'Technology alone cannot solve our problems': Top takeaways from Smart Regions Conference
Speakers in Columbus, OH, emphasized the need for cities to put people first, but the age gap between elected leaders and smart city proponents could be a hindrance.
COLUMBUS, OH — Cities aiming to become smarter should look to cooperate heavily with their neighbors, but be careful to ensure they keep people — not technology — at the forefront of any experiments in technological innovation.
Those were some of the key lessons from the Smart Regions Conference, hosted by smart city investment firm Venture Smarter in Columbus, OH over two days late last week.
Attendees heard discussions around the need for regionalism as cities work to get smarter, with speakers also noting other areas such as resiliency can be boosted when cities work together.
That collaboration has already been fostered in initiatives including the Congressional Smart Cities Caucus, U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) Smart City Challenge and Smart Infrastructure Challenge, with the winners of the latter being unveiled at this conference. All those initiatives look beyond technology and urge participants to keep people and real-life issues front-of-mind.
“Technology alone cannot solve our problems," Zack Huhn, Venture Smarter CEO and co-founder, said during a speech at the start of the conference.
Put the people first
While innovation and new technology can be exciting for cities to introduce, staying focused on using that technology to improve their residents’ lives should remain the top priority, multiple speakers said.
In a speech, Matthew Bailey, smart cities global practice leader at Arrow Electronics, cited the United Nations’ mission statement for smart communities, which states, “No one must be left behind.” In a similar vein, Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin said cities must learn from the video presentation by Pittsburgh during the USDOT challenge, which finished with the last line, "If it's not for all, it's not for us."
Hardin cited one of the initiatives Columbus will roll out as the winner of the USDOT smart city grant, which will connect low-income expectant mothers on Medicaid with on-demand transportation to medical appointments. That, he said, will help the city’s infant mortality rate and do so by leveraging technology in a tangible way.
“It is about the technology, but the people have to be at the center of all the conversations we have," Hardin said.
Meanwhile, the city of Seat Pleasant, MD has worked to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) onto its official website by using IBM’s Watson. In three years, it will have learned everything possible about the city and so can answer any question, a lesson that Mayor Eugene Grant said builds on “customer-centric” values.
"We're saying that we are citizen-centric,” Grant said during a panel discussion. “Everything that we do must be about the citizen, and because of that the results have been a higher satisfaction among our residents. It's not about getting focused on the technology itself. It's about getting focused on the citizens and their satisfaction in the jurisdiction where they live."
Nowhere is the need to be cognizant of people’s needs and issues more apparent than on autonomous vehicles (AVs). A Gallup poll earlier this year found 54% of adults are “unlikely” to use them, with those numbers affected by events such as the fatal pedestrian collision in Tempe, AZ.
During a panel discussion, John Tucker, sales specialist at traffic technology company Path Master, said it will take more education of the public to convince them to ride in an AV, especially as the technology becomes more widespread. But it might take a while, he noted.
"It's almost like a grassroots operation. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It's a slow, steady process," Tucker said.
Ohio State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, which explores everyday AV usage, noted convincing more people to take a ride in an AV is a key area of their research. Beth Snoke, director of OSU’s transportation and traffic management, said during the same panel discussion that “word of mouth and practice is going to show that it's a viable option."
Overall, Grant said governments must think differently about how they deliver services — especially new technologies — and while it may not be popular, take cues from how the private sector rolls out innovation.
"We have to change the mindset first, of government,” Grant said. “We actually run our government like a corporation. Business processes, a business mind, and I know some people get upset with me about that. But we have to be accountable to the taxpayer, our jurisdiction.”
“Many of our mayors are not of the younger generation, and don't see the possibilities, don't see what a smart city is."
Mayor, Riverside, OH
Generation gap could slow smart city progress
During a roundtable of mayors, several raised concerns that the age gap between elected officials at the city level and those who are looking to promote smart city technology and innovations, as the older generations are typically the ones in power and are sometimes distrustful of new technology.
“Many of our mayors are not of the younger generation, and don't see the possibilities, don't see what a smart city is,” Riverside, OH Mayor Bill Flaute said. “Very few of them if they get it in their email, and I'm one of them sometimes also, will see an email from a smart city and I go, 'Oh, OK,' and I'll go onto the next one.”
While it can be exciting to present smart city visions, mistrust can surface when it comes to appropriating money for such projects. Mayor Joel Robideaux of Lafayette, LA said it can be difficult to sell fellow elected leaders on innovations like AI, augmented reality (AR) and cryptocurrency given other, more pressing short-term needs.
“So you can have this vision of all these really great things, but when you sit down with your council members and say, 'We need to spend money on a smart city initiative,' and let's just say it's $1 million,” Robideaux said. “They're going to come back and say, 'How about you spend it digging out that ditch that's in this neighborhood that's flooded three times?' That's the reality that we face.”
Instead, Robideaux said, progress at the city council level typically comes in small increments, and that even though it may take longer than planned to implement an innovative vision, it can happen with persistence.
