In Part I of this series on Smart Communities – Connecting the Future, we reviewed some of the exciting possibilities associated with creating a connected community. We touched on current and rapidly evolving technology and proposed a series of questions communities should be considering now to create an effective long-term, community-wide plan. Finally, we wrapped up by discussing the importance of starting to implement a backbone fiber optic cable network in preparation for connected technology.
In Part II, we addressed asset protection and the creation of policy that works. We discussed the importance of taking inventory of existing community infrastructure assets, considering asset ownership, and putting policies in place regarding city-owned real estate and big data collection, usage and retention.
Part III: Creating Partnerships
The best word to describe the future of smart communities and next-generation transportation systems is this: connectivity. Connectivity between infrastructure systems, connectivity between technology, and connectivity between the different public, private, state and federal entities that are essential to smart community success.
How do we define a next-generation transportation system? It’s one that promotes equity, mobility, affordability, economic growth, a cleaner environment, and a focused interest in the health and safety of the public. These are the goals of community leaders who are either planning for, or taking the first steps toward implementation of smart community infrastructure. These are also the goals of the stakeholders who support the process – politically, financially and developmentally. Finding the right partnerships and engaging with them early is paramount, and will help municipalities better strategize and acquire funding for their investments.
Who are a community’s smart partners?
Internal partners: public safety, public works, information technology (IT)
Public safety departments: Police, fire and EMS services all have a vested interest in an intuitive and efficient transportation and communications network. They know that an investment in smart infrastructure equates to an investment in citizen safety. Some of this technology directly impacts emergency responsiveness, such as optical or audio sensors and recording devices installed on streetlights that can record information or alert emergency dispatchers that a car collision, fire or crime is taking place. Such advances allow for a quicker and more accurate response time, easier investigation into accidents or crimes, efficient use of personnel, and an enhanced ability to protect people and property. Building alliances and inviting input from public safety departments early in the smart city planning process is key, as they also tend to have access to a broader variety of grant funding opportunities, with larger award pools.
Public works departments: The public works arena is vast, covering everything from public buildings to public transportation, roads, bridges, utilities, and the operation and maintenance thereof. A smart plan will look at better connecting people with places and will leverage public utilities to fill the gaps.
The road to smarter utilities may start with upgrading to brighter, more efficient LED streetlights. Lights can be programmed to turn on or off at a certain time of day or set at varying levels of brightness, saving time and money. Electric utilities may be set up to operate with sensors, regulated and tracked from a central network in the office, saving staff from reading meters or performing on-site data collection. The regulation of operations at city sewage treatment plants or wells may also be virtually monitored, reducing energy consumption and creating efficiencies.
Communities may establish citywide public Wi-Fi networks, transmitted through devices on those same street lighting systems or other public infrastructure. As schools continue to make the switch to digital learning and students are assigned their own tablets or smart devices for use, providing public Wi-Fi gives every child fair access and equal opportunity to learning, no matter their budget or situation at home.
Partnering with public transportation systems allows communities to build connected, effective transportation networks. Autonomous operation, sensor-based infrastructure, pedestrian detection, and the collection of transportation data and passenger travel patterns will help define a grid that is intuitive and easily accessible to users of all ages, abilities and mobility levels.
Municipal IT departments: Municipal IT departments should be one of the first partners in any community’s smart plan. These professionals are key participants in the creation of a network communications plan and building a backbone fiber-optic network. They are likely also responsible for the secure transmission and storage of all this “big data.” This means having robust policies in place for data privacy, security, retention and sharing, recognizing that the more data that can be shared, the greater the potential for improvement, but also the greater the vulnerability.
External partners: departments of transportation, regional communities, neighboring municipalities
Departments of transportation: The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) is taking an active role in testing smart city concepts through a number of pilot projects across the country. One of their sponsored initiatives is the Smart City Challenge, a 2015 call for cities to submit ideas for innovative smart transportation systems, with the winning $50 million start-up prize awarded to Columbus, Ohio. In addition to USDOT, a number of state DOTs have also created master planning documents for implementing infrastructure improvements and smart technology in preparation for what lies ahead.
