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Change Is in the DNA of All Smart City Initiatives

City and industry officials are gathered in Sacramento, Calif., for the annual Meeting of the Minds Summit to discuss problems and technological solutions in areas like transportation, sustainability and equity.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The evolution and deployment of city projects seldom follow a simple and predicable path. So don’t expect smart city projects to start and end without changes along the way.

This reality came into view recently when technology leaders in Sacramento and Verizon revealed they had — at least for now — shelved an initiative to deploy 15 digital kiosks around the city, as part of a larger $100 million public-private partnership to unfurl 5G communications, free Wi-Fi in public parks, a network of high-tech traffic signals and more.

In that case, Verizon said in a statement, the city’s needs “are dynamic and technology continues to evolve.”

Just because the kiosks portion of the project may be modified, the city remains committed to its partnership with the telecom and other private-sector partners to introduce smart city efforts to address various issues in Sacramento, officials said.

“The things that we talked about on all of these different fronts have changed substantively,” explained Maria MacGunigal, chief information officer of Sacramento, speaking during a panel discussion Wednesday at the annual summit.

“Maybe not the base core or issue or problem at the neighborhood level, but how we might approach it,” she added, without ever bringing up the kiosks issue. “And how we might partner, to come to the community that is actually more meaningful.”

Meeting of the Minds is a nonprofit dedicated to studying smart cities issues and solutions. The two-day summit in downtown Sacramento attracted nearly 500 attendees from around the nation and beyond to discuss urban innovation and solutions in areas like transportation, sustainability and equity.

The panel, “The Nation’s First Truly Smart Communities — What it Takes,” brought together MacGunigal; Mrinalini Ingram, vice president of Smart Communities at Verizon; Steph Stoppenhagen, business development director for connected communities with Black & Veatch; and was moderated by Ashley Hand, co-founder of CityFi, and a former chief innovation officer of Kansas City, Mo.

A central theme of the discussion centered on the issue of modifying smart city projects along the way, while still staying true to the overall goal or mission.

“Our philosophy is, you don’t start with the technology, you have to start with the issues,” said Ingram, underscoring the concept that the technology component — kiosks, intelligent traffic signals or other gadgets — is not the reason to deploy smart city projects.

The technology is only one part of a smart city initiative, Ingram stressed, adding the ability for both the public sector and private sector to manage and adjust to changes — which she termed “change management” — along the way, is essential.

“And there’s change management on the government side. There’s change management on the industry side. There’s change managment from the people who are going to be utilizing the solutions,” said Ingram.

Sacramento and Verizon began their partnership about 18 months ago. A key component has been the development of 5G communications infrastructure, which has been rolled out in many parts of the city. This foundation is an integral step to take before other pieces of technology can be installed.

And it may not be sexy, but developing the necessary infrastructure is an essential component for moving a city forward with any number of projects, whether they are related to transportation, deployment of social services, housing or economic development, IT leaders said.

“I know that the infrastructure investment, the policy framework that is necessary to build the infrastructure, is the absolutely necessary component for smart cities to be delivered in the next couple of years,” said MacGunigal. “If we don’t do that we will continue to have … individual pilots that do good things, in small installation, and they don’t scale.

“And, infrastructure isn’t the sexiest thing. It’s really hard to deliver on,” she added. “But it’s the hard, necessary work that we have to be doing in the next couple of years, and now to be able to deliver on these solutions, that we really need.”

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.