Nov 16 2020

8 Smart Cities to Watch in 2020

These cities have focused on using technology to address their residents’ urgent needs during the pandemic.

In cities across the United States, this year has been chaotic. The coronavirus pandemic, protests and civil unrest, economic disruption and more have buffeted the country’s urban areas for much of 2020.

And yet, the tumult of it all — and, especially, the pandemic — have focused city leaders’ minds on investing in the technology solutions that best meet their residents’ most pressing needs, from public health and safety to expanded internet access. For years, mayors and smart city leaders have been moving the smart city conversation away from vendor-driven technology solutions — “toys” in the words of Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson — toward more citizen-centric solutions that actually address residents’ priorities and needs.

Mayors from across the country say they are now more interested than before the pandemic in accelerating the adoption of digital city services. The vast majority of mayors also want to invest in technologies such as 5G wireless networks and universal Wi-Fi to meet residents’ need to be connected for remote work and learning.

Against this backdrop, StateTech is introducing a new crop of smart cities to watch, following up on our 2018 report that highlighted eight promising smart cities. This new batch of rising smart city stars have focused their efforts on providing the right smart city applications at the right time for their residents.

Those use cases broadly fall into six buckets: use of data analytics; expanding broadband; electric vehicles; public safety; smart streetlights; and smart mobility, meaning transportation.

The cities themselves — Aurora, Ill.; Coral Gables, Fla.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Houston; Jacksonville, Fla.; Reno, Nev.; Philadelphia; and Syracuse, N.Y. — are a geographically and demographically diverse group of urban areas, ranging from the Mountain West to the Northeast, from small cities to the nation’s fourth largest.

However, what they all have in common are leaders with vision and a driving purpose to use technology to help meet this moment, and the needs of their citizens. Here’s how.

Click each city (listed alphabetically below) to explore its smart city efforts.

Main use cases: Data analytics, broadband, public safety
Population: 197,757 (2019 estimate)
Key players: Mayor Richard Irvin, CIO Michael Pegues

What are the city’s main smart city priorities?

Instead of having a discrete area of the city to test out smart city technologies, Aurora sees the entire breadth of the city as the area for its “innovation district.” That is the heart of the city’s long-term strategic effort, called Smart Aurora.

Before the end of the year, according to CIO Michael Pegues, the Aurora City Council is expected to vote on and hopefully approve a $300 million capital investment from the investment firm Smart City Capital to create a massive public-private partnership. What innovations will that investment buy?

First up: more intelligent city services powered by data analytics. That includes smart parking decks to direct users more easily to open spaces, smarter traffic signals, sensors to provide data on pavement temperature so that the city knows how best to deploy services, and more efficient water utility management.

Another key aspect is the expansion of fiber-optic broadband connections. The city already has 120 miles of fiber-optic cable in the ground but wants to expand that to 645 miles. That will help close the digital divide in the city and attract business investment, according to Pegues.

Aurora is looking to attract $300 million in investment to turn its entire city into a smart city test bed. Source: City of Aurora, Ill. 

“We need to start looking at fiber connectivity, broadband accessibility, the same way we look at gas, water, and electricity — and then you’ve got fiber as a fourth utility,” he says.

The third piece of the puzzle is public safety, which became a higher priority following a February 2019 mass shooting in the city in which five people were killed. Aurora wants to construct a real-time crime center in 2021 that will enable more evidence-based, data-driven policing. That includes the deployment of video surveillance systems, gunshot detection sensors, license plate recognition technology and a smarter traffic routing system. Pegues says these tools will give the city’s police department “enhanced situational awareness” to respond more quickly.

How has the pandemic affected Aurora’s smart city plans?

The pandemic accelerated Aurora’s smart city plans “in a positive direction, actually,” says Pegues, and “solidified the need for smart cities” and new ways of thinking.

According to Pegues, there were some city leaders who wanted to put smart city programs on hold, but Mayor Richard Irvin pushed back on that idea. Irvin, according to Pegues, said, “What we’re seeing right now is the need for a smart city. So, you know, what I want to do is push this forward even faster.”