There are other partnership opportunities worth mentioning that, while not directly linked to funding, create invaluable cross-agency cooperation and knowledge-sharing across communities. One of these is the Signal Phasing and Timing (SPaT) Challenge initiative from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Here, state and local public transportation infrastructure owners and operators are challenged to implement Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC) infrastructure with SPaT, MAP/Geographic Intersection Description (GID) data and Radio Technical Commission for Maritime Services (RTCM) broadcasts in at least one corridor or network in each of the 50 states by January, 2020. Even though this deadline has passed, many states and municipalities are moving forward with implementation to start these networks. The goal is to expand our smart transportation network across the country and lay groundwork in preparation to support rapidly increasing Vehicle to Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle to Infrastructure (V2I) traffic applications.
Regional community partners: Developing a long-range smart city vision requires planning, support, and funding. A collaborative regional effort, with buy-in from surrounding communities, counties and governments allows for one coordinated and efficient effort. It allows these entities to collectively plan, fund, and share the smart resources – with a more balanced level of risk and reward. This might include creating a central regional data processing and storage center, fiber-optic network, a broader 5G network, or a more regional and interconnected transportation system. Finding alliances with other communities also minimizes competition and the vying for limited funding dollars.
Neighboring municipalities: Entire regions may not be ready to make the jump towards planning and implementing some of the building blocks for a smart community. However, that does not mean neighboring municipalities cannot start working together to test and take on smaller projects that bring greater equity and a connected future. Getting one or two adjacent municipalities on board who share a collector or arterial roadway is a great way to implement an interconnect plan or even a smart corridor that tests various types of technology and data-sharing platforms in an effort to vet what works best for that area, while sharing findings and resources.
Private partners: health care, communications, transportation network companies
Hospitals and health care companies: Hospitals, medical centers and health care-related industries are all very interested in smarter, more connected communities. As such, they are some of the largest private partners for smart city initiatives. Financially, connecting patients with convenient, reliable transportation options and centralized payment platforms leads to better, more consistent cash flow. Holistically, ease of access to medical assistance equates to a healthier, stronger citizen body.
Communications, security, data and digital media companies: Private telecommunications, cybersecurity, data collection and digital media companies will likely want to be early partners as cities build out their smart networks. These vendors will be looking for prime real estate to set up their own devices for data collection. With big data collection comes a need for closely spaced communications devices such as DSRC radios to be installed throughout communities. These devices facilitate the transmission of massive amounts of data and are already being installed on power poles and street lights, as well as in temperature-controlled vaults mounted within the sidewalk and terraces. Gaining early access and rights to placement of such devices will be a highly sought-after piece of the puzzle.
Transportation network, microtransit and shared mobility companies: Some of the earliest adaptations to the traditional transportation system are private transportation network companies (TNCs), microtransit services and shared-use mobility operations like bike shares and ride shares. TNCs like Uber and Lyft who offer peer-to-peer ridesharing have experienced explosive growth worldwide. With the rise of the “gig” economy, many workers find themselves making multiple trips in a day, so on-demand transit is likely to increase. This is where microtransit service seems to also fill a niche, offering either fixed or flexible route options with immediate scheduling. Both services are helping to address the “First Mile/Last Mile” challenge which helps people bridge the mobility gap between home and the nearest transportation hub, and vice versa.
Bike- and scooter-sharing vendors like Lime and Citi Bike have also taken off across communities, offering either docked or dockless systems that allow riders to freely bike or scooter to their destination for a nominal charge. A smart transportation system must be planned to include these options, with ample curbside space, parking, and drop zone locations to minimize congestion.
As these trends continue, private transportation companies will be key allies in structuring how the systems will work – and will want to be integrally involved in the roll-out.
How can partnerships leverage funding opportunities?
Planning to fund smart community initiatives is best done in tandem with the creation of the aforementioned partnerships. Working collaboratively helps share costs and risks, maximize revenue potential and improve the well-being of a larger segment of people.
Potential public funding sources might include federal and state grants, public safety grants, BUILD transportation grants, and state revolving funds. Creating those partnerships with the private sector should also be a key approach to funding. The wider the variety of funding buckets, the more likely the win, and the more likely a community can leverage those public funds into receiving match funds from local and private sector investors.
Managing the cost of these future improvements can be a challenge, given the diversity of needs communities have. Working to gain allies early sets the stage for front-end investment and end-result revenue sharing, a win-win for all parties involved.
In conclusion, the good news is this: many of your smart community partners are already your neighbors. You won’t need to reach far to begin building meaningful relationships that will help kick-start your smart initiatives both physically and financially. Invest the time now. Chances are, before long you’ll find that you have a solid — and excited — group of project allies.