What others can learn from Smart City initiatives in Florida

As the Synapse 2019 conference took over downtown Tampa last week, among the 5,500 visitors networking on the latest technologies and trends were representatives from several communities around Florida sharing their experiences and perspectives on what it means to be a Smart City and how critical this effort is to serve residents and visitors in a rapidly changing world affected by climate change and population growth.

What is a Smart City, anyway?

Simply stated, a Smart City is one that uses technology -- from sensors to data and analytics and more -- to address the priorities and quality of life of its residents and visitors, striving toward automation and seamless services as much as possible. The definition varies slightly depending on who you talk to, and what it looks like is largely shaped by the personality, needs, and threats of a given city. Sameer Mohammad, left, of USF and Kathryn Donadio of Modern Consulting 360 talk with guests at Synapse.

The excitement and branding of the concept was helped considerably by the federal US Department of Transportation’s $50 million Smart City Challenge in 2016 that tasked mid-sized cities with developing ideas for an “integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.”

Columbus, OH won that challenge and quickly turned its $50 million in prize money to $500 million in investments thanks to a different kind of smarts: public-private partnerships. Cities around Florida and the country are watching and forging their own best-practices as they find common ground and work toward making their cities smarter.  

Common ground and emerging trends

Not surprisingly, much of what Florida cities are looking at in terms of “smart’’ are transit-related. As populations -- and especially urban centers -- grow, solutions for mobility, parking, improved safety and the need to relieve traffic congestion and commutes are increasingly urgent.

Nearly all of the cities that presented at Synapse have an eye toward autonomous vehicles playing an important role in future and continued ride-sharing to address these issues, but there is also a lot of talk about scooters and bicycles for the first and last mile, with several e-solutions regarding parking, pedestrians, and traffic rolling out as well. 

Water, energy, and public safety were also major themes. The dazzling possibilities of 5G, which will require the deployment of multiple “small cell” antennas to every city block for even speedier internet connectivity, is viewed as having a lot of potential in terms of synergies with transit including hyper-localized traffic monitoring and "vehicle-to-everything" connectivity for autonomous vehicles as well as with utilities. 

How are cities going to go about this? Most salient was the absolute necessity for collaboration both internally, within governmental departments, and externally -- public-private partnerships -- among the business community, academia, and utilities.

Russell Haupert, Chief Information Officer/Director, City of Tampa.Moving away from the siloed approach that government departments have traditionally followed, the trend is toward a shared vision for systems that give administrators the “big picture” type dashboard that allows an integrated approach, one that can be clearly articulated. To gain access to grants, for example, Russell Haupert, Chief Information Officer for the City of Tampa, says, “They want to see a comprehensive effort from all of your departments and how that is going to directly affect your city or community.”

Here is a closer look at what Miami, Orlando, and Tampa are targeting for their Smart City initiatives. 

Miami: Threat of water as building booms

In a metropolis like Miami, a city of about 450,000 that triples daily with an additional 1 million business commuters, and where there continues to be a building frenzy, addressing parking and traffic is already complex. 

One step the city has taken is to create citizen-centric applications, digitizing more than 100 services that allow citizens and businesses to take care of city business without having to come into a city office. From comprehensive services that involve multiple departments like building and construction permitting to requesting free on-demand transportation services for the elderly, the services can be accessed directly from the city’s new website, launched last week. 

But with the threat of king tides, rising sea level, and storm surges, it’s not hard to imagine how transit suddenly becomes a much more pressing matter. 

To address this, Kevin Burns CIO of the City of Miami, created a 3D mobile map app of the entire downtown area working with Esri, GIS mapping software. Originally designed to predict sea level rise, the tool has already proved useful in emergency hurricane situations, showing, for instance, during Hurricane Irma, what impact a 1- to 6-foot storm surge would have on a particular building, say, City Hall. (The building would be 3 feet underwater in a 6-foot storm surge.) 

“My ultimate goal is to automate that tool -- turn it into an application that citizens or businesses can opt into,” commented Burns. He envisions that the technology would then trigger signage to warn of possible king tides or when a storm is coming. He wants to take it a step further, and “bring the insurance industry in. … It will affect our code enforcement, building standards, and have a significant impact on Miami’s waterfront community that may be a half mile further inland in the future from where it is today.” 

Orlando: Streamlining a wonderful experience for residents and tourists

Orlando’s priorities are a bit different given the central Florida city’s inland location and the influx of 72 million visitors who pop in on a yearly basis, particularly around the holidays.  

“We have the largest hotel market in the world, and largest rental car market in the world, says Charles Ramdatt, Director of Smart Cities Orlando. “And people with all kinds of driving habits!” he adds laughing.

A simple fix can have a big impact, he says, and gives the example of mobile parking meter alerts which were implemented in Orlando, despite initial resistance for fear of lost parking revenues. Parking fines went down, but revenues went up, simply because they are so much easier to pay and the enforcement process is more efficient.

