Dec 01 2020

Q&A: Syracuse, N.Y., Mayor Ben Walsh on the Importance of Expanding Connectivity

The city has made its new smart streetlight network the foundation of its smart city plans — and it’s just getting started.

Syracuse, N.Y., Mayor Ben Walsh first outlined his Syracuse Surge plan in January 2019 to revitalize the city’s economy and promote smart city solutions.

Since then, the city has been focused on delivering the foundation of that strategy: 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. However, the streetlight network represents just the start of a more complex effort to expand broadband connectivity throughout the city and make sure the 21st-century economy delivers growth and benefits for all the upstate New York city’s residents. The urgency to address those concerns has only heightened during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Walsh.

That vision is one of the reasons Syracuse is one of eight smart cities to watch in 2020 and beyondStateTech spoke recently with Walsh about what the city has been focused on in 2020 and where its smart city plans will go from here.

STATETECH: What are the one or two smart city use cases that Syracuse has been focused on in 2020?

Walsh: When we first started putting the pieces of Syracuse Surge together, it was based on a couple of key factors. One, we felt that when we surveyed the landscape and looked at what was driving jobs in the new economy, looked at what was needed to support these businesses in the new economy, connectivity was the common factor. We started with a basic premise that connectivity is the capital of the new economy. We started to look at how we could make strategic investments to enhance connectivity within the city and within the region that complemented a number of initiatives already underway. We had made significant investments in the unmanned aerial systems area. We were increasingly focused on the Internet of Things and AI. Again, for all of those industry sectors connectivity is key. That was the first part.

The second part was, as we’re making these investments, how do we ensure that we are creating opportunities for all in our community? Historically, most economic development efforts are not particularly inclusive, and in some cases are arguably exclusive. When you look specifically at the tech industry, that lack of inclusivity is even more pronounced. First and foremost, it was the right thing to do. Secondarily, because we really felt like that could differentiate our efforts from others, we wanted to make a lot of it closely tied to our workforce development and our educational efforts to ensure that the new opportunities that we were pursuing in the new economy were inclusive.

So, that’s kind of the background and context in terms of what we’ve been focused on over the past year. Really, what we felt was a foundational element and investment in Surge was our smart streetlight initiative. It was a way to deliver a key service more efficiently and effectively to our constituents. I think that that’s always, from the city’s perspective, the lens that we need to look at all of our smart city opportunities through: Is this helping us to deliver services better to our constituents? Because that’s really our job.

Beyond that, are there other related benefits to these investments that can create new opportunities? Again, we thought that the streetlight network checked all those boxes. It allowed us to deliver a better lighting service at a lower cost. Through the associated technology, by affixing smart nodes in each one of those lights, we were creating a foundation of connectivity throughout the city that we could then build upon.

For us, while we’ve pursued a number of related projects and opportunities, the streetlight network was really the foundation. We felt like, in order to make sure that we remain credible to our stakeholders, that we are engaging with the vision of Surge, we needed to execute effectively on that project. I believe we have; we’re just about done with the conversion. We’re moving into the next phase now, where we’re going to be affixing sensors to the lights to try to deliver better services to our constituents. Also through that process, we will hopefully create some opportunities for partnerships, whether it’s with the private sector or eds and meds in town. That’s the next step.

MORE FROM STATETECH: How are mayors thinking about technology investments amid the pandemic?

STATETECH: What’s the long-term vision of the streetlight network? Does the city plan to add new sensors to those nodes?

Walsh: It starts with delivering better services to our constituents. So, looking at measuring things like the level of Onondaga Creek to monitor potential flooding in different parts of the city. Measuring air quality, street condition, so we know when we have ice forming on our streets, so we more effectively deploy our salt trucks and our plows. Monitoring vacant properties, so that we can ensure that they’re not creating a public safety issue in our neighborhoods. Those are a few examples of services and the things that we’ll use the sensors to monitor.

Ben Walsh
Where I want to get to is figuring out how to leverage that investment to ultimately enhance internet connectivity throughout the city.”

Ben Walsh Mayor, Syracuse, N.Y.

Where I want to get to is figuring out how to leverage that investment to ultimately enhance internet connectivity throughout the city. We knew that connectivity was important before the pandemic, but now, six months into it, it’s an imperative. If we are serious about being inclusive and equitable, we need to be a city where everyone has equitable and affordable access to the internet.

That’s why I have a parallel track: We’ve partnered with Verizon on a 5G deployment. That was recently launched, and we’re continuing to build out that infrastructure. As part of the next step with our streetlight project, we’re going to be deploying Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the city around community centers. That’s important technology infrastructure, hopefully leading us to that point where affordable internet access is ubiquitous in the city of Syracuse. It’s an economic imperative.

STATETECH: How did the pandemic either shift or sharpen the city’s smart city initiatives?

Walsh: More sharpen than shift. I think it was very much positive reinforcement that we were making the right investments at the right time. The point about internet connectivity and bridging the digital divide, that was always a priority for us, but I think it became even more of a priority after seeing firsthand the impact of not having equitable and affordable access to internet across the city.

I have two school-age children. I’m home with them right now. They’ve been learning remotely all day. I’ve had to reboot the internet twice today after they got off their screens. I think about my family and the support and the resources that we have to apply to learning remotely. Then I think about how challenging it is for us. That. for me. really drives home how much of a challenge it is for those in our community that don’t have the same resources and support — and, frankly, the privilege that I do. Not to mention the challenges of operating a city remotely. It really sharpened my focus and the Syracuse Surge’s focus on bridging the digital divide.

READ MORE: How are smart city leaders addressing the digital divide?

