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Social Justice, Broadband Top Priorities for Smart Cities

Smart city leaders from Houston, New Orleans and Columbus, Ohio, discussed their vision for tomorrow's cities following widespread disruptions brought on by the pandemic, economic hardships and social unrest.

Issues around equity, access to broadband and the broader social ills related to racism are finding a stronger foothold in smart city strategies.

The compounding events of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, its related economic fallout and nationwide protests calling attention to unjust policing and systematic racism are redefining how cities use technology as an instrument for achieving community goals. 

“In all of our smart city journeys, COVID has abruptly disrupted business as usual, in every way you can imagine. And then the civil unrest that’s happening in our cities certainly has called attention to the issues of equity and race that really is right to be reckoned with,” said Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus for the Columbus Partnership in Ohio.

“We really are thinking about what is a new way forward for our community,” Davis added in comments Wednesday during a panel discussion assembled by Smart Cities Connect titled "Smart Disruptors: Reimagining American Cities."

The coronavirus crisis, which either idled large segments of the economy or required workers to go remote, has laid bare lingering problems like the digital divide, as smart city leaders rethink goals around equity and inclusion. 

Sixty percent of low-income residents in New Orleans lack access to the Internet at home, said Kimberly Walker LaGrue, chief information officer for New Orleans.

“We have to start there. We have a vast digital divide to address,” said LaGrue, signaling an area where she hopes to focus some of the city’s technology and smart city efforts.

“Public Wi-Fi is top of mind,” she added in comments during the panel discussion. “That is a huge investment, so a public-private partnership works best, and is the smartest." 

The city is exploring funding sources, potentially looking at the CARES Act, the multitrillion-dollar coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in March.

“How can you become a smart city when thousands of your residents can’t connect to the Internet to participate in online learning, to participate in remote work, to do online job training in order to even qualify for unemployment benefits, or to participate in interviews remotely,” said Davis.   

Patricia Zullo, senior director of smart cities solutions for Spectrum Enterprise, said a number of cities are rethinking how some of the smart city infrastructure they’ve already deployed can be put to other, more immediate uses.  

"We’re working with cities that last year deployed sensor technologies for a particular use case, are now coming back to us and saying, we need to change… We need to capture additional data,” said Zullo, adding cities are looking for data to, “help with this crisis, or the next crisis, whatever that will be.”

Smart Columbus, said Davis, has been experimenting with “rapid prototype solutions.”

“Starting small, iterating, and building from there. I think if we can take that big innovation process, with a very high emphasis on co-design and listening to residents,” said Davis.

That sense of listening to the community, connecting with residents and developing solutions has always been a central understanding of community development. But, with so many communities in crisis, this line of thinking has never been more urgent, smart city thought leaders say. 

“Historically, I think we’ve had this very top-down approach,” said Christine Galib, senior director for the Accelerator program and director for the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator in Houston. “Where there is a government, and they push out to the people… We’ve got to close that loop, where people connect together, and communicate back to key stakeholders.”

The Accelerator connects startups with pilot project opportunities where they can work with stakeholders, “and then create that change together,” said Galib.

“That’s kind of the whole M.O., if you will, what we’re doing here in Houston,” she added. “Pilot. Learn from the pilot, and then scale up"


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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.