Flaute said a generational shift at the elected level could help advance smart city agendas if more young people are encouraged to run for political office and commit to a life of public service. A similar shift may already be underway at the mayoral level ahead of this year’s elections, with an increasing number of women running to lead their cities.
“We need you young people to step up,” Flaute said. “You all have goals in your city that you want to make happen, but the mayor and council are the ones who are going to be giving you the money to do that … We're from a different generation, and I think that's one of the bigger impediments that we're seeing.”
A safe and resilient city is a smart city
While technology can be used for all manner of good in cities, a key tenet should be its use for public safety and resiliency, according to multiple experts in the space. If technology can be harnessed to keep residents safe, cities will see a great benefit.
"Our service is very personal, but we do see the need for technology," Newtown, OH Police Chief Tom Synan said during a panel discussion on public safety. During the conference, Synan was part of a coalition of public safety officials, business, university and city leaders that signed a pact to share data and use technology to fight the drug addiction crisis in Southwest Ohio.
In addition to a technology-based effort against the opioid crisis, cities’ public safety departments are continuing to find new ways to leverage technology.
The Cosumnes Fire Department covers the cities of Elk Grove, CA and Galt, CA, and its Capt. Kirk McKinzie showcased the 911 Go technology currently in the concept phase. Similar to some of the innovations being touted for the FirstNet nationwide public safety communications platform, 911 Go uses AR to deliver training for firefighters and enhanced awareness for residents.
It can also produce modeling to show how fires can affect a building and spread, as well as help first responders train for earthquakes, floods and other life-threatening scenarios. 911 Go builds on the AR found in the Pokemon Go smartphone game and could be a game-changer for firefighter training when it is made widely available through open sourcing.
"There are 38 million people in CA, 325 million in the US and 4.5 billion connected people on the planet. I hope one day they might use Pokemon Go for saving lives,” McKinzie said.
Meanwhile, others looked at the impact of major storms such as Hurricane Maria and argued that as cities and countries innovate, they should look to use new technologies to improve response and prevent further casualties.
In a speech, Kelly Cohen, a Professor of Aerospace Engineering & Engineering Mechanics at the University of Cincinnati, recalled the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and the impact of cell phone service not being restored for over two months in some areas.
“Five hundred lives were lost in Maria, not because of the floods or the winds, but because they couldn't connect, they couldn't help themselves and people couldn't help them,” Cohen said. “They couldn't call 911. We as a society can do better."
Instead, Cohen said, drones could be used as a way to restore service or provide some kind of temporary fix for service ahead of a more permanent solution. That way, people would find it easier to connect with the emergency services and loved ones, and hopefully more would survive.
"I would like a situation, and we are working to build a situation, where we could restore connectivity between 4-8 hours in the wake of a hurricane or a disaster," Cohen said.
Looking forward, McKinzie and Synan noted technology needs to help public safety officials communicate better with those in their areas and make service as smooth as possible.
McKinzie said other emerging technologies such as AI could also help show first responders where the gaps are in their service and show them where resources need to go.
"Have it tell us where the holes are so we could put the dollars and human power into solving the biggest problems that we could have the biggest effect on,” McKinzie said.
Regional planning, regional progress
The need for regional planning across jurisdictional boundaries was thrown into sharp focus by Thea Walsh, director of transportation systems and funding at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC), who said in a speech the region will add one million people by 2050.
“We have to think through how we are going to do this the right way … For us, smart starts here,” she said.
But that regional approach could be difficult at first, Grant said, as "everyone comes at this from a different perspective when you're speaking about smart cities." Seat Pleasant lies just outside Washington, DC, and Grant said it could be tough as there is no one definition for what a smart city is, so innovation can take many forms.
Planning is made even more difficult for regions that welcome disruptive technologies like AVs. Mark Policinski, CEO and executive director of the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI COG), said AVs will change the way residents get around, and have already started to disrupt the OKI COG’s planning process.
Policinski said three years ago, the COG decided it could not use traditional regional planning methods and instead needed to change tactics, given how quickly a disruptive technology can destroy long-range plans that look 20 or 30 years out. Instead, he said, planning for different scenarios that consider differing rates of adoption and use cases is better.
"It's very difficult. We are in a brand-new world. Everything that's gone before us is not going to be helpful going into the future, so we're going to work our way through it as best we can," Policinski said.
Hardin said working together regionally is important as some cities innovate at a faster pace than others, and everyone can learn from one another. In time, he said, shared learning benefits everyone, especially as cities in the same regions often share similar characteristics.
"As we move together, as we learn together and as we work together, it's imperative that we use each other's knowledge, we use each other's successes and our stops and starts to improve the lives of the communities that we all serve," he said.
And that regional thinking can be exported even further, especially when it comes to sharing best practices that can be applied elsewhere in the country.
“While our primary objective is to improve outcomes for our residents and our community, it’s also to export our best practices in this space to the nation and the world,” said Jordan Davis, director of Smart Columbus.
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