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Memphis, Tenn., Positions Itself for Smart City Growth

Multibillion-dollar economic development investments in the Memphis area have city and economic leaders reimagining the region’s next chapter as a place for urban tech innovation and smart technologies.

Shutterstock/Kevin Ruck
City and economic leaders in Memphis, Tenn., hope to reimagine the historic river and music city as a place for urban tech innovation. The shift, they hope, will spur the economy, broadband access and efforts to place data at the center of decision-making.

Part of what’s positioning Memphis as a smart city is the Smart Memphis Plan, which was adopted in April and is a byproduct of the broader Memphis 3.0 Comprehensive Plan. But also, sizable private developments — like The Walk on Union, a $1.5 billion real estate development, and the coming Ford megacampus known as BlueOval City in nearby Stanton — have moved planning and economic development conversations into the more smart city and data-driven space. Ford, for its part, plans to invest $11.4 billion in the six-square-mile site where it plans to build electric vehicles and battery packs.

“The tip of the spear in the automotive innovation is occurring just on our outskirts of Memphis, Tenn.,” said Ted Townsend, chief economic development officer at the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, during a panel discussion at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo last month in suburban Washington, D.C. “We see that as a smart city development, in and of itself.”

Meanwhile, in downtown Memphis, developers are planning “the largest mixed-use development in the Southeast” with The Walk on Union development to combine residential, hotel, food and beverage, and retail. Phase I, now under development, will build more than 700 residential units. The project will also include a number of smart city technologies in areas like transportation and is seen as a jumping off point for wider urban tech deployments across the downtown area.

“We’re starting to see people come back to downtown,” remarked Paul Young, president and CEO of the Downtown Memphis Commission, in his comments on the panel.

“We really believe that the smart cities initiative is really going to take us to the next chapter,” he added.

The downtown development project is seen by the chamber as a catalyst for positioning the city as a place for smart city technology companies to consider Memphis as a place to test and experiment. Woven into this vision is a mission to grow Black entrepreneurship and expand access to broadband.

“All in all, we hope to be able to build more solutions, have those solutions encourage more investment and scale them into a community of early adopters,” said Andre Fowlkes, president of Start Co., a venture development company aimed with growing Memphis as a digital city.

“The digital city is really about trying to marry smart city infrastructure with the entrepreneurial ecosystem development. And so we think that’s very critical,” he added.
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.