Jun 11 2019

Syracuse Reaches for the Future with Smart City Plan

The first steps in the Syracuse Surge include establishing an advanced public school and converting streetlights.

Syracuse, N.Y., recently chose a smart city platform to operate its streetlights with a team that includes Cisco. "This smart investment immediately helps us achieve our vision of creating a growing city that embraces diversity and creates opportunity for all," said Mayor Ben Walsh in May, according to a news release

The partnership would help “Syracuse surge forward as the flagship smart city in New York State,” the mayor added.

The deal follows a December announcement in which the mayor unveiled the new plan called Syracuse Surge, a $200 million economic development project to prepare his city for the future.

“We’re taking the long view here," Walsh said in his State of the City address. “As we’re going into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that is going to be based on connectivity and the Internet of Things, we’re making a technology infrastructure investment that puts us ahead of every other city in the country in advancing those technologies. It puts us in a once-in-a-generation position to surge ahead to not only compete in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but to thrive in it.”

The Syracuse Surge plan includes buying 17,507 streetlights for the city to build a smart network of LED lights and renovating an abandoned high school into a regional STEAM school. (STEAM schools are focused on studies in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.)

In an interview with StateTech, Syracuse Chief Data Officer Sam Edelstein says that taking this step is necessary for a city like Syracuse, which, at its peak in the 1950s, had more than 220,000 residents and now has under 145,000. More than 32 percent of the city’s residents live in poverty.

“We know that the economy is changing in a variety of ways, and our people need to be trained and prepared for it,” Edelstein says. “We’re a midsized city with a high level of poverty, and we want our people to be prepared for those future jobs.”

Digital Transformation

Two Early Projects Set the Stage to Address City’s Needs

The new STEAM school is part of that plan, says Edelstein, adding that it will be the first of its kind regionally. It will draw students from both Syracuse and its surrounding county to allow “kids to get a top-of-the-line education that will lead to jobs in the future,” he says. The building for the school, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, has been vacant for 44 years and will cost about $90 million to renovate. The project has no estimated completion date yet.

Syracuse is also in the process of buying its light grid, which Edelstein expects to wrap up late this year or early next year. Edelstein says the city’s shift to LED lights will save millions of dollars a year

Owning streetlights is an attractive proposition for many cities beyond just the savings on lighting costs, says Naveen Lamba, a director in the public sector practice of advisory firm Grant Thornton. “Each of those streetlight poles has electricity and connectivity, so now you can put all sorts of sensors on them for very little additional cost,” he says. “It gives you access to so much more information based on how you pull it together and allows you to make decisions that earlier would have been expensive.” 

Edelstein expects the smart grid to notify workers when a light is out before anyone complains. He says they are also exploring ways that a connected grid could save employees time, like networking cameras to keep watch on Syracuse’s 1,700 vacant properties, determine when the creek that runs through the city is at or near flooding and monitor road conditions during the winter months. 

MORE FROM STATETECH: Discover how three cities call upon data to solve civic challenges

Partnerships Will Help the Syracuse Smart City Plan to Succeed

Syracuse already has a public performance dashboard and co-hosts hackathons with Syracuse University. With more data, Edelstein says that projects they work on together will expand. “Realistically, we won’t ever have the staffing to do all the work that we would like to do,” he says. Such partnerships allow others to do new things with city data sets.

Lamba says cities like Syracuse that have a university as part of their communities can benefit from similar relationships. “A university is a city. It has housing, it has retail, it has food, public safety, parking, utilities, wastewater — anything that a city has to deal with,” he says. “It’s a great laboratory to test out a number of these concepts. When deployed at the university, they can work through all the kinks, then it’s ready for deployment in the city. The concepts are already worked out.”

Getty Images/ DebraMillet