Michael Pegues, CIO, Aurora, Ill.
We’re not going to say that we’re the smartest city in America and things like that. But what we are saying is we’re going to learn to be the smartest.”

Michael Pegues CIO, Aurora, Ill.

What needs are being addressed through technology?

There are several needs that Aurora aims to address through its smart city approach, Pegues says, including better-run city services that save taxpayers time and money. That includes faster flowing traffic and more efficient wastewater treatment, which can lead to rebates for residents. Another is faster response times for public safety services. And a third is attracting economic investment in startup development by being an innovation sandbox.

What’s next for the city?

If the city council approves the $300 million capital investment, the plan is to start the buildout of more fiber to eventually cover all of Aurora’s 6,400 homes and businesses. Another project on the docket is a citywide smart parking service. Construction of the real-time crime center is slated to start in 2021.

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Main use cases: Data analytics, public safety, smart streetlights
Population: 49,700 (2019 estimate)
Key players: Chief Innovation Officer Raimundo Rodulfo

What are the city’s main smart city priorities?

Coral Gables, Fla., has for years been focusing its smart city efforts on improving the delivery of city services. The No. 1 priority for the city this year, according to Chief Innovation Officer Raimundo Rodulfo, has been public safety, given both the pandemic, the annual hurricane season and the need to reduce crime.

The city’s police department has been leveraging predictive analytics and data from its community intelligence center, an emergency operations center that uses data visualization, videos walls, video management systems and analytics tools for public safety and traffic management. Using artificial intelligence and the other tools in the center, Rodulfo says the city has been able to reduce crime by 40 percent in two years.

Coral Gables community intelligence center

Coral Gables, Fla., has enhanced public safety via its community intelligence center. Source: City of Coral Gables

The city also created COVID data hubs for first responders and developed COVID-related hyperlocal data hubs on the fly, connecting them in real time to local hospitals. Coral Gables had to integrate data from GIS platforms, the state of Florida, Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, then created data interfaces for local hospitals and COVID testing sites.

“So I see that the smart city initiatives in the city, in many ways, prepared us for what we are facing today because they make us more resilient and gave us a lot of capabilities from a data analytics standpoint,” Rodulfo says. “So becoming a smarter city over the years and doing all these projects was in the same path that, in a certain way, this crisis took us.”

Coral Gables also has a partnership with Florida International University to monitor the quality of the water in the city’s canals.

Another major initiative underway in Coral Gables is the development of a new kind of smart streetlight that would consolidate “smart city technologies such as 5G antennas, traffic cameras and Wi-Fi hotspots into a single apparatus,” reports Miami Today.

In the city’s downtown innovation district, where it has been testing technologies for the past five to six years, there are Wi-Fi hotspots and antennas, optical and traffic sensors, licenses plate readers and smart lighting controllers. All of those are siloed, so the city is piloting a new engineered-pole concept that would be aesthetically pleasing but capable of housing all the technologies in one system, Rodulfo says.

How has the pandemic affected Coral Gables’ smart city plans?

The pandemic accelerated the city’s digital transformation, according to Rodulfo. “I had the feeling that this was going to happen in many ways, this kind of digital transformation that we are facing now, what’s going to still happen,” he says, especially in terms of teleworking.

“Now, the pandemic accelerated that transformation,” he says. “So I am grateful to our team in the department that we have been doing those infrastructure projects over the years, without knowing that we were going to be facing this kind of crisis. But in a certain way, every year we face another crisis — the hurricane season, right? So we know how important it is to have resiliency for those emergencies.”

What needs are being addressed through technology?

In addition to public health and safety, Rodulfo says the city is focused on economic recovery and helping local businesses survive the crisis. The city’s IT department is working with the economic development arm of the city on helping local businesses develop e-commerce tools and platforms, and the capability to connect more easily with customers and suppliers.

What’s next for the city?

