Lessons from Louisville: Smart cities emerge from engaged communities

We were in Louisville, KY, this week — one of the winners of our 2018 Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge. In nearly every city we go, public safety is one of the key focus areas. It makes sense. Safety is one of the key services that cities provide. And whether or not people feel safe is one of the key ways residents judge the effectiveness of their government.

But while safety is a common theme among cities, we saw something in Louisville that we don't normally see: a level of police and fire participation in the workshop that can only be described as extraordinary. In the public safety breakout session, a police officer or someone from the fire department was at every single table. Leaders of both departments were also active participants.

That's critical because smart cities aren't top-down cities. They're collaborative places where people from all government departments as well as community members work together toward a shared vision. And whether it's public safety or any other government service, you can't be smart about providing it if the people on the front lines aren't part of the solution.

But it also wasn't just police. Everyone from social workers to mobility planners were represented too. Read about the progress in Louisville below. Then, get ready to apply for our 2019 Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge. The application process opens in a few short weeks. — Kevin Ebi


"We are living in an incredibly exciting time if you like change," said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. "You can either look at that and freak out. Or you can look at it and say that there are real opportunities before us."

Louisville is looking at the opportunities ahead. One of those opportunities is to advance communities that have traditionally been left behind.

"The most important thing, I believe, for our city and our country is for everyone to feel that they are connected to a bright and hopeful future," Fischer said. Otherwise, he said people vote for change without regard for the consequences or "take to the streets" because they feel they have nothing to lose. But cities can change that by fostering an environment where everyone feels they’re in it together.

"Smart cities are a super important part of making that happen," he said.

The social element of smart cities
In Louisville, gigabit is just one of the vehicles for making the city more connected and inclusive. As new advances come to the city, the city encourages using them to lift disadvantaged neighborhoods, turning the undesirable into economic development magnets.

"A government is not going to create an economy," the mayor said, "but we should be able to create an atmosphere that is conducive to creating opportunities in the city and hopefully represent some of the spirit around innovation and improvement."

And it does make a difference.

"To be poor is to be inconvenienced constantly," said Mika McClain, a social worker with the Louisville Metro Housing Authority.

As an example, they often have to apply or renew their eligibility for benefits. If they're lucky they can fulfill those requirements when they have the time in their own homes on tiny phone screens. More likely, they have to do fill out those sensitive applications in open view when libraries or shared locations are open.

And parents who struggle typically have children who struggle, potentially continuing the inequality for generations.

"There’s not just a digital divide," she said, “there's a homework divide.” Her agency has been working to give computers and internet access to those in need, already placing hundreds of machines.

Focus area: public safety
During the Readiness Workshop, participants divided into breakout sessions to brainstorm solutions to priorities issues, one of which was reducing violent crime.

Participants suggested early intervention programs targeting children, including initiatives to provide elementary-school-age children with anger coping skills and middle-school-age children with data-driven diversion programs that keep them from joining gangs.

Making better use of data was another common theme. Participants suggested a broad effort to improve data sharing among agencies and with the public, particularly to help the public make more informed choices on public safety issues.

Focus area: digital divide/community engagement
Participants in this breakout session believed that there are opportunities to make the public better aware of underutilized assistance programs — and these engagement efforts can be driven by strong partnerships. Inserts into utility bills and ads on buses are just a few of the low-tech partnership opportunities.

Another idea involves establishing a neighborhood ambassador program. People have more trust and respect for people they already know. An ambassador program could help build awareness by leveraging influencers throughout the city