Viewpoint: How Birmingham is taking a collaborative approach to becoming an inclusive, smart city

Source: Birmingham Business Journal | Chelsea Collier | December 28, 2018

The City of Birmingham is teeming with innovation focused on inclusion. And, while this “people first” mentality is setting a new bar for other tech hubs across the U.S., it is also bolstering the Magic City’s chances of evolving into one of the nation’s first smart cities. 

I was so fortunate to visit this dynamic community earlier this month as part of a discussion series I started two years ago with my organization Digi.City. This platform, focused on convening leaders across our nation’s public, private and academic sectors to discuss smart city policy and programs, showcased leaders in Birmingham’s backyard who are working to create a more advanced community that offers a pathway to prosperity for all of its residents. 

Gathered at the Innovation Depot on December 10, representatives from UAB, the city of Birmingham, the Woodlawn Foundation, TechBirmingham and Alabama Power Company joined Digi.City to analyze how advanced technology solutions can ensure Birmingham becomes a U.S. leader in inclusive economic development.

I’ve traveled across the U.S. and the world, meeting with representatives from many cities and communities who are looking to achieve this exact goal. Yet, I’ve encountered few cities like Birmingham that is mobilizing the right kinds of dialogue, partnerships and strategy to deliver on this sizeable undertaking

Ensuring a community evolves into a smart community requires a specific—and at times overwhelming—combination of efforts. The first is public and private collaboration. Building a city of the future requires incredible amounts of resources to make the necessary infrastructure modernizations including deployment of broadband networks like 5G that will be the catalyst for smart city connectivity. A city cannot go about this without identifying and working with private leaders who can lend their resources and expertise to get the job over the finish line.

Public and private partnerships are not just necessary to identify critical resources; they are essential to ensure every community voice is heard and represented. Many communities across the globe still run into issues where, in the quest to advance to the next stage of connectivity, disparaged community members are left out and ultimately forgotten. This has led to some areas including parts of the U.S. experiencing serious problems like the digital divide where lack of connectivity has left rural and lower-income areas without the necessary tools needed to succeed in today’s digital age.

Birmingham’s leaders understand this dilemma and the difficult task of solving it. UAB’s Director of Civic Innovation, Dr. Anthony Hood, Ph.D., noted during the December Digi.City panel, “We’re trying to come up with a model for inclusive economic growth […] Frankly, I don’t know that there are many cities in the country that have actually figured this out.”

What Birmingham has going for it, however, is that its leaders are determined to get this right. “Out of the smart city initiatives, I want to see the quality of life for our everyday citizens change,” said Mashonda Taylor, Chief Community Relations Officer of the Woodlawn Foundation.

While strategic partnerships are integral in smart city development, another critical component remains: public policy. Overhauling outdated infrastructure is something that has consistently faced hurdles and challenges for decades in the U.S. And, with the coming connectivity revolution powered by the Internet of Things (IoT), creating systems that can support these advanced innovations including vastly larger amounts of data will be contingent on modernizing infrastructure policy. In particular, this will effect rollout of 5G broadband networks that are essential in the smart cities shift due to their ability to support faster speeds and significant amounts of data transferred quickly and seamlessly.

Birmingham, like many communities areas across the U.S., is looking at a future full of opportunity. With smart city planning taking our nation by storm, this area is catapulting itself even farther to the front of the pack by utilizing its diversity, ingenuity and originality. Cities across the nation take note: Smart City Birmingham is coming.

Chelsea Collier is founder of Digi.City, which provides information and hosts events to help encourage technology-based solutions for social challenges.

Read more here