Coral Gables is planning to install the first of the new engineered poles early in 2021. “That is the plan,” Rodulfo says. “Of course, that’s contingent on the other capital projects that we are implementing at this time.”

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Main use cases: Electric vehicles, smart streetlights
Population: 478,221 (2019 estimate)
Key players: Support Services Director Ryan Trujillo; Office of Innovation Manager Josh Handley

What are the city’s main smart city priorities?

In 2017 and 2018, Colorado Springs developed a smart city roadmap. According to Josh Handley, manager of the office of innovation, the pandemic has forced the city to focus on technology solutions that can have a big impact on residents’ lives.

“Ultimately, we want to focus on projects that, of course, are going to provide a higher level of customer service for our citizens,” he says. “We’re looking at things that waste less, that optimize services to improve resident quality of life. We also want to ensure that anything we’re doing spurs economic development while protecting and conserving the natural environment that we have here in Colorado Springs.”

To that end, the city has focused on developing an electric vehicle readiness program, which kicked off in July, and aims to assess the city’s EV needs and barriers to EV adoption. In addition to city funding, Colorado Springs received a $1.7 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs for the program.

The long-term plan is to convert city vehicles and Colorado Springs Utilities vehicles to electric models, develop public outreach and education programs, guide policy on infrastructure ownership and land use, and identity EV charging station locations throughout the city.

Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs is revitalizing its downtown as part of tis smart city efforts. Source: City of Colorado Springs

Another key initiative, launched in February, is a smart streetlight pilot conducted in partnership with Colorado Springs Utilities. The city deployed 50 smart streetlight controllers to monitor energy consumption, set dimming schedules, reduce lighting levels and send alerts in real time if a fixture is burned out or there are other irregularities. The goal is to better manage the city’s streetlights and cut down on costs.

How has the pandemic affected Colorado Springs’ smart city plans?

The pandemic forced the city to “pivot our focus a little bit,” says Handley, and reassess the projects it had in the pipeline for 2021. For example, the city has had to rethink how it deploys smart touch-screen kiosks in the age of COVID-19. Most of the projects planned for 2020 already had funds allocated to them and remain on track, according to Ryan Trujillo, director of support services for the city. However, other forward-looking projects have either been paused, canceled or are being reassessed, Handley says, to ensure the city is addressing COVID-related concerns.

Josh Handley,  Manager, Office of Innovation, Colorado Springs
We truly understand that we’re utilizing taxpayer dollars and, because we’re doing that, we want to make sure that any project we’re working on is really going to add value and make a difference.”

Josh Handley Manager, Office of Innovation, Colorado Springs

What needs are being addressed through technology?

The city is “consistently in communication with numerous community groups to keep a pulse on what’s occurring throughout the city and see what needs there are and how we can help,” Handley says. The city’s smart city efforts are focused on wasting less, optimizing services to improve residents’ quality of life, and spurring socioeconomic development.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a sustainable and resilient future for Colorado Springs,” Handley says.

The city focused on improving safety and quality of life in its Southwest Downtown Business Improvement District via technologies such as smart trash cans and streetlights, digital kiosks and free Wi-Fi.

What’s next for the city?

Many of the pilots that were launched this year may be scaled up in 2021, Handley says, including the electric vehicle program, which could have a knock-on effect to how the city approaches its infrastructure and electrical microgrids. The plan for the EV program will be refined in the first quarter of 2021 and should be finalized in the summer.

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Main use cases: Data analytics, smart mobility
Population: 2.32 million (2019 estimate)
Key players: Mayor Sylvester Turner; Innovation Director Jesse Bounds

What are the city’s main smart city priorities?

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, dumping more than 1 trillion gallons of water on Harris County, home to the city. Houston’s flat, sprawling layout contributed to the flooding. So, the city’s smart city program has directly aligned with Houston’s resilience plan, according to Jesse Bounds, director of the Mayor’s Office of Innovation. Mayor Sylvester Turner is the chair of the nonprofit Global Resilient Cities Network, and resiliency factors into two of the smart solutions most in focus for Houston: analytics and smart mobility.

