Articles

How Downtown Dallas Will Transform into a Smart City

Jennifer Sanders, executive director of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, is on a mission to outfit downtown Dallas with smart technology.

by Melissa Repko, The Dallas Morning News / February 8, 2017
Jennifer Sanders, executive director and co-founder, Dallas Innovation AllianceDallas Innovation Alliance

(TNS) -- Jennifer Sanders is turning one of downtown Dallas' oldest areas, the West End, into one that's powered by smart technology, such as free public Wi-Fi, energy-efficient streetlights and sensors that measure air pollution and detect noise.

She's the executive director of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, a private-public partnership made up of the city of Dallas and more than two dozen large companies and local foundations. It's raised about $450,000 from those private partners, Sanders said.

Sanders previously worked with Dallas companies as a consultant for strategic communications and investor relations. She met Trey Bowles, the co-founder of the DIA, about six years ago at South by Southwest. She heard about his idea for the smart cities initiative and was intrigued by how technology and big data could boost safety and the quality of life in Dallas.

The first phase of the project will be unveiled in the West End in late February. It will include smart lighting, digital kiosks and environmental sensors that measure pollution and allergens. Sanders said the DIA will add other features later this year.

They may include an app that makes it easier to find a parking spot and vehicle charging stations and an irrigation system at a park that conserves water. Once they test the technology in the West End, Sanders would like to add similar technology to other parts of the city.

Sanders works in the West End and recently bought a condo there. She said she looks forward to getting a better feel for the area around the clock.

Her answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What are your top priorities for Dallas?

We're looking at energy efficiency and public safety and citizenship engagement. Mayor [Mike] Rawlings said last year that ultimately if this initiative doesn't benefit citizens directly, the function and the value isn't there. How could we help to facilitate better citizen experiences, whether it's a visitor or a resident or employees who are downtown? How can we ease their experience and interaction with the city and how they experience the city?

What do you see as some of the major challenges downtown? Do you think there are smart cities features that could address them?

The single biggest change that's driving a lot of the shifting needs and citizen demands downtown is the rapidly increasing population. Ten years ago, or even five years ago, the number of residents just wasn't there. The growth is phenomenal, but it's driving different needs for downtown. We hear a lot about grocery stores and about safety and about quality-of-life issues that weren't prevalent because people weren't there to experience them.

Smart cities can address a number of those things in different ways. ... One of the things that we know is improved lighting alone can decrease crime by 10 to 15 percent. That's just by improving lighting. That's without any of the other bells and whistles. Kansas City has already seen those results in their pilot project.

As you've gotten to know the West End, what insights have you gained?

My office has never been downtown prior to here. The sheer number of people who are walking around every day was one of the biggest surprises to me. I actually called a former roommate of mine and said, 'We have a real downtown.' I'm seeing strollers. I'm seeing dogs being walked. I'm seeing families. I just love seeing the activity. I love the number of events that are happening.

Why is it important that Dallas becomes a smart city?

It's imperative for all cities. Dallas is increasing in density in the urban core, but it also has continued sprawl. When you think about the transit system, whether that's roads or mass transit, making those efficient and accessible is such a core need. Increasing density puts a strain on infrastructure, and the sprawl impacts transit and mobility. All cities are facing a lot of the same challenges. The faster we can find solutions, the more Dallas can lead. Being ahead of the curve has a lot of benefits from an economic development standpoint, a real estate standpoint and a talent attraction standpoint, among others.

With smart cities, I think about sensors and smart parking meters. Can you give a few examples of cities using used smart technology to solve complex urban issues?

Louisville, Ky., has one of the highest instances of childhood asthma of any city in the country. They undertook a pilot where 8,000 kids had their inhalers enabled with sensors, so anytime they used their sensor, it was geolocated.

They could see hot spots and where the asthma was worse. They were able to identify the reasoning for that because in some cases, it wasn't an obvious corollary. It wasn't that there was an industrial facility right next to it. They were better able to target remediation efforts.

What was interesting is because of those insights, the kids were able to change their behaviors. They changed the route they walked to school or they were able to find new ways to get where they were going, so they knew their asthma was not going to be exacerbated.

There's also a lot of talk about the first mile and last mile, which is basically how people get to the train station and get from the last public transit stop to their end destination. Particularly in underserved communities, that's a big issue. There are a lot of pilots going on around the country about how you address first mile and last mile, such as partnerships with ride sharing or bike share programs.

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