If you ask people to define a smart city, you will learn that it means different things to different people and can vary from city to city and country to country. Regardless of individual definitions, one truth prevails: smart city projects are imperative to utility industry transformation, allowing utility companies to survive and thrive—all while maintaining safety—over the next ten years and beyond.
Two leading enablers of this transformation—across all projects—are partnerships and connected technology with data and analytics serving as a linchpin for technological innovation. Data collection and analysis allows project stakeholders to understand what happened in the past, predict what will happen in the future and explore possible outcomes to answer the question: “What should we do if XYZ happens?” (AKA: descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics).
Smart City Technologies
In many cases, data and analytics are the thread connecting key smart grid technologies. They include:
- Intelligent infrastructures;
- Information and communication technologies (ICTs);
- Internet of Things (IoT) devices;
- Data centers and portals;
- Web and smartphone applications; and
- Automated digital services.
Debra Lam, Managing Director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) provided her definition during a recent interview, which aligns with these facts, “We define a smart city as a continuous improvement process—leveraging partnerships with research teams, regulatory bodies, utility companies, community supporters, technology providers and those who enable infrastructure buildouts—to position technology and technology integrations to improve the quality of life for residents in our communities. With the power of analytics driving projects and tying technologies together, we work collaboratively to build custom community toolkits with information and tools to address their biggest issues.”
To put her definition into context, its well documented that the biggest misstep of smart cities—to date—is making investments toward expensive, flashy, relatively benign work, sometimes coined as “vanity projects”. Smart city programs can deliver more bang for your buck—so to speak—when data and analytics are used to understand where public money will have the most impact and how to achieve the goals of a community.
Meet “Georgia Smart”
Led by Lam, Georgia Tech unveiled the Georgia Smart Program (Georgia Smart) in 2018 with major support from Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the highly progressive Southern Company. The program includes the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge, a funding and technical assistance program that is offered to cities, counties and consolidated city-county governments—of any size—in the state of Georgia.
The goal of the program is to help communities build pilots that enable them to understand, articulate and create plans that address a community’s challenges. Examples include minimizing the impact of natural disasters, identifying and leveraging distributed energy sources, supporting electric vehicle proliferation through tiered pricing offers and understanding future infrastructure needs based on population growth predictions.
Improving the lives of all citizens in inclusive and equitable ways and building capacity to address future challenges are key objectives across all Georgia Smart pilots.
A program partner, Larry K. Williams, President and CEO of the Technology Association of Georgia (TAG) says, “This vital initiative significantly expands our state’s ability to bring smart connectivity and leading-edge technologies to all of our communities.”
Georgia Smart Project Winners
Chosen through a rigorous application process requiring each applicant to submit a comprehensive project proposal, Georgia Smart selected four out of 17 community project winners in September 2018 that received:
- $50,000 grant to be used to develop the pilot;
- Technical assistance from a Georgia Tech research team;
- Access to a network of peer governments to share knowledge and best practices; and
- Introductions to local, national and international network of experts to advise pilot smart communities.
2018 winners included:
- Gwinnett County Connected Vehicle Technology Master Plan;
- City of Chamblee Shared Autonomous Vehicle Study;
- Chatham County Smart Sea Level Tools for Emergency Planning and Response; and
- City of Albany Housing Data Analytics and Visualization Initiative.
Thinking Beyond Technology
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, smart city buildouts aren’t just about connected technology; partnerships are critical to their success. In the Utility Analytics Institute article, “How the utility can do more than just light up the town”, Carol Stimmel explains why a tech-centric approach can be “self-limiting”.
“Technology plans that overlook the vibrant forces within the urban environment are myopic,” she writes. “There are engineers, planners, policymakers and information managers who are focused on problems that directly impact the wellbeing of all families. They are working to improve schools, hospitals, and public services, and it is the innovative utility stakeholder who will ask how they can integrate in ways that help these cities get the real work done.”
Doug Hooker, Executive Director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, another Georgia Smart partner, holds a similar opinion. “Community initiatives can be more successful through collaborative, people-focused approaches, and those qualities are what make the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge an important effort for the region,” he says.
“Where do I Start?”
For some, embarking on the path to buildout a smart city may seem like an overwhelming task. While “engaging with those who are further down the smart city path than you” seems like an obvious answer, it is sometimes easier said than done. Vanity and tech-centric projects, opinions of consultants biased towards projects in their wheelhouse and a proliferation of information (AKA: information overload) about smart cities are a lot for utility leaders to wade through while maintaining their day jobs.
Instead of going at it alone, engaging with programs like Georgia Smart—to get a big picture view of all moving parts—before embarking on your own smart city pilots is a good place to start. If sea sensors or any of the other pilots being supported by Georgia Smart interest you or you are interested in program structure and processes, Lam invites you to sign up for live events, webinars and the newsletter which are available by visiting Georgia Tech’s Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation microsite at http://smartcities.gatech.edu/ and scrolling to the News/Events tab on the main navigation.
Specifically, she highlights the opportunity to sign up for the newsletter from the News page and register, for free from the Events page, to attend the GA Smart Spring Workshop. It will be held on Georgia Tech’s campus on Thursday, March 26, 2020 starting at 8:30 am. During the workshop, newly selected 2019-2020 Georgia Smart winners will provide project updates including:
- Columbus Consolidated Govt Smart Uptown;
- Macon-Bibb County Smart Neighborhoods MBC;
- City of Milton Technology-Enabled Smarter and Safer Routes to School; and
- City of Woodstock Smart Woodstock Master Plan and Smart Corridor Study.
Moreover, the workshop will give you opportunities to engage with program partners. In addition to Georgia Power, TAG, ARC, mentioned earlier in the article, partners include:
- Association County Commissioners of Georgia;
- Georgia Centers for Innovation;
- Georgia Chamber;
- Georgia Department of Community Affairs;
- Georgia Municipal Association;
- Georgia Regional Commission
- Metro Atlanta Chamber;
- Georgia Planning Association; and
- Global City Teams Challenge.
If not Georgia Smart, there are dozens of other smart city pilots happening in North America that can give you knowledge of best practices and lessons learned—across partnerships and connected technology—to build your own pilots for addressing the most concerning issues facing your utility and the communities you serve. Enlist someone to research these opportunities for you and then make plans to join the conversations, a fairly easy next step.
You can learn more about smart cities by joining the Utility 2030 Collaborative at www.utility2030.com. Additionally, we will have representation at GA Smart Spring Workshop and hope to see you there.