At least 70 people died as a result of Harvey, and about a half million cars took on water in the flooding, so flood mobility is a major area of focus for Houston, according to Bounds. The city is investing in flood monitoring sensors and gauges, as well as predictive modeling to determine where floods are likely to occur during rainstorms. That allows Houston to preposition first responders and alert residents via digital signage.

To better predict flooding, the Harris County Flood Control District is using analytics to study topographic information, storm water infrastructure, rain patterns and real-time weather conditions.

The city is also seeking a grant to work with a company on a computer vision solution to detect flooding by analyzing surveillance camera footage. Such technology could allow the city to monitor flooding across 600 square miles of territory.

In terms of smart mobility, the city wants to address the number of freight trains that run through the city, carrying cargo from the Port of Houston, particularly in the city’s east end. The goal is to avoid a public safety hazard because the trains can cut off neighborhoods to traffic, including first responders; smart mobility solutions would direct traffic away from such crossings.

By passively analyzing social media posts, the city was able to learn that train crossings were a major source of complaints, especially after one such crossing blocked an ambulance in 2019.

Houston train

Houston is focusing some of its smart mobility efforts on addressing trains that block traffic in parts of the city. Source: City of Houston 

Houston also has launched programs that are studying how COVID-19 is passed through wastewater, which could help determine where outbreaks are likely to occur. A startup called Water Lens, part of the city’s Ion Smart and Resilient Cities accelerator, is doing remote wastewater testing to track the virus, Bounds says. The technology helped the city determine that a homeless shelter on Houston’s east side likely had a higher prevalence of COVID-19 than was being observed; this spurred the city to conduct a mass testing event, which found more cases and ultimately prevented an outbreak.

How has the pandemic affected Houston’s smart city plans?

The pandemic has pushed Houston to look at its smart city plans through an equity lens, so it has ways to warn residents who may not have a smartphone. “We’re looking at using our smart city technology to provide services not just for those who are already digitally connected,” Bounds says. “We need to make it accessible to all.”

What needs are being addressed through technology?

The city is focusing on closing the digital divide by working on programs to expand access to broadband and digital devices, Bounds says.

“That’s not using IoT, it’s not an advanced technology,” he says. “That’s just getting technology in the hands of people who don’t have access to it right now. But you can’t be a smart city when half of your population doesn’t have access to the internet. So that’s really been our main focus right now — closing the digital divide particularly for those vulnerable populations that need to not go into public spaces, so being able to access online services.”

Houston is working with Microsoft on a pilot to deploy Wi-Fi on city buses and trains, Bounds says. And the city and the software giant are also working on an effort to reskill residents for technology jobs.

What’s next for the city?

Houston will have to continue to “scrape together” funding for a lot of its smart city projects because many of them are tied to grants, Bounds says. The city is planning to move forward on digital kiosks, which have a strong business case because they bring in advertising revenue, and they will look to partner with the private sector in those kinds of projects, Bounds says.

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Main use cases: Data analytics, smart mobility
Population: 911,507 (2019 estimate)
Key players: Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nat Ford; North Florida Transportation Planning Organization Executive Director Jeff Sheffield; Mayor Lenny Curry

What are the city’s main smart city priorities?

The city’s major smart city initiative continues to be the Bay Street Innovation Corridor, “a three-mile business, residential and entertainment segment of Bay Street in the heart of downtown,” as a website for the project describes it.

As the Jacksonville Business Journal reports, the corridor is a project that has many partners and is part of a larger regional smart city vision. It is supported by the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization, Jacksonville Transportation Authority, local utility JEA and Jax Chamber. The Business Journal notes:

The Bay Street corridor would feature 15 autonomous shuttles, a swath of TPO sensors, JEA’s dark fiber for telecommunications and potentially solar panel-lined sidewalks or roadways. It would also serve as a designated lane for businesses to field test and audition their technologies.

