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Tech Leaders Offer Insights on Avoiding Pilot Project Pitfalls

Pilot projects have become a fixture of the smart city evolution. City technology leaders offered some of their own personal insights into avoiding catastrophe at the recent Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo.

Freeway traffic in New,Orleans, La.
Before launching a smart city pilot, have some idea of how to scale the technology to a broader application. Project planners should have a clear understanding of community need for any technology solution and should have well-thought-out questions for the pilot to answer.

These were some of the broader points city technology leaders wanted to make during a recent panel discussion at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in National Harbor, Md.

The pilot project has become a regular feature of urban technology rollouts. They span the gamut of transportation, broadband and city service delivery, and more.

Dan Hoffman, the city manager for Winchester, Va., who previously served as assistant city manger in Gainesville, Fla., recounted that city’s experience with an autonomous shuttle pilot project.

The AV pilot was taken on with the understanding that “it’s probably never going to fully go into production. So what exactly do we need to learn from this pilot, to make sure that we make the best use of this grant that we got from the state?” Hoffman said during the panel discussion.

“We had a list of questions that we wanted to answer about it. Our purpose was not to take this little toaster-looking autonomous bus and put it into production. We knew that was going to be much further down the line,” he added. “It doesn’t all have to work, but know the questions you are going to ask.”

Carol Boland Whattham, the project manager for sustainability and microgrids in San Jose, Calif., looks to pilots “as that first step.”

“There’s always a ‘pilot’ phase. And I really like the idea of thinking of it as not a pilot, but as a Phase I. You have to start somewhere,” said Whattham, who joked, “Getting out of pilot purgatory has become my specialty.”

If the pilot is truly envisioned as a larger deployment, consider scalability early on, said Harry Meier, deputy CIO for innovation in Mesa, Ariz. He offered communitywide Wi-Fi as an example.

“Look at that scalability up front when you're in initial conversations of building that out. Do those fast failures and pivots in the design phase,” Meier said.

In New Orleans, Chief Information Officer Kimberly LaGrue said the city plans to launch several new pilot projects in 2024, following a selection process that makes pilots community centered.

“The city is developing new working groups to assess what’s most relevant; and pilots will be community efforts,” LaGrue explained.

The projects will be vetted for what’s most relevant to the working groups, which will have a part in assessing the success of the pilots, and the future deployment of the projects.

“And we think that’s the way we’re going to grow a community of support,” she added.

Having a project — even a pilot project — be successful is beneficial for the city, but also for preserving and growing relationships with private-sector partners, LaGrue said.

LaGrue didn’t mention the city's much-reported smart city fiasco in 2022 when the director of the Mayor's Office of Utilities resigned following his involvement in a project to expand broadband access, as well as introduce traffic management technology. The deal collapsed amid accusations of bidder preference by Mayor LaToya Cantrell's administration.

“Cities tolerate a lot of risks. We generally do. Because we understand bureaucracy. Because expect that someone’s going to push back, and they’re going to say, no,” said LaGrue on the smart city panel, adding private-sector partners will tolerate some volatility in the process. “But they don’t tolerate a city that’s really an embattled city.”

“So we have to take a different approach to how we’re going to roll out projects,” she added. “We’ve had a lot of money walk away from the table in New Orleans, and we have to think about how that happened, and why it happened, and how not to have that happen again.”
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.