“It doesn’t have to be the latest technology from Silicon Valley, but it needs to be practical,” says Ramdatt. He says cities need toCharles Ramdatt with the City of Orlando at the Synapse Summit breakout session. think about how “to make your downtown or activity center more inviting, more welcoming so that the visitor and patron experience is colored by that wonderful experience at the beginning or at the end.”

Yet Orlando has a much broader approach to its concept of being a Smart City. Orlando is developing its “Digital City Hall,” too, yet its approach to the concept of Smart City is much broader. Mayor Buddy Dyer’s Green Works Orlando vision is to turn Orlando into one of the most environmentally friendly, socially inclusive, technology-enabled and economically vibrant communities in the world. 

And they have a ton going on, including - as a fun example - an initiative called Fleet Farming that converts front yards to tiny urban farms. Powered by bicycle, no less, and using drip irrigation, the system creates a “huge water savings” and provides healthy food to local restaurants and SNAP-accepting farmers markets. The pilot is being modeled around the country, with over 1,000 communities signed up.

“In order to sustain our long-term economic growth, we have to start looking at things more holistically -- green buildings, clean energy systems, local food systems, zero waste, clean water, multi-mobile transportation, and mobility,” says Chris Castro, the City of Orlando’s Chief Sustainability Officer, who also co-chairs the Smart ORL initiative. He says these verticals are components of their smart city efforts. “There’s a natural alignment with sustainability and this concept of smart cities.” 

Orlando passed a local ordinance that requires large buildings to publicly disclose their energy and water consumption, the first in Florida to do so. The city has also committed to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, with all municipal operations by 2030.

“Millenials are very sensitive to these things,” notes Ramdatt. “This makes us a more competitive city, this is how we attract the creative class.” 

Tampa Bay Area: Working as a region to be a smarter community

Vik Bhide, Smart Mobility Manager, City of Tampa.City of Tampa Smart Mobility Manager Vik Bhide says transit -- in terms of safety and mobility, resilience, and congestion -- is at the top of the list in terms of Smart City priorities for Tampa. Coordinating activities as a region is key. 

“The world knows us as Tampa Bay and yet we operate as two dozen different municipalities and counties, each providing services to our own geographic areas,” says Bhide. To that end, Tampa Bay Smart Cities Alliance kicked off last year, bringing together Pinellas, Pasco, and Hillsborough and the cities within in a public-private partnership that includes the Center for Urban Transportation at the University of South Florida, tech companies, developers, and the utilities, among many other private partners. 

The goal is to develop a loose framework to work in coordination for the deployment of smart city solutions, including transportation, energy infrastructure, health, and more. Bhide says they are starting with the user experience and working backward -- aiming at eliminating, for example, the need for multiple parking systems currently necessary for parking in St. Pete, Clearwater, and Tampa. They are also looking to develop a regional data platform to provide regional, open data to residents, entrepreneurs and the government to better develop services. 

In the meantime, Tampa was chosen by the USDOT as one of only three cities in the country to pilot connected vehicle technology, installing specialized technology into over 1,000 vehicles including buses, streetcars, and individual volunteer cars. The connected technology communicates between vehicles, traffic signals, crosswalks, and other sensor-enabled infrastructure, providing alerts and recording data.

The Tampa Bay Area ranks among the top 10 most dangerous metros for pedestrians and bicyclists, so many believe this 18-month pilot may be part of the solution to mitigating this grim issue, while it also aims at “preventing crashes, enhancing traffic flow, improving transit trip times, and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.”  

Another pilot, upcoming in downtown Tampa, is aimed at resiliency, especially critical after major weather events, like Hurricane Irma that left much of Tampa Bay powerless for days. At the corner of Morgan and Whiting solar panels will be installed later this year, that will provide energy continuously. In a storm or power-outage scenario, powering basic infrastructure like this, which would otherwise require police to direct traffic, immediately frees up important resources, reduces safety concerns, facilitates commerce and will likely generate cost savings through reduced energy consumption.  

But maybe the most exciting example of Smart City initiatives in Tampa is the new development taking place downtown along the waterfront between the Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Convention Center. Starting smart from the ground up, the ambitious 50+ acre Water Street Tampa development is slated to be the world’s first WELL-certified community, incorporating lifestyle experiences based on a connected, “frictionless” smart district foundation. In addition, it is designed to be LEED Neighborhood Development-certified.

Not far from this site, a different demographic and perhaps a bit less glamorous, the Tampa Housing Authority already incorporates many of these same sustainable and smart cutting-edge initiatives, including LEED-certified buildings, energy-efficient centralized chiller plants, and solar technology into its affordable housing community at ENCORE! with other similar major projects in the works around Tampa.

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Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and communications consultant for regional and global businesses. Though she has always been passionate about arts and culture, she spent many years in the tech and B2B corporate worlds both in the U.S. and abroad. With a degree in Economics and International Relations from The American University in Washington, DC, she considers politics her favorite sport and follows it avidly with as much humor as she can muster. Based in the Carrollwood neighborhood of Tampa, Kendra is a mother and wife, a news junkie, and lover of all things creative.