Texas Has Big Potential To Get “Smart,” But Time Is Of The Essence

Jennifer Sanders | @DallasSmartCity | March 22, 2017

Houston at night. Image via flickr/Thomas Hawk.

The following is a guest blog post by Jennifer Sanders, executive director of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, which is hosting the Smart Texas Revolution conference April 20-21.

Over the past year, discussion around smart cities — the incorporation of technology, Internet-of-Things sensors and data analytics as an enabler to improving city services and quality of life — has permeated organizations across the United States. Global regions including Europe and Asia have been aggressively adopting these technologies and strategies for several years, and there is much we can — and should — learn from each other.

Texas cities, in particular, have seen exponential population and business growth in recent years, which brings both benefits and challenges. Increased demands on infrastructure, commute times and resources necessitate cities evolving and innovating on how to maximize the life and utility of existing infrastructure, and make informed decisions on how to manage new development. These items combined with rising socioeconomic challenges related to income inequality, affordability and access to mobility options also require new ideas and enhanced collaboration. All of these elements and beyond have accelerated the conversation – and urgency – around smart cities strategies.

There are many paths to building a smart city, but all of these include inclusive and diverse collaboration amongst various entities, both internal and external to the city. In addition to the cities themselves, research institutions, civic organizations and the private sector are vital components to incorporating best practices and an aligned approach. Cities across Texas have seen early success in these endeavors.

Given the initiatives and conversations currently underway across the state, the opportunity for cities, regional and state entities to come together and align around standards, practices and information-sharing is upon us here in Texas. No state in the country has formalized a statewide approach to smart city implementation, and we believe that Texas is not only uniquely positioned to lead, but that we have the opportunity to surprise much of the world in taking this pioneering approach. There are both broad and granular areas that need to be addressed, including policy, financial models, procurement processes and project-based parameters, and these are only achievable with everyone together at the table.

With this goal in mind, next month will convene the Smart Texas Revolution, a two-day conference April 20-21 that seeks to educate and empower Texas cities large and small to execute smart city initiatives. One item commonly expressed, particularly by smaller cities, is “how do we get started?” This program is designed to explain how to build a strong foundation, and explore “the what” and “the how” of design and execution, by learning from the experience of cities and institutions from around the country.

The second day will focus on workshops to discuss priorities and what should be top-of-mind at the state level for Texas to be successful. The program includes leadership from cities including Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Charlotte, San Diego, UT-Austin, Rice University, Trust for Public Land, Rocky Mountain Institute and the General Services Administration, among many others.

At the event, cities will be able to learn from the experiences of cities across Texas, including Austin, who as a finalist for last year’s USDOT Smart Cities Challenge Grant brought together public, private and university leaders to build a comprehensive proposal that incorporated existing and new tactics in increasing access to transportation, new standards for development and enhanced infrastructure.

One of the central concepts of their proposal was the creation of “Smart Hubs” central transportation hubs that provide a “critical mass of convenience” including walk-in medical clinics and groceries, providing hubs from which transit options spill out, including bike share, autonomous vehicles and ride share, in addition to mass transit options. Following this planning process, Austin plans to continue with implementation of facets of this plan in the coming years.

For Houston METRO, an overhaul of their bus routes has coincided with real-time bus tracking, available on its smartphone app. These have led to an increase in ridership.

San Antonio has unveiled 2017 plans for smart city initiatives, which could include drones to monitor emergency events, solar benches that serve as device charging stations, with the availability to incorporate sensors or become Wi-Fi hotspots in the future and digital community kiosks, among other initiatives.

El Paso and Dallas were selected for the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities initiative, and for the past two years, have been prioritizing stressors unique to their cities, including infrastructure, emergency response, climate change, economic inequality and transit access. Along the way, the entire 100RC network around the globe share progress and lessons learned to enhance results. These cities are currently developing specific programs that address these stressors.

Open data, analytics and citizen engagement are crucial components of smart cities initiatives, and several cities and local organizations have taken aggressive steps in enhancing efforts in these areas, including Houston, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Fort Worth, among others. These foundational elements greatly aid the entrepreneurial ecosystem, as well as transparency and informed decision-making within City Hall.

Here in Dallas, the Dallas Innovation Alliance was formed in September 2015 as a nonprofit public-private partnership with the mission to design and execute a multi-phased smart cities strategy for Dallas. Working closely with city leadership, civic organizations including the Dallas Regional Chamber and Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and through private sector leadership from AT&T and partners, we launch our Living Lab pilot phase this month, including intelligent street lighting, environmental sensors, interactive digital kiosk that will provide wayfinding and public information, and public Wi-Fi. Though testing multiple projects in a compressed urban area, we seek to gather cross-project insights that will provide a case study to the city, as well as options for sustainable financial models allowing projects to scale across the city.

We invite all to join the Smart Texas Revolution. It is only together that we can raise all Texas cities and citizens to reach their full potential, and maintain it far into the future.

The Kinder Institute for Urban Research is a partner organization in the upcoming Smart Texas Revolution conference April 20-21. For more information.

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