Digi.City Turns One

Celebrating a year of exploring smart cities, May 3, 2017

On May 1, 2016, I was sitting in my living room enjoying a drippy, overcast Sunday morning, devouring information about smart cities.  I was compiling story after story of cities around the world implementing connected technology to create an optimized, more enjoyable urban experience, making major advances in transportation, affordable living, sustainability and enhanced delivery of city services. 

A few weeks before I’d learned I would be one of nine Zhi-Xing Eisenhower Fellows traveling to China for a four-week exploration. My focus of study: smart cities. With so many areas to explore, different perspectives and new smart city projects every day, I decided to focus my research on bridging tech and policy. There are limitless opportunities to integrate the ideas emerging from the private sector with the public sector’s pledge to serve residents and create strong cities. 

My mind was racing trying to catalogue all that I was discovering. At the same time the question loomed: How could I share all this information? That’s when I decided to start the Digi City blog. Given all of the fervor and dynamism of smart cities, I didn’t want to just create one article or a static white paper. I wanted people to have a place where they could keep up and contribute.

It’s been a year of discovery and adventure. Today, I am in Singapore at the Smart Nation Innovations Week, witnessing innovation in action and reflecting back on the milestones of the past 12 months:

  • June 2016: The first annual Smart City Summit co-located with US Ignite
  • October: The Next Generation Networks Checklist is released on Digi.City
  • October/November: A four-week fellowship trip to five cities in China (Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzen, Shenyang, Hangzhou)
  • December: The first Digi.City Connects event in San Diego with Mayor Kevin Faulconer  followed by a panel with San Diego economic development leaders.
  • January 2017: Digi.City Connects in Phoenix with Governor Ducey and panel discussions with Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, Mesa Mayor John Giles, Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane and local economic development leaders
  • March: Panel at SXSW with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, Howard Wright (Intel), Michelle Robinson (Verizon) and Joe Kochan (US Ignite)
  • March: Hosted Smart City Day at SXSW featuring 25 speakers from around the world
  • March: Began contributing on Inc.com, writing specifically how smart cities affects – and benefits – entrepreneurs
  •  April: Another successful Digi.City Connects event in Denver with Mayor Hancock and participation from statewide and local leaders
  • April: The latest in the Digi.City Connects series in Tampa with Mayor Buckhorn followed by a panel of entrepreneur advocates

Through hundreds of meetings, dozens of conferences, webinars, lots of writing, listening, reading, reframing and speaking, I’ve managed to distill all of this experience into three key takeaways:

1.     Collaboration is Critical

2.     Infrastructure Matters

3.     Tech is All About People


1 - Collaboration Is Critical

In June 2016, Columbus, Ohio won the Challenge Prize, hosted by the US Department of Transportation (DOT), beating 77 other cities for $50 million applied to smart city solutions. There were seven finalists, all with laudable submissions to tackle transportation challenges with technology. So what put Columbus over the edge? They understood the power of collaboration. Thanks to early work to align visions between city government leaders, nonprofit advocates and private sector participants, they were able to amass $90 million to contribute to the project. And they claimed, “If we don’t win, we’re doing this anyway.” They set the bar for working together.

Cities all across the country are learning how to do this better. At the Digi.City Connects event in Phoenix it was easy to see this theory in practice. There, city leaders are thinking regionally and working closely with the state to proclaim that they are “Open for Business.” As a result Phoenix was able to woo Uber from San Francisco so the company could build a testing ground for their autonomous vehicles.  Uber was happy to shift to a less restrictive regulatory environment, which further emphasizes the importance of policy in this quickly changing technology landscape.

