IT leaders and elected officials from three towns embracing connected tech offer advice for those looking to follow in their smart city footsteps.

While smart city initiatives in big cities like Boston and New York may be getting all the hype, smaller cities and towns across the nation aren’t about to be left in the dust. With tech upgrades like smart street lights and stoplights carrying tangible cost and quality-of-life benefits for residents, towns have begun calling on connected tech deployments.

And these smaller metropolitan areas may, in fact, be finding their way to clear ROI for these projects faster than their big-city counterparts.

recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and analytics firm IHS Markit found that “smaller cities tend to focus on smart city projects that deliver a clear, tangible return on investment, such as smart street lighting or resource management, rather than more experimental projects.”

To speak about how less-populous metropolises can launch smart city programs and begin seeing cost and service benefits, IT leaders and elected officials from Cary, N.C., Seat Pleasant, Md., and Fountain Valley, Calif., gathered at the panel “The Next Generation of Small and Smart Cities” during Smart Cities Week 2017 in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

So how can the thousands of smaller cities get on board with smart city tech? The experts provided these tips to small and medium-sized cities looking to launch their own smart city projects in the future.

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1. Upgrade When You Have the Chance

Many smaller cities with less staff may not have the wherewithal to launch a smart city project from scratch, but that’s not always necessary. In Cary, a growing city with a population of 155,227, city officials took advantage of the need to upgrade water meters to make the jump to connected tech and reap the benefits of the smart tracking data it provides.

Look for opportunities,” said Jennifer Robinson, councilwoman for Cary, noting that when it came time to replace the city’s water meters, it was a staff member who suggested switching to an automated meter infrastructure instead of just replacing them with static technology.

“That has been a phenomenal project,” she said. “Our residents are so engaged. They love that they can look at the web portal and see their hourly water usage.”

But more than that, the city is also able to better monitor and alert residents to water leaks so homeowners know about an issue before being slapped with a costly water bill.

2. Avoid Silos at All Costs

As smart city projects begin to take off, it can be natural for each department to build its own projects, but merging that data is fundamental to the operations of a city, said Robinson.

“You have to have a backbone of data and unified platform, and the reason why is because you want your parks department to talk to your police department,” she says, noting that Cary was able to correlate data between park activities and crime because it was able to merge those two sources. “You can have all sorts of amazing findings if you just put that data together.”

It’s also important to get everyone on board in advance, particularly leadership that can help to break down those natural silos in government operations.

“As elected officials, you don’t want to hear about it after the fact. You want to go on the journey with them,” she says. “Bring those elected officials along.”

3. Make Sure Citizens Are Along for the Ride

Alongside breaking down silos in government operations, making sure that citizens are able to effectively participate in and take advantage of smart city offerings is essential to continued success.

“In Seat Pleasant … we are going to provide internet access for the entire population,” said Eugene Grant, mayor of the town of fewer than 5,000 residents. Seat Pleasant has partnered with companies like IBM with the aim of becoming a future tech hub in order to drive opportunity and economic development.

“But if we’re talking about equity, we have to talk about the full spectrum of equity. It’s not just about connectivity, but it’s also about the adoption of it,” said Grant. “So, how do we educate our residents to understand what it means to have access to it? There’s more to it than surfing on the internet for entertainment purposes … there are true value adds there to having the connectivity.”

To help bridge the gap, the town’s Public Engagement Office will offer classes and training that will help residents understand how to make the best use of the technology at hand.

Moreover, the town is also working to ensure that residents have the skills necessary to take advantage of the job opportunities that come along with new technology.

We have created a partnership with Prince George’s Community College to work out the workforce aspect of [smart city technologies]. We have all these new technologies coming in, so we need to train our residents to participate,” Grant said.

Read more from StateTech’s coverage of Smart Cities Week 2017 here.

Juliet Van Wagenen

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