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From autonomous vehicles to automated everything, the pace of smart city technology is accelerating, sparking equal parts enthusiasm and anxiety. Industry and government leaders around the world are looking for guidance as they attempt to navigate the unknowns accompanying these shifts. It turns out that looking inward to the middle of the U.S. may yield some of the greatest insights.

Here’s how some policymakers in cities across the U.S. have been preparing for the future.

Collaborate across sectors

Through my platform, Digi.City, I host a multi-city series of discussions with lawmakers, government officials, tech leaders, and corporations. Across the nation, leaders from rural and urban areas, at statewide and local levels, and from the public and private sectors are readying themselves to lead the smart city revolution.

Denver is teaming with Panasonic to create a mini smart city test ground, while San Diego is working with Qualcomm, GE, and other private sector companies to launch a large-scale internet of things (IoT) network to power the next wave of smart devices.

During a roundtable I hosted in Indianapolis, city deputy mayor Angela Smith Jones emphasized the importance of partnering with other local and state entities, as well as academic and private sectors. For example, 16 Tech is a proposed innovation zone adjacent to the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus and catalyzed by anchor tenant The Indiana Biosciences Research Institute (IBRI). It is surrounded by two bodies of water — White River and Fall Creek — making it an ideal location to test smart water technology. Global Water Technologies, an industry leader in water efficiency, recently proposed a living laboratory at 16 Tech to showcase the benefits of smart technology.

Dave Brodin, chief operating officer for Smithville Fiber — Indiana’s largest independent telecommunications broadband provider — agrees with this line of thinking. In 2015, Smithville Fiber reached an agreement with Jasper, Indiana (population 16,000) to build a high-speed gigabit network that will reach the entire municipality by 2018.

Brodin explained that Jasper made it easy to collaborate directly with city leadership through a request for proposal (RFP) process that created an open dialogue between the city and trusted operators. This made it possible to create a plan tailored to the specific communities involved. Brodin noted that other cities have erected what he views as unnecessary roadblocks, such as charging permitting fees that could amount to thousands of dollars per connection. “In that case, we have had to walk away,” he said.

Eliminate regulatory roadblocks

The cities that will be able to leverage smart technology to its full potential already know what regulatory roadblocks might be standing in their way.

Indiana state senator Brandt Hershman illustrated his state’s approach to 5G — the next generation mobile networks that will power widespread IoT adoption, along with smart city innovation. This past legislative session, the state passed a measure that eases the path forward on small cell deployment, a key facet of powering these ultra-fast, hyper-responsive wireless networks.

Drawing comparisons to more traditional types of investment, Senator Hershman noted, “If it were Honda and Toyota coming to the state, we write them a check. But when it comes to 5G wireless, why do we want to put up barriers?”

Arizona followed suit earlier this year, passing legislation that cleared the pathway to small cell and 5G deployment. This “open for business” regulatory climate creates an enticing environment for a slew of high-tech companies and projects. As a result, the economy is growing, consumers are benefiting, and investors are responding.

Get residents onboard

There are myriad technological solutions already available to help cities deliver key services more efficiently. From LED lights to traffic signals integrated with transportation platforms to sensor-laden trash cans that can measure air quality, cities have an amazing opportunity to do more without breaking the bank.

But as with any innovation, not everyone may understand how adding sensor technology can benefit them. Cities that want to be on the forefront of the smart city revolution should join forces with tech innovators, community advocates, and university researchers to come up with creative ways to help residents see how smart technology can benefit their community.

In Chicago, computer scientist and urban data expert Charlie Catlett is leading an “Array of Things” pilot between private sector leaders, including the University of Chicago, Argonne National Laboratory, and Lane Tech High School. The project teaches 150 high school students high-tech skills like data analysis by giving them access to data from 500 sensors, as well as teaching soft skills like problem solving and teamwork. Catlett said “It’s about empowering students to see smart city technology not as something some company does, [but] as an opportunity to make a difference.”

These kinds of partnerships help cities and their corporate partners by creating a single action plan that all stakeholders can get behind.

Chelsea Collier is the founder of Digi.City, a platform for smart city technology and policy. She also serves as Editor-At-Large for Smart City Connect, is a Co-Founder of Impact Hub Austin, a Sr Advisor for Texans for Economic Progress and served as a Zhi-Xing Eisenhower Fellow in 2016. 

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