Jan 28 2021

Street Smarts: How Syracuse, N.Y., Built a Foundation for Innovation

Enhanced connectivity and service delivery are key targets for the city, which was named one of StateTech’s eight Smart Cities to Watch in 2020.

The 17,500 LED streetlights Syracuse, N.Y., finished installing in fall 2020 are projected to provide a $3 million maintenance and energy cost savings — and connectivity that could illuminate a new smart technology course for the city.

Syracuse owns and will operate the lights, which Street Lighting Manager Ken Towsley says should increase public safety and make the repair process more efficient.

“If you have to rely on a power company to fix your lights, you’re at their mercy; we can address that a lot sooner,” Towsley says. “We will be able to increase them, turn them on, turn them off. Perhaps we find a street has enough lighting and can have them all dimmed at 80, 90 percent; if there’s a 911 call, we can turn that up to 100 percent to help the first responders.”

Each streetlight has been outfitted with a LoRaWAN (low-power wide-area network) communicate node — enabling smart grid capabilities the city hopes will facilitate a number of other service-related initiatives, such as using sensors to monitor vacant structures’ condition, according to Jennifer Tifft, deputy commissioner of the Syracuse Department of Neighborhood and Business Development.

“The network that underpins the streetlight system is really, in some ways, the data backbone; all those other devices we can then just add on,” Tifft says. “We’re looking at deploying sensors to monitor things like the water system that serves our residential neighborhoods, air, as well as road temperature and things like humidity and how that impacts snowfalls to help with better deployment of our snowplows during the winter.”

Syracuse Aims to Improve Broadband Access 

These tentpole technology innovations constituted one of the reasons that StateTech named Syracuse one of eight Smart Cities to Watch in 2020. Syracuse has emerged as a leader for investment in technology solutions that meet the needs of its residents, ranging from public safety to internet access.

Where internet access is concerned, addressing the digital divide is also a central goal for Syracuse, where currently approximately 40 to 45 percent of homes lack broadband access, according to Tifft.

As part of an effort to expand the amount of publicly available Wi-Fi, the city plans to install Wi-Fi nodes at six community centers — locations where a number of residents frequently gather, Tifft says — extending the network to external campuses around the centers.

Smart streetlights are the cornerstone of Syracuse’s smart city vision. Source: New York Power Authority

“Connectivity has become a really important component for a lot of cities, given how much emphasis we’re putting on remote learning and working remotely,” she says. “Some parts of our city are already wired with fiber, and we provide broadband at public buildings like city hall and the schools provide access. The pandemic has really underscored the need to come up with a much more comprehensive approach to addressing connectivity and accessibility — which is going to take partnership across a number of different entities.”

Syracuse is currently working with several organizations to augment the area’s tech capabilities — including Verizon, which launched 5G service in parts of the city in 2020.

“We were interested in being one of the first cities to really engage the private sector in 5G deployment because we think it’s so critical for the future,” Tifft says. “It’s not necessarily something carriers are doing to address the digital divide, but the chance comes up as these devices are installed for us to work with potential partners like Verizon and say, ‘How could we work this into a system of solutions to help address that?’”

Syracuse is also collaborating with US Ignite, a nonprofit organization that helps cities advance smart technology use by pairing financial investment with technical and organizational expertise.

Microsoft Partnership Supports Infrastructure Investment Strategy

Microsoft announced a partnership in October 2019 with the city, Onondaga County and Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, also known as the iSchool, to establish the corporation’s first smart cities technology hub in the Northeast.

The affiliation, according to a press release from the school, is expected to help advance the “Syracuse Surge” economic development strategy, which touches on infrastructure investments and meeting tech-related workforce needs.

Microsoft’s plans include working with education providers and community organizations on digital literacy and workforce training and supporting artificial intelligence-related research and development in the area.

Since the technology hub announcement, the company has contributed to curriculum planning efforts for a new STEAM-focused school that will admit students from both the city and around the county, according to Tifft.

During the pandemic, Microsoft also helped develop a risk assessment tool to answer citizens’ questions about the coronavirus.

“They were able to work with SUNY Upstate Medical University and developed, essentially, a bot that allowed people to check their symptoms and evaluate whether or not they might have COVID,” says Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh. “That was something that wouldn’t have happened without Microsoft being at the table.”

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

Syracuse May Boost Collaboration with External Partners 

In October, Microsoft also served as a partner for the first Syracuse Surge Summit, a virtual event involving global tech leaders and local businesses designed to highlight partnerships and emerging tech opportunities in the area.

Jennifer Tifft, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, Syracuse, N.Y.
The pandemic has really underscored the need to come up with a much more comprehensive approach to addressing connectivity and accessibility — which is going to take partnership across a number of different entities.”

Jennifer Tifft Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, Syracuse, N.Y.

Syracuse’s experiences working with organizations like Microsoft has helped the city pivot over time from its initial plan to set up a simple command center for oversight of its streetlight network to one involving a New York state-focused facility for smart cities, Walsh says.

“We saw opportunities to create a much more dynamic space, where you could have city employees managing our streetlight network and other technology infrastructure, working side by side with Microsoft, local entrepreneurs and researchers from our educational and medical institutions,” he says. “We are currently in the process of developing the programming model for the center, and then next, we’ll be developing the financial model.”

In the coming months, Syracuse will focus on advancing plans for the New York Center for Smart Cities — and utilizing its streetlight network as a foundation to add smart tech items that will produce tangible, and potentially transformational, economic results.

“Technology addressing a need, as opposed to technology for the sake of technology, is critically important for us,” Walsh says. “It’s easy to be tempted by all of the different technology that’s 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. We have some significant technology infrastructure in place and we want to continue to build upon that.”

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