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Even Smaller Cities Are Starting to Turn to New Urban Tech

It's not just the major metropolises. Small cities can also benefit from technology, but sometimes struggle with fitting the right tech for their needs, along with antiquated procurement processes.

Officials in the small city of Columbus, Ind., have placed sensors around biking and multi-use trails to gain insights into how the facilities are used as well as safety trouble spots.

In South Bend, Ind., artificial intelligence is used to process road pavement conditions.

Meanwhile, Fishers, Ind., hired a team of data analysts to drill into the thousands of data points the city collects and gain new insights.

“Honestly, the biggest challenge was taking that group of people with those tools and convincing all the other departments that the interaction with those individuals were of value,” said Scott Fadness, mayor of Fishers, in a panel discussion May 25 at Purdue University’s Discovery Park, an urban tech research facility.

Fadness was part of a panel of other Indiana mayors representing small cities to explore the topic of “Smart Cities in the Heartland.” The discussion underscored the reality that cities of all sizes grapple with issues such as public engagement, road maintenance, improving operational efficiencies and budget constraints. And increasingly, cities have turned to tech solutions to aid in service delivery or improve internal operations.

Columbus, where about 20 percent of the city population is foreign born or second generation, has turned to language software to aid in its communications with residents. Some 54 different languages are spoken in the city by a wide range of nationalities and demographics.

“We’ve got Spanish speakers on staff,” said James Lienhoop, mayor of Columbus. “But we don’t have Mandarin, we don’t have Pashto … which is what we need to be able to serve those people.”

In Fishers, public works officials began looking at the many data points affiliated with mowing public areas. The city mows about 1,200 acres of grass a week.

“And the simple question you could ask yourself is, why?” remarked Fadness.

“Does it make logical sense to spend taxpayer dollars mowing the same strip of grass over and over again, when you could plant it into some sort of native planting, and not have to mow 1,200 acres,” he pondered. “It’s the basic ‘why?’ questions. But those were elusive prior to having the data to understand that that was a question that you should even ask.”

Asking the numerous “why” questions, as well as gaining insights into the expanding cache of urban tech options, is where cities might best partner with research organizations such as those in Discovery Park, say officials.

“In the world of infrastructure and smart cities, I think one of the innovations that needs to continue to evolve is this interaction between the private sector, the educational components and then the cities,” said Fadness. “Because that’s a clumsy interaction, oftentimes.

“Our cities are living laboratories,” he added. “And under the right regulatory framework, and under the right interactions, there could be a perpetual state of innovation that’s occurring.”

One area ripe for innovation is the procurement process, said panel moderator Stephen Goldsmith, former mayor of Indianapolis and a professor of urban policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

“Currently, it’s designed so that you can procure just about at the same time that technology becomes obsolete,” Goldsmith said of the “archaic” procurement process. “They don’t want to purchase yesterday’s asphalt, or yesterday’s concrete. They want to purchase innovation. The problem is, they don’t really know what that means. So there has to be a process that solicits ideas and turns them into a formal purchasing contract."
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.