Smarter Cities' Advice to Transform Fresno, Calif.

With the first phase of the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge complete in the city of Fresno, Calif., a team of researchers shared recommendations to transform the agricultural hub into a technology leader.

by / May 16, 2013

The city of Fresno, Calif. isn’t particularly trendy or technological today, but officials are hoping to change that image and transform the city into a technology leader. On May 10, the city completed the first phase of the IBM Smarter Cities Challenge with a presentation led by six IBM researchers from around the world who made recommendations for the city’s growth based on their three-week stay.

Positioned geographically between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Fresno is in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. The region is dubbed “the food basket of the world” for its massive and diverse agricultural output, with more than 250 types of crops. By combining technology and agriculture, city officials aim to revitalize their downtown area, attract workers of the Millennial generation, and spur development of an agriculture technology sector that will allow Fresno technology to spread throughout the world -- and they’re starting now.

IBM will eventually help 100 cities over a three-year period by encouraging growth in locations they consider most promising. Fresno, which was awarded a $400,000 grant, was chosen for its great potential, said CIO Carolyn Hogg. The city’s geographic location in the center of one of the world’s largest and most diverse food supplies will allow for unprecedented agricultural technology research and development. “This is leading-edge research because it’s not found anywhere else in the world,” Hogg said. “So we can actually be the model for other countries with their market research for agriculture.”

Six IBM researchers, originally from India, China, Vietnam and the U.S., visited Fresno. The team identified a path forward for the city that aligned with the mayor’s stated goal of revitalizing the downtown area. A one-year plan and a 90-day plan were presented, and there’s no time to wait, according to Hogg. “We can’t afford to lose another entire graduating class,” she said. Finding ways to attract new business to the region and encourage agriculture technology students to stay in Fresno is central to the city’s plan.

IBM Researcher R. Govind presented a series of “quick wins” during the team’s presentation -- small, fast steps that could kickstart the city’s efforts. In addition to increased cross-agency collaboration, Govind recommended increased city support of local businesses. “In the three weeks we have been staying here, we have been enjoying parts of the downtown,” he said. “We went to the games, we went to the different amenities available, but what we missed is a sort of group cluster of availability of the entertainment options.” This recommendation will play a large role in the city’s economic development, Hogg said.

Businesses that focus on using social media experience a noticeable increase in profits, and the city will support those efforts, she said. “The economic health of those businesses has a direct correlation with the health of our city, so it makes sense for the city to be involved,” she said.

In some cases, Fresno’s technology hurdles are the opposite of what is found in many cities. When the city began looking at building a gigabit fiber network like that found in Chattanooga, Tenn., it discovered that the capability was already there, Hogg said. The city already had access to super high-speed Internet, but some downtown businesses didn’t even have websites, let alone a need for gigabit speeds. The city is ready for development, Hogg explained -- it just needs interested businesses and young people.

IBM also recommended increased data sharing across city departments, reaching out to local developers, increasing transparency and visibility of the city’s operations to improve citizen engagement and encourage people to understand and get involved in their community's development.

To get things started, Hogg said, the San Joaquin Valley Regional Broadband Consortium will hold an agriculture technology showcase on Aug. 13. Researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and California State University, Fresno will present their ideas in a Shark Tank style format to venture capitalists. Agriculture is an under-researched technology sector, Hogg said, and bringing in new companies and encouraging millennials to pursue careers in Fresno could completely transform the region. The showcase will focus on broadband technology that integrates agriculture, likely following in the vein of past efforts made by the city that were met with resistance from local telecom providers.

Many recommendations for the city involve increased collaboration, and according to Hogg,  collaboration helped get the city where it is today. Before being named a grant winner by IBM, the city was chosen by the U.S. Economic Development Administration as a winner of the Strong Cities, Strong Communities initiative. As a part of that initiative, Hogg said, city agencies began cooperating with federal agencies and with each other in new ways. Silos started getting flattened, she said, which is one of the reasons IBM chose Fresno as a Smarter City.

IBM Researcher Brian Snitzer began the IBM team’s findings presentation by highlighting the importance of collaboration. “What we found as we came to Fresno is just some extraordinary, unique differentiating assets that really make Fresno what we think’s an amazing place and set up the opportunities to move forward. … To get things done in this town isn’t going to require vast efforts. It’s going to require people working with one another,” Snitzer said.

Photo from Shutterstock.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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