What a difference a year can make. Organizers of the Envision America technology initiative say the momentum around civic technology and data-driven government has ramped up significantly since they held their first event in 2016.
A project of the nonprofit Envision Charlotte organization, Envision America came to life as part of former President Barack Obama’s $160 million smart cities initiative, announced in fall 2015. In its second iteration, a workshop held March 6-8, 2017 at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte brought together teams from 10 cities. This year they came not just with enthusiasm and curiosity, but also with practical ideas.
“Last year, ‘smart cities’ was still new for people. Industry talked about it, IBM and Cisco understood it, but the cities hadn’t adopted the idea,” said Amy Aussieker, executive director of Envision Charlotte. “This year we are further down the pipe.”
The 10 cities were selected from a pool of more than 40 applicants. While they brought to the table diverse civic needs and various levels of sophistication, all shared a mindset bent on practical achievement. “Last year it was: We know we want to do something, but we don’t know what," Aussieker said. "This year, they have started actual projects."
The team from Jackson, Miss., for example, brought water issues to the table. “They have very old pipes, they don’t know where all their pipes are, and they have a lot of water loss,” said Aussieker. They’re eyeing sensors as a possible fix."
Detroit officials, on the other hand, came seeking smart solutions to transportation. “They want to make it easier for people to ride different modes with a single payment. Eighty percent of their tickets are cash, people don’t just walk up with their phones to pay," she said. "So they want a system that can work across different modes within that environment."
As for the other participating cities, Birmingham, Ala., needs a better way to identify and manage more than 16,000 tax delinquent parcels; Burlington, Vt., wants to build a secure, permission-based analytics platform for all city data; Chula Vista, Calif. is looking to forge a citywide Telecommunications Master Plan (TMP) to support future connectivity, data capture, analytics and operational needs; and Providence, R.I., wants to create a 1.3-mile enhanced bus corridor through the heart of the city, with an all-electric fleet of 30 new buses.
While their needs may vary, the participating cities do share certain elements in common as they seek technology fixes for urban ills. For one thing, they all are struggling to find their footing under a new administration.
“The political climate has changed. Last year there was a lot of federal support for these things. This year cities don’t know if they are going to have that support, so they are thinking more independently. Last year we had more federal panels. Now the cities are talking about ways to do this themselves,” Aussieker said.
In fact, political changes have had a direct impact on the Envision America event itself.
Long Beach, Calif., was chosen to participate, but representatives were unable to attend. That city is one of many effectively boycotting the state of North Carolina over HB2, the so-called “bathroom bill” that gives a conservative and some claim discriminatory reading to transgender issues.
Envision America is backed by a slew of corporate supporters including AT&T, Bank of America, Cisco, IBM, Intel, Itron, Microsoft, Qualcomm Technologies Inc., SAS, Siemens, PTC/Thingworx, Wells Fargo and Philips Lighting.
In 2016 organizers asked these backers to avoid talking about products, but in this year’s event they reversed that stance, at the request of the participating cities.
“Last year we didn’t want a lot of the partners to do sales pitches," Aussieker said. "But the cities came back and said they wanted to know what new products are coming out so that they can integrate those into their thoughts as they go forward.”
Philips Lighting stepped up to describe ways in which intelligent lighting can actually drive economic activity. IBM talked up its artificial intelligence platform Watson, in a push to help cities see how data can be used to drive smarter decision-making.
Charlotte itself has been moving in that direction through its Envision Charlotte efforts. One program involved the installation of smart power meters on 64 large buildings in the city.
“A lot of cities say they want to reduce energy use by 20 percent, but how do you measure it? How do you know whether anything works? Measuring is huge for us,” said Aussieker.
The smart meters generate a granularity of data previously unavailable. “If you use the traditional meter, you get billing data. With smart meters, you get 15-minute interval data, which allows you to make smarter decisions," she said. "Why is the energy spiking every day at 10 o’clock? Interval data is key when you are trying to get energy efficiency."
Charlotte also has distinguished itself in the degree to which officials have made partnering a key element of their smart-city agenda. They describe it as public-private-plus, the “plus” being universities and utilities, two key players often left off the smart-city team.
“If you are going to focus on energy, you have to have the utilities there,” Aussieker said. “And the universities are some of the most underused assets cities have. You have a wealth of information there, plus you have an opportunity to bring in the students who will be your future workforces and give them the chance to work with corporations on businesses on real-life projects.”
Those real-life advances being made in Charlotte are a draw for Envision America participants, many of whom come looking to leverage others’ successful experiences.
Last year’s event offered “a great opportunity … to develop some strategic thinking around our approach to smart cities,” Pittsburgh’s Chief Resiliency Officer Grant Ervin said in a press release. “Providing the space to meet with leading cities and cutting-edge companies was a great network-building and learning opportunity.”
Organizers say they are hopeful that by simply making contact with one another, cities on the cutting edge of the smart endeavor may be able to up their game. “Cities learn from each other. This is the nitty-gritty stuff. These are the people who are actually implementing these projects. If someone can say — Hey, how did you handle the kiosk in the historic district? — that has tremendous value,” Aussieker said.
Looking ahead, Charlotte’s tech promoters will be casting their gaze overseas. Having heard from leading U.S. cities, they say they now are eager to take a lesson from the European Union, where data-driven government is even more firmly entrenched.
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.