Cary, N.C., Tests Smart Technology in Its 'Living Lab' City Campus

Cary, N.C., is testing smart parking sensors and other technology on its city hall campus to see how they work on a small scale.

Even in some of the most tech-friendly corners of the country, officials stress there’s no harm in starting small when it comes to trying out smart city ideas.

Cary, N.C. — nestled in the state’s much-lauded Research Triangle — is doing just that. The municipality is trying out smart city projects first at its “living lab” located in the city hall complex.

“When we started thinking about how to utilize these smart technologies, we really came to the decision that we should leverage our own campus as a lab, which allows us (to) test out the technologies and prove them out before we deploy them on a much larger scale,” said Nicole Raimundo, Cary’s chief information officer. “So we want to make sure that we’re using taxpayer dollars in the best way that we can.”

The living lab projects include a community center parking lot outfitted with sensors to tell city officials when a parking space is occupied and for how long. The data, which feeds into Cisco’s Kinetic for Cities platform, is analyzed so the city can deploy the appropriate kinds of parking, when it’s needed.

“We have handicap spots over there that we like to monitor,” Raimundo said. “It’s important for us to understand that utilization. And as it reaches that threshold we can then obviously go over and add temporary parking spaces, especially around the handicap parking space, to make sure that we are providing the best service possible to our citizens and that we are continuing to meet the needs, especially as our community ages.”

The city is also equipping new streetlighting in the campus with sensors and other mechanisms to allow the lights to be studied and remotely controlled.

“We’ll be able to track exactly that energy usage. And we’ll also be able to control them … which is great because we have folks coming through that area all the time,” Raimundo said.

The Kinetic platform, which displays data on a dashboard through an assortment of graphics, makes that easier, aids the process.

“The platform is actually a tool for cities to use as they deploy smart cities solutions,” said Larry Payne, vice president of U.S. public sector sales for Cisco. “And there are multiple types of data inputs that are coming from different sensors and other devices. And so those sensors and devices, they all have different pieces of information that they’re transmitting and sending in.”

Cisco Kinetic, recently renamed and relaunched after Cisco upgraded the platform’s safety and security features, is in place with 38 cities in the U.S. and worldwide. Deploying in a living lab such as in Cary helps the company tweak its own system, Payne said. 

“(Parking is) a problem that citizens are complaining about and discussing, and we think this is going to be an interesting way for us to kind of learn from Cary,” said Payne. “So again, it’s all about improving citizen experiences.”

What Cary learns from studying parking needs at the community center will help the city determine its parking requirements in a new public library, which will include a parking structure, said Raimundo.

“And for us, this is a way to look at the utilization, check out the technology, and say, ‘OK, this is going to be the right fit to build into the new parking deck,’” she added.

Often, said Payne, cities want to launch smart technologies but are faced with funding hurdles. Cisco is introducing a new financing program called City Infrastructure Financing Acceleration. The company has $1 billion set aside in debt and equity financing, offered through the subsidiary Cisco Capital.

“What this does is it just makes it easier, it makes it faster and more affordable for a city to adopt these technologies,” said Payne. “It’s a range of solutions. Everything from traditional loans and leases all the way to a revenue-share option.

“There’s always going to be multiple challenges,” he added. “But the financing one will always be there. And this helps cities.”

Cary is not using Cisco financing, however Raimundo stressed that financing and cost were some of the reasons the city is exploring many of the smart city ideas on a campus-level scale first.

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 Sacramento.