In late May, the JTA signed an agreement with the Federal Transit Administration to move ahead on the project, which will integrate “smart corridor technologies, advanced communications and safety features such as connected intersections, smart pedestrian signals and flood sensors,” Mass Transit magazine reports. The project includes autonomous vehicle control systems and 12 to 15 federally compliant autonomous vehicles.

The Bay Street Corridor is seen as the first step to turning North Florida into a “smart region.” Source: North Florida TPO 

North Florida TPO Executive Director Jeff Sheffield says the idea behind the corridor is to build up the smart city brand in and around Jacksonville and attract investments, making the area a test bed for new technologies.

Sheffield, who says he does not speak for the city, says the backbone of what his organization has developed is a regional project known as the Smart North Florida Data Exchange, an open-data exchange that is part of a broader “smart community” concept in the region. Jacksonville is just one local government or agency involved in the program, along with JEA, the North Florida TPO, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, the JTA and the city of St. Augustine, Fla.

The data exchange is used for all sorts of needs during the pandemic, including delivering hotspots and laptops to students without access to broadband and identifying food deserts where residents lack access to healthy food.

“All of these things are being generated primarily because of this notion of what that data exchange can be,” Sheffield says. “That thing has gone beyond its deliberate value of data sharing to being this sort of brand for the spirit of cooperation and spirit of sharing, and that’s something we never expected.”

Nonprofits, hospitals and other organizations are coming to the data exchange in search of ways to break down data siloes and address challenges, some of which are transportation-related, which the TPO can directly help with, Sheffield says. For other challenges, the Smart North Florida organization can connect residents to innovators and entrepreneurs to help solve problems, he says.

How has the pandemic affected Jacksonville’s smart city plans?

The pandemic has not necessarily accelerated anything related to the Bay Street Corridor project, according to Sheffield, because it involves reconstruction and the addition of new technologies.

Jeff Sheffield, Executive Director, North Florida Transportation Planning Organization
The holistic vision of the Bay Street Innovation Corridor was to build that brand of a smart city, with that corridor becoming a test bed for all sorts of projects and infrastructure.”

Jeff Sheffield Executive Director, North Florida Transportation Planning Organization

What needs are being addressed through technology?

Speaking of the regional approach, Sheffield says that Smart North Florida has not “roadmapped out this laundry list of community issues and challenges we’d like to address. In fact, we’ve been very organic about establishing use cases by way of engagement” with counties and local communities. By crowdsourcing ideas, the North Florida TPO learned that pavement management — while not the most exciting thing — was actually a major need for all jurisdictions in the area, and that helped attract innovators from around the country to bring solutions that could help, Sheffield says.

The Smart North Florida Data Exchange also enabled homelessness service providers in the region to share data more effectively, according to Sheffield, allowing them to normalize data sets to define whether interventions are working, and help determine the transportation needs of homeless people, he says.

What’s next for the city?

In mid-September, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority received the sixth in a series of zero-emission, autonomous test vehicles for the Bay Street Corridor project, reports local TV station WJCT. JTA also began soliciting bids for what is anticipated to be a $44 million first-phase project, according to WJCT.

JTA Vice President of Automation Bernard Schmidt told the station that JTA anticipates awarding an autonomous vehicle contract in early 2021.

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Main use cases: Data analytics, broadband, smart streetlights
Population: 1.58 million (2019 estimate)
Key players: CIO Mark Wheeler, Smart City Director Emily Yates

What are the city’s main smart city priorities?

The City of Brotherly Love is trying to live up to its namesake with its approach to smart cities, and has been looking at its programs with an eye to equity. “I think, from the start, we approached smart cities with an intentional human-centric, community-centric lens,” says Philadelphia CIO Mark Wheeler. “That’s one of the guiding principles.”

That filters into the city’s approach to the main smart city initiatives that have gotten off the ground in 2020. Emily Yates, Philadelphia’s smart city director, says that the city has been focused on how it can use data and technology to address inequities in the city. To that end, Philadelphia has launched a pilot program with Big Data company State of Place and a program at the University of Pennsylvania, Penn Praxis, which is gathering 150 different micro-scale urban data points through artificial intelligence and machine learning. That includes everything from sidewalk quality to crosswalk markings, street poles, benches, trash cans, graffiti and broken windows.

