Charlotte has only scratched the surface in its effort to become a Smart City, with the early initiatives in the North End area expected to lead the way. Panelists at a Digi.City Connects program Wednesday said much work is left to be done to connect the city.
Charlotte is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. and will bring in 400,000 new residents over the next 25 years, according to Charlotte’s vision statement for the 2016 U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge.
Chelsea Collier, founder of Digi.City, brought together local Smart City experts. Digi.City is a blog created by Collier that focuses on civic innovation and smart cities. Mayor Jennifer Roberts gave the opening remarks. Among the panelists were David Howard, chief deputy secretary of NCDOT; Sasha Weintraub, senior vice president of customer solutions at Duke Energy; Emily Yates, Envision Charlotte’s deputy director and Bob Wilhelm, vice chancellor of research and economic development at UNC Charlotte.
The conversation began with defining what a smart city is. Collier said there is not a universal definition but to her it’s about how connected technology can be deployed into city operations. The goal is to improve the urban experience for citizens.
“Smart cities are about data, technology and collaboration to improve city operations and to improve the quality of life of the citizens,” Weintraub said.
Charlotte has pushed most of its Smart City enhancements through sustainability initiatives. Weintraub said it started seven years ago when Charlotte took a pledge to reduce energy usage in uptown buildings. The project became Envision Charlotte, a public-private partnership led by then-Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. By early 2017, the program reported $26 million in energy savings, equivalent to 11,000 cars on the road.
“We touch on smart cities in the sense that everything we do has to be measurable,” Yates said. “We have to be able to measure our impact. There’s no value in doing something if you don’t know what your impact is.”
Weintraub said the next phase is the implementation of 5G cell nodes in street lights. By adding layers of infrastructure such as nodes and sensors, the city can use technology to save time and resources. For example, 35% of Charlotte’s traffic is made up of people trying to find a parking spot. Weintraub said problems like that can be fixed through data and technology.
Another example is a recent mobile payment app launched by Charlotte Area Transit System. It makes using the city’s bus and rail system easier and more efficient. CATS used community feedback and worked with a local tech company to create the app.
“It allows seamless payment among different transportation modes and is something we will continue to add onto as we expand our transit system,” Roberts said.
The city wants to ensure the technology implemented is accessible to all parts of the community. Keeping residents informed of Smart City efforts would allow them to participate more in the city’s transformation.
According to a utility report by Black and Veatch on smart cities nationwide, the top three problems municipalities face are budget constraints (71.8%), lack of resources and expertise (57.3%) and policy hurdles (34.6%). Out of 700 municipalities surveyed, the report found only 16% of municipalities can self-fund a Smart City project.
“We’ve been pretty good so far at getting other people to pay for stuff,” Howard said. “Now it’s getting to the point where we are starting to figure out where the public and other private investment need to be to fill the gaps.”
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