STATETECH: What specific needs is the city looking to fill with its smart city efforts? Is it mainly the connectivity piece, or is it something beyond that?

Walsh: I think ultimately the connectivity is the means, opportunity is the end. How can we use these investments to ultimately create opportunity for the people that we serve? Taking a step back, one of the intervening factors to developing Surge was back in 2018, my first year in office. Census numbers came out and it showed that Syracuse was in the top 10 for the highest poverty rate of cities across the country. That is the last top 10 list you would ever want to be on. Of course, we live here, we see the impacts of poverty all around us. But to see it in that in that light was a moment of reckoning for me where I said, ‘OK, we need to do something about this.’

I brought a number of members of my team together: all of our best data analysts; our Office of Accountability, Performance and Innovation; our Department of Neighborhood and Business Development. I challenged them to really dig into our poverty statistics and try to pull out what the factors are, what the barriers are. What are the factors, when you compare us to other communities, that differentiate us in the wrong way in terms of what’s contributing to poverty? Through that came a number of points that helped to inform the Surge strategy. We’ve been talking a lot about internet connectivity, but it showed, not surprisingly, that over half of our households did not have access to a computer with an internet connection in the city. That was a key barrier that we needed to overcome.

Another barrier was transportation. We do not have a robust public transportation system in the city. And that is a significant barrier to connecting people to opportunity — simply getting people to jobs.

Housing stability. We’ve been talking a lot about the tech-related components of Surge but there’s more to it than that. One of the statistics pulled from that analysis was that 25 percent of people that live in the city of Syracuse move at least once per year. You think about how disruptive that is to families and the households, how disruptive it is to kids trying to get an education, to adults trying to get to jobs. Not to mention how hard it makes it to develop any sense of community within neighborhoods.

Those are a few of the barriers. Money of course, education in general. We tried to take those barriers and identify specific initiatives intended to help us overcome those barriers. When you pull all of that together, that’s ultimately what became Syracuse Surge. We defined it as our strategy for inclusive growth in the new economy, but it was focused on overcoming those barriers.

EXPLORE: What can cities do to get back to basics and use data effectively?

STATETECH: What is the city looking to do next year in terms of smart city initiatives?

Walsh: A few things come to mind, but the point about the technology addressing a need as opposed to technology for the sake of technology is critically important for us. It’s easy once you start getting into the smart city arena to be tempted by all of the different technologies out there. But if it’s not rooted in what the true needs are in the community, then it’s not going to ultimately be effective, or at least not transformational, which is what we’re shooting for here.

As I look over the course of the next year, we have some significant technology infrastructure in place. We want to continue to build upon that. And I think we are well on our way.

Verizon continues to build out its 5G network. Other telecom companies have approached us, and we’ll be engaging in those negotiations. We’re working with US Ignite to develop a broader internet connectivity strategy for the city. That will continue.

Where really want to see us make strides over the course of the next year is on the education and workforce development side. Pre-pandemic, we knew that our biggest challenge in terms of economic opportunity was connecting people to jobs that were available. Jobs were available. Employers couldn’t find people to fill the jobs that they had available.

Ben Walsh
Is this helping us to deliver services better to our constituents? Because that’s really our job.”

Ben Walsh Mayor, Syracuse, N.Y.

It wasn’t too long ago that when you asked a business, “What’s your biggest challenge?” they might talk about taxes. They might talk about not having the right site availability or infrastructure. Across the board, when you talked to employers before the pandemic, it was, “We cannot find people to fill our positions.”

Interestingly, you talk to those same employers now, even as the economy has slowed down significantly, and they have the same need. That need is still there. There are still a lot of job opportunities out there. Certain services, certain industries obviously have been decimated, but many are still strong. So, that problem still exists. We’ve identified a number of initiatives to specifically address that — some that we’ll address in the short term, others that we’ll address mid- to long-term. I really want to see us make significant progress there.

One example for more of a long-term solution is the proposed countywide STEAM high school — making sure, beginning in high school, that young people are given the skills and the tools they need to be competitive in the new economy, whether they decide to go to college or if they want to go right into the workforce.

We think that STEAM curriculum is critically important to preparing our young people for the jobs of the new economy. So, that project is just about ready to move forward. We have our state support locked in. We’ve been negotiating with the school district and the county on a lease for the building. That’s going to be a significant step, and one that we’re going to be focused on this year.

Also on the workforce development front, continuing to develop specific training programs and curriculums to train people for the jobs that are available right now. We launched an initiative that we call Syracuse Build that’s focused more on trade opportunities. This is with the idea that one of the most significant projects we’ve had in a generation that’s in the pipeline is Interstate 81. We’re hoping within the next year or two to get started removing a significant portion of the elevated viaduct of 81 as it goes through downtown, rerouting through traffic around the city and bringing the rest of the traffic down. That’s an opportunity that, if it started tomorrow, the vast majority of the workforce would come from outside the community because we just don’t have the workforce pipeline. Syracuse Build is intended to help build up that pipeline.

Getting back to more new economy jobs, we have an example of a project that has followed on the Surge initiative. A local company by the name of JMA Wireless, which manufacturers 5G wireless equipment, purchased a building just south of downtown on the south side, a historically underrepresented and marginalized community, and is building out their factory to manufacture high tech 5G equipment.

While the product is very high tech, the process, those are accessible jobs where we just have to get people in the right training opportunities. We’re working with JMA and a number of other employers to develop a specific workforce development curriculum that will provide opportunities for people in the city to actually fill these jobs. The education and workforce development is going to be a big focus over the next year.