The city is going to use that data to make comparisons between privileged and underprivileged neighborhoods and “create evidence-based data that can then be used by any department that uses spatial information,” Yates says. “The goal is to create those connections between qualitative things that we know exist,” she adds.

For example, communities of color have been hit hardest by the pandemic. “With the Department of Public Health, they can take this and use it to influence their vaccination strategy, target certain communities that have been harder hit and identify where it’s best to deploy vaccinations,” Yates says.

Such data could also be used by the city’s parks and recreation department to determine where to invest in new playground equipment, Yates says. The city’s office of violence prevention is interested in the data because there is evidence that improving neighborhood quality can cut down on violence.

Another core element of Philadelphia’s smart city approach that is tied into equity is its efforts to close the digital divide. In August, the city launched PHLConnectED, a collaborative effort aimed at connecting up to 35,000 low-income K–12 student households with internet service and devices. “The program, which will also provide digital skills training and tech support for families, is an urgent response to schools moving to virtual learning in the upcoming academic year as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic,” a press release notes.

Philadelphia broadband expansion

Philadelphia has made expanding broadband access for students a key pillar of its equity-driven smart city agenda. Source: City of Philadelphia

The city and its school district, along with partners such as the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, Comcast and the William Penn Foundation, are focused on providing “free wired, high-speed, reliable broadband internet to the home from Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, or a high-speed mobile hotspot for families who are housing-insecure or need a portable option.”

As of mid-October, the city had connected 9,800 households to broadband through the program, according to Wheeler. A key challenge has been in outreach and making sure those who qualify can get access to the program, according to Wheeler. “But the great thing is our funders and our partners are so invested that we’re constantly troubleshooting and working on improvements,” he says. The city has now refocused efforts on outreach and expanding the criteria of those whom the program targets, including people who have been paying for broadband access at home.

One other major program is a smart streetlight initiative. The city hopes to release a request for proposals before the end of the year. The city’s main goal is to deploy a platform that will “not age very quickly,” Wheeler says. The city wants to ensure that it does not have competing technologies in its smart streetlights. Yates says that the streetlight project, once it’s off the ground, could “potentially serve as a backbone of connectivity and network” in the city.

How has the pandemic affected Philadelphia’s smart city plans?

The pandemic, Wheeler says, has “crystallized or galvanized” the political and operational will in the city to address longstanding problems, such as racially driven poverty, that were seen as intractable. “Now, we still need policy work, and we still need policy assessment and analysis to say that we have achieved something,” he says. “So there has to be a data approach around this, as well as a qualitative approach.”

Yates adds that the pandemic has not shifted what the city is focused on or its priorities in terms of addressing inequality. “Our goal is to create efficiencies within government, to be more resourceful with the existing resources we have, to add additional capacity to our colleagues,” she says. “And what I see as the current state is that there’s just really clear opportunity. We need to meet these metrics. We need to achieve more clearly these targets around racial equity and ensuring that the work that we move forward is not creating more harm than good. And I’ve just seen that as an opportunity to push forward the work that we do in the smart cities space, to help provide the answers to those questions for them in a clear and data-driven way.”

What needs are being addressed through technology?

Addressing inequality is the clear focus of Philadelphia’s smart city program. Wheeler notes that the city has created a smart cities advisory group because the city “needed individuals who either had connections to particular communities, like communities of color, or who themselves were working broadly in communities.”

Wheeler notes that, although the technology staff members working on smart city solutions have an urban planning background, “the social awakening that’s happened this year also has driven home many instances of just how we haven’t been able to solve some of these inequities, and we just kind of let them go on and on and on. And I think the rallying cry is just, enough is enough. Do whatever you can.”

What’s next for the city?

