Feature Articles, Professional Writing

Problem solving with real-time data: GR on the road to become a Smart City

*This piece originally appeared in Rapid Growth. 

Described by The Wall Street Journal as a sweeping change in the way cities are run, Smart Cities are changing the way people interact with the communities in which they live. While the term Smart City might paint a picture that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie or comic book, Smart Cities are a much more concrete and realistic venture and the idea behind them is simple: Smart Cities use data to solve problems.

Data is at the center of the Smart Cities movement. Between satellites and smartphones, we’ve got a lot of data available that shows us how we go about our lives. Things like where we travel, which streets get the most foot traffic, and which areas get the most congested with traffic at rush hour. Though, that information by itself, according to Michael Lomonaco of Open System Technologies (OST), “is worthless. But,” he says, “when we can compile it and use it, that’s the power of data.”

Compiling that data to solve problems and transform the way cities work for and with people is the objective at the heart of the Smart City movement. Solving modern problems, such as traffic congestion, air pollution, and parking, requires a modern solution. It requires a new way of looking at a city’s infrastructure and the data collected from new technologies allows us to do just that.

“The infrastructure of today is not the infrastructure of yesterday,” says Lomonaco, director of marketing and communications at OST. It’s connectivity. And it’s the technology that takes advantage of that connectivity, and uses it to solves problems, that makes a Smart City smart.

And, according to Jerome Lynch, department chair of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, Grand Rapids is primed to make the transition into a Smart City for a number of reasons. Those reasons, combined with the problems Grand Rapids is looking to solve in the near future, mean that the city is ready to take on the task, and reap of the benefits, of becoming a Smart City.

A coordinated effort

The only way to build cities that can solve problems for their residents is to form partnerships. When U of M, who was already working on an initiative to advance deployment of Smart Cities and address challenges that emerge in urban areas, looked at Grand Rapids as a possible partner, they were intrigued. They saw a city that, according to Lynch, already had a unique ecosystem and integrated relationships between the government, industries and the community.

“When trying to deploy new technology, you have to coordinate across all stakeholders and the more integrated they are, the easier it is to find a solution,” says Lynch.

In many instances, the community has to be fully prepared to participate in data gathering and technology deployment. Like the Grand Rapids 311-“One Call to City Hall” website that lets citizens report problems within the community to the city, the general population has to be willing to take an interest in their city and report their findings. “Grand Rapids has a rich history of well integrated sets of stakeholders,” says Lynch. “That makes it more attractive from a research perspective.”

Josh Naramore, Mobile GR and parking manager for the City of Grand Rapids, agrees that collaboration and cooperation are important. “We want to live in harmony with the private sector,” he says.

One such cooperative effort is a pilot program that is installing sensors in neighborhoods across the city to monitor air quality. The pilot has 10 different parties collaborating on the product including Start Garden, OST, iServ, Steelcase, Faurecia, Amway, Seamless IoT, University of Michigan, Mobile GR, and Environmental Services for the City of Grand Rapids. OST is developing the sensors and software that will read the wireless devices and the project is the perfect example of using data to tackle urban problems. The readings will show if air quality is worse in certain sections of city and from there, efforts can be made to approach the problem.

Another effort that involves cooperation between the city, The University of Michigan, and local businesses is the deployment of sensors on food trucks to monitor their movement and create a better ecosystem for them in the future.

High-tech meets high benefit

The tech industry within Grand Rapids was another reason Lynch offered for choosing Grand Rapids as a partner city. “Places like Start Garden are cultivating that type of ecosystem so we wanted a close partnership with them and the companies working there,” he says.

The companies working within the tech-sector, like OST, will be the ones leading Smart City initiatives and tech startups, like those within Start Garden, will not only contribute, but also benefit.

“Technology is here,” says Lomonaco, “we should be looking for ways to take advantage of it, especially if we can make life better.” And, it’s the companies working within that high-tech sector that will leverage that technology to solve even more problems.

And, the upside of such accessible data and easily deployable technology is that it’s low in cost but high in information.
“Cities like Grand Rapids,” says Lynch, “are well organized and run efficient operations. Deployment of these technologies could save money and the tech would pay for itself.”

“It’s not technology for the sake of technology,” says Lomonaco, “It can address issues of equity, of ease of use (of various services) and draw down the cost of government services.”

Looking forward

The ability to look forward and not only recognize opportunities but take advantage of them is another attribute that makes Grand Rapids an appealing Smart City partner. “It’s a richly intellectual environment,” says Lynch, “it’s a bit more adventurous and willing to try new things to see if they work.”

Jumping on new opportunities and moving forward is an important piece of building a smart ecosystem and taking advantage of technologies. “Grand Rapids has an amazing opportunity in front of it,” says Lomonaco. “It’s how quickly, efficiently, and intentionally we can get into that space and provide value that will make a difference.”

Naramore agrees and feels that the City of Grand Rapids is poised to take advantage of these opportunities. “We have a good framework of officials and leadership to help us move faster. As a city, we move faster than a lot of others.”

And moving fast is key. “The next big thing is only days away,” says Lomonaco. “Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, they are all utilizing data to create a user experience.” And, in doing that, they are overhauling industries. When cities do this, they become just as appealing as an Uber over a cab. Lomonaco uses the bid to land the Amazon Headquarters as an example. “They look for connectivity. If you sit too long,” he adds, “You will be left behind and lose opportunities to gain and retain talent and solve big problems.”

Taking advantage of data opportunities means working on projects that utilize that data and turn it into solutions. Next month, we will cover and go into more detail surrounding the projects throughout Grand Rapids that are contributing to its growth as a Smart City, it’s appeal as a technological hub, and the way it supports its citizens.

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