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Dallas Innovation Alliance Accelerates Smart City Projects

The Smart Cities Living Lab is a test bed for numerous smart technologies in downtown Dallas that has become a mecca for tourism and the arts.

Wander into West End Historic District in downtown Dallas — an area rich with the city’s culture and past — and you have strolled into what will likely be the city’s future.
This four-block corridor, known as the Smart Cities Living Lab, has numerous projects in the testing and development phase. There are 23 new smart streetlights, complete with intelligent controls and highly efficient LED lighting. Smart irrigation controls the watering on Dealey Plaza’s famed “grassy knoll,” which takes into consideration weather data to measure out the correct amount of water without over irrigating. Parking can be located and paid for via the ParkHub app.
These are some of the nine smart city projects led by the Dallas Innovation Alliance, a nonprofit that has brought together officials from City Hall, the private sector and research to establish a test bed for technology in a part of Dallas that offers a cross-section of urban life. Today, DIA works with more than 20 city departments and even more “partner organizations.”
“What we wanted to do is put several different smart technologies into a compressed geographic area, so that we could understand not just how is each individual solution performing, but how could we utilize the data across projects,” explained Jennifer Sanders, executive director of the Dallas Innovation Alliance.
“We really wanted to have that cross-project insight,” she continued. “And having built that infrastructure, we wanted to bring in as many early stage companies as we could, along side the established corporations. And having this framework in place now, with these nine projects gives us the opportunity to pull in even more early stage companies and technologies.”
The Dallas Innovation Alliance was formed in 2015, with the idea that a stand-alone organization tends to be more nimble when it comes to lining up private-sector partners or launching projects.
“A free-standing organization can move quickly,” explained Sanders.
“I get calls every week from a new city that wants to just understand how this got built and could be built in their city,” she added. 
“Certainly in government, there’s a lot of bureaucracy,” said Bill Finch, chief innovation officer for Dallas. “We’re not as flexible as the private sector would be – and I’ve worked in both.”
Doing a public-private partnership frees up the city’s ability to work with different technology providers without having to go through regular processes, according to Finch. “And so you can look at a lot more things at a much faster clip,” he said.
The city’s role in the alliance is to provide expertise in ranging from operations, data analysis or other areas. “It just varies according to project,” said Finch. 
It took DIA about 10 months to move from setting out what projects it wanted to pursue, to launching them.
“The idea is obviously, that the city picks up and scales,” said Sanders. “We would not be the entity that’s appropriate to scale the project.
“Our hope is to help the city not only know what they’d like to scale, but know really exactly what it is they’re looking for, when they write that RFP,” she continued.
The intelligent streetlight project is one the city is considering rolling out across its nearly 90,000 streetlamps, which Finch believes can provide the city with lots of value.
“But when we’re looking at that asset or fixture, it’s not just lighting,” he added, noting lighting fixtures can house any number of connected smart city components. “That can create quite an infrastructure for a lot of things.”
Finch said an advantage to testing projects through the alliance is that it comes at no cost to the city. However, the city did install a public Wi-Fi network in the area, which in the future could offer a funding opportunity through the sale of advertising.
Some of the private-sector partners reads like a who’s who of the smart cities and Internet of Things tech world: AT&T, Cisco, Itrons, Nokia and others. 
“The City of Dallas is doing important work, testing solutions that can lead to improved public safety, citizen engagement and environmental sustainability,” said Mike Zeto, general manager of AT&T Smart Cities, in a statement. “Key learnings from the Living Lab will prove invaluable as we work to scale these types of solutions to more cities across the country.”
Already, businesses in the West End are analyzing data related to foot traffic to better develop marketing and advertising efforts. Revenue in the area grew 16.9 percent since the same period last year, according to DIA statistics, with actual customer traffic up 7 percent.
DIA officials want to next focus on south Dallas, an area significantly more economically depressed, in an effort to use smart cities technologies to expand equity across the city, improving access to mobility, shopping and more.
“Initially, five, 10, 15 years ago, ‘smart cities’ was kind of an incomprehensible statement and there was a belief, maybe outside the industry, that it was very tech-focused. And we believe that technology is a catalyst, but this is about people,” Sanders stressed. “And we’re talking about solving problems. We’re talking about improving quality of life. And starting in the urban core made a lot of sense for a lot of reasons, in terms of having a microcosm of the city, in terms of having more density … But it was always about how do we bridge gaps and maximize resources when tackling some of these issues of transportation and public safety and digital divide.”
DIA will partner with Toyota to explore how to improve mobility in the area and shorten travel times and more broadly, explore how to better deliver city services.
“If you live in a food desert and a health care desert and it takes you two hours on public transit to get to the grocery store, chances are you’re living in an area with high diabetes and poor cardiovascular health, because there just isn’t that kind of time to put into eating healthy,” said Sanders. “So how do we bring food to these communities.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.