“We need to look at fiber connectivity and broadband accessibility the same way we look at gas, water and electricity,” says Michael Pegues, CIO of Aurora, Ill.

Jan 14 2021

Why These 3 Locales Are Smart Cities to Watch

Find out how Aurora, Colorado Springs and Reno have used technology to address residents’ urgent needs and lay the foundation for the future.

For cities across the United States, the past year has been chaotic. The coronavirus pandemic, protests and civil unrest, economic disruption, and more buffeted the country’s urban areas throughout 2020. 

And yet, the tumult of it all — especially the pandemic — has 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 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’ connectivity needs for remote work and learning. 

These rising smart city stars have focused their efforts on providing the right smart city ­applications at the right time for their residents. 

Aurora, Ill., Invests in Intelligent City Services

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

According to CIO Michael Pegues, at press time, the Aurora City Council was set to approve a $300 million capital investment from Smart City Capital to ­create a public-private partnership in early 2021. What innovations will that 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 and more efficient water utility management. 

Another key goal 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, helping to close the digital divide and to attract business investment, Pegues says. 

“We need to look at fiber connectivity and 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 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. In recent years, Aurora has made a number of tech updates — refreshing the Cisco Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing technology that allows it to push higher bandwidths over long distances, for instance.

MORE FROM STATETECH: Find out how smart cities may grow in the years ahead. 

Colorado Springs, Colo., Focuses on Sustainability 

In 2017 and 2018, Colorado Springs, Colo., developed a smart city roadmap. Colorado Springs Innovation Manager Josh Handley says the pandemic has forced the city to focus on solutions to improve citizens’ lives.

“Ultimately, we want to focus on projects that 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 ensure that ­anything we’re doing spurs economic development while protecting the natural environment.”

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. Colorado Springs is also developing a connected vehicle platform with Panasonic, leveraging a cloud-based solution to transmit real-time data to first responders and others.

Another key initiative, launched in February 2020, 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. The goal is to better ­manage the city’s streetlights and cut down on costs. 

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

Reno, Nev., Sets Its Sights on Smart Mobility 

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

The new priority focused on digitalizing and automating city services, says Rishma Khimji, the city’s IT director. That included digitalizing simple tasks, such as interactions that would require a resident to pay a bill or to get a business license at city hall. 

Reno applied this approach to other city services, using applications to modernize interactions with the city — which has been key to making them accessible during the pandemic. For example, the city digitalized building inspections, conducting them instead via chat. 

“That inspector doesn’t go onsite, and we can keep the social distancing and those protections in place,” Khimji says. “It is still human-to-human contact, and it still provides the service that they need in the end.”

With regard to 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. 

“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?”

The pandemic stalled some of the technology rollouts related to the autonomous vehicle test bed, because staff members were diverted to other, more pressing needs, Khimji says. 

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

Photography By Bob Stefko