Denver is another city to watch and was recently picked from 22 finalist cities as the home of Panasonic’s Pena Station Next, a 400-acre mixed-use project with 1.5 million square feet of office space, 5000,000 square feet of retail and 2,500 residences. This community, one light rail stop from the Denver airport, will be fully connected, including:

  • on-demand robotic shuttles to get residents between home and work
  • sensors and cameras to monitor everything from traffic flow to environmental conditions
  • heavy use of solar power
  • wirelessly controlled LED street lights that are 70 percent more energy efficient than traditional options
  • fully connected homes

The project will take about 10 years and $500 million to complete and requires re-examining old practices, creating relationships and clearly defining a common vision. In other words, thinking differently. After talking with so many government and industry leaders I have become acclimated to who is open and excited about change and who is clinging to old ways of thinking. My prediction is that those who “get it” will lead and the rest will fall behind and hopefully will catch up eventually. My goal is to help everyone advance in this process.


2 - Infrastructure Matters

Inspired by a paper I read “The development of smart cities in China”, I adapted one of the models presented and created “Four Levels of a Connected City.” At the bottom of this layer are elements that a lot of people don’t think about – fiber networks, cell towers (macro cells), small cells and power grids.  This foundational level is all about connectivity, which is not the first thing that comes up in a conversation about a smart city, even though it is perhaps the most crucial. No matter if you are a small with city with a population of 50,000 or the largest state in the union, every public official agrees that we need more connectivity. How to get there is where there is some discrepancy.

Fig. 1: Four Levels of a Connected City

Laying fiber and attaching small cell nodes requires permits from the city. This process is complicated by the fact that every city is different, some policies are forward thinking and others are relics of a bygone era. Cities who understand what the future has to bring and the economic impact that maximized connectivity can deliver do everything they can to simplify, streamline and set policies that encourage investment and competition. 

San Diego is a city that did exactly that. At the Digi.City Connects event in December, Mayor Faulconer and economic leaders championed policies that encouraged connectivity. A few months later, they announced the world’s largest city-based Internet of Things (IoT) platform and a partnership for LED smart lighting with GE, which promises to save the city millions of dollars per year while delivering valuable data. City leaders can then use that data to make smarter decisions. They are just getting started in building an optimal smart city. When you contrast that with those who hesitate and choose inaction over creating new ways forward, you can instantly see the difference between economic potential and a lost opportunity.


3 - It’s Still All About People

The most cutting edge technology in the world doesn’t mean a thing unless it is in service of creating a better quality of life for people. With every decision, evolved city leaders ask, “How does this make a difference in the lives of my city’s residents? What technologies can be deployed to create a more vibrant, connected, cleaner, safer, mobile city where people have access to services they need and businesses can thrive?”

At the Digi.City Connects event in Tampa, this point was beautifully emphasized through a lens of entrepreneurship. Mayor Buckhorn gave rousing remarks that left no question about his commitment to see Tampa evolve into a top smart city. The panel following was a spirited discussion about how the entrepreneurial ecosystem is rising to support Tampa as a digital city.  City leaders are taking the right steps to realize the benefits that connected technology can bring.


What WILL Year Two Look Like?

More. Smart cities is a both a world I know well and one that is constantly completely new. I am just getting started in the quest to see more collaboration, more urgency around infrastructure development and finally a commitment to creating better cities for all residents. When the right partnerships are in place, and there is a strong emphasis on connectivity, only then can cost-saving technology be implemented to create positive results that make a difference in people’s lives.

And there is no time to waste. Our world will be drastically different in just a few years thanks to advances in "next generation" technologies like 5G enabling IoT, providing a new level of access to data that can deliver inspiring new insights that have profound impact on so many. There will be change and I believe it will be for the better. Our public safety and healthcare systems, mobility options, chances to decrease energy waste, educational and workforce opportunities not to mention the social impact on our food systems and increased access to opportunity will all be part of a more sustainable, equitable, more enjoyable world. But this change must be embraced in order for this new reality to be realized.

I formed Digi.City to inspire these very conversations and encourage an information exchange with regard to smart cities. I am identifying cities that are 'getting it right' and also encouraging activity that continues to break down silos, create new partnerships, streamline policies and make sure that the potential for smart cities to create an optimized urban experience is realized for all residents. So stay tuned for more soon…