Yates says that as she thinks about the city’s smart city pilot projects, she is considering whether they can create both jobs and economic and environmental resiliency. “And I think all of our pilots have that capacity and need to be scaled up,” she says. “So for me, the next year is going to be spent figuring out how to scale these projects up to the broader city, to have the impact that I think that they can really have.”

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Main use cases: Data analytics, smart mobility
Population: 255,601 (2019 estimate)
Key players: IT Director Rishma Khimji

What are the city’s main smart city priorities?

Reno, Nev., had one major existing smart city priority before the pandemic hit — smart mobility — and took on another as the pandemic unfolded in the spring.

The new priority focused on digitizing and automating city services, according to Rishma Khimji, the city’s IT director. Those included simpler tasks, such as digitizing interactions that, for example, would require a resident to come into city hall to pay a bill or to get a business license. The city also accelerated the creation of a new electronic document review solution for its community development department to work remotely with developers.

This approach evolved into digitizing residents’ interactions with city officials, which is sometimes more important than the service itself; for example, how the city digitized building inspections, allowing them to be conducted via chat.

“So that inspector doesn’t have to go onsite, and we can keep with the social distancing and keep those protections in place,” Khimji says. “But what we’re looking for more and more now is, how do I provide a valuable intermediary to our citizens that they feel is still productive? It is still human-to-human contact, and it still provides the service that they need in the end.”

Another element of Reno’s smart city push is smart mobility. The city is working with the University of Nevada, Reno and the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County, Nev., to develop a testing zone for autonomous vehicle technology and pedestrian safety.

“So, we’re not just looking at what the autonomous technology looks like, but we’re also looking at how it impacts pedestrian safety,” Khimji says. “Is it better for safety, or are there some pitfalls that we need to be aware of?”

Autonomous Bus

Reno is testing autonomous vehicle technology, and the city hopes to have a fleet of buses that use the solution. Source: City of Reno

The university recently purchased lidar sensors to collect data on how vehicles and passengers interact, the local NBC affiliate reported. “The most exciting thing about this research is the data coming from the lidar sensors,” University of Nevada, Reno Civil and Environmental Engineering Associate Professor Hao Xu says, according to Nevada Today. “New, revolutionary data change the whole transportation system and prepare our roads for the future. The lidar sensors make collecting this data possible.”

How has the pandemic affected Reno’s smart city plans?

The pandemic did stall some of the technology rollouts related to the autonomous vehicle test bed, Khimji says, because staff members who were assigned to the project had to be diverted to other, more pressing needs in the early stages of the pandemic.

“But we are slowly rolling back into it,” she says, “and planning out new phases so that we can start accomplishing some goals.”

Rishma Khimji, IT Director, Reno, Nev.
There is this long-term picture that I don’t think we will ever lose sight of, because we know that there’s a benefit to UNR and to the city with this project.”

Rishma Khimji IT Director, Reno, Nev.

What needs are being addressed through technology?

Most of the projects the city’s IT arm is working on to digitize or automate services are being fast-tracked now, Khimji says. The city is also working to ensure that, with a workforce that is more remote, there is a strong-enough IT environment to support those workers and ensure that city services can still be delivered and accessed digitally.

That includes investing in better backup and disaster recovery tools, according to Khimji. Building a new disaster recovery plan had been slated for next year but was moved forward to this year “so that we can continue to support this remote work environment, as well as just a regular work environment, but feel more secure that our data is more transitory, more available and has a really good backup system in place.”

What’s next for the city?

The city is looking to get the autonomous vehicle testing project back on track and is aiming to deploy lidar sensors and connected traffic signals on a few miles of roadway, according to Khimji. UNR is tapping into the city’s network infrastructure, and the university’s engineers are working on ways to automate a bus.

The long-term plan, Khimji says, “is to get us to a point where we have a fleet of buses that are autonomously driven in this living-lab area.” If those work well, then the goal will be to study how autonomous vehicles impact pedestrian safety and the broader community.

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Main use cases: Broadband, smart streetlights
Population: 142,327 (2019 estimate)
Key players: Mayor Ben Walsh; Deputy Commissioner Jen Tifft, Department of Neighborhood and Business Development; Street Lighting Manager Ken Towsley

What are the city’s main smart city priorities?

Ever since Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh outlined his “Syracuse Surge” plan in January 2019 to revitalize the city’s economy and promote smart city solutions, a cornerstone of the strategy has been the development of a new network of smart streetlights. In late September, the city celebrated the conversion of 100,000 city streetlights to energy-efficient LED lights.

Walsh says that the smart streetlight upgrades are a “foundational” element of the city’s strategy. The new lights are owned and operated by the city, rather than a utility, which allows the city to deliver a critical service more efficiently and helps it discover outages and repair broken lights more quickly.

“And I think that’s always, from the city’s perspective, the lens through which we need to look at all of our smart city opportunities,” Walsh says, “helping us to deliver services better to our constituents, because that’s really our job.”

The city has also affixed LoRaWAN communication nodes to every streetlight, with the hope that they can serve as a “foundation of connectivity throughout the city,” Walsh adds.

Jen Tifft, deputy commissioner of the department of neighborhood and business development, says that moving forward the city is considering deploying sensors via the streetlight network to monitor the condition of vacant structures. Air and pavement temperature sensors, to better aid snowplow deployment throughout the city, might also be added.

Smart lights

Upgrading streetlights is the foundation of Syracuse's smart city plan. Source: http://syrgov.net/ledstreetlightfaqs/

“I think the opportunities are endless as technology increases in such a fast environment,” says Ken Towsley, the city’s street lighting manager.

Another aspect of the city’s smart city efforts is expanding broadband access and closing the digital divide, which has become more urgent during the pandemic as so many workers and students have had to operate remotely, Tifft says.

Syracuse has partnered with Verizon to deploy the carrier’s 5G ultrawideband network in the city and is going to deploy hotspots at community centers across Syracuse to expand access to public Wi-Fi.

“If we’re serious about being inclusive and equitable, we need a city where everyone has equitable and affordable access to the internet,” Walsh says. Tifft acknowledges, though, that the city needs a “more systemic approach” to expanding access to broadband to city residents.

How has the pandemic affected Syracuse’s smart city plans?

The pandemic, Walsh says, provided “positive reinforcement that we were making the right investments at the right time.” Bridging the digital divide has become even more of a priority for Syracuse, Walsh says, after seeing its necessity for things such as remote learning.

“I have two school-age children. I’m home with them right now,” he says. “They’ve been learning remotely all day, and I’ve had to reboot the internet twice today after they were kicked off their screens. And I think about my family and the support and the resources that we have to apply to learning remotely. I think about how challenging it is for us, and for me, it really hits home how much of a challenge it is for those in our community who don’t have the same resources, support and, frankly, the privilege that I have.”

What needs are being addressed through technology?

One of the key needs that Walsh and his team are trying to address is economic opportunity and the alleviation of poverty. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics released in 2018, Syracuse is one of 10 cities with the highest poverty rate in the country, Walsh notes.

In addition to broadband access, a lack of access to public transportation and the fact that 25 percent of the city’s residents move at least once per year were key barriers identified by the city that the Surge program needed to address.

“Connectivity is the means, opportunity is the end,” Walsh says. “So, how can we use these investments to ultimately create opportunity for the people that we serve? We defined it as our strategy for inclusive growth in the new economy, but it all focused on, again, overcoming those barriers.”

What’s next for the city?

Syracuse will continue to work with Verizon and other telecommunications providers on expanding 5G service, Walsh says. Additionally, the city is working with smart city accelerator US Ignite to develop a broader connectivity strategy for its citizens.

Walsh also aims to make strides in economic and workforce development, including training programs and curricula for jobs that are available now as well as a program called Syracuse Build, which focuses on trades and revitalizing neighborhoods. Another long-term plan is a countywide STEAM high school to educate students for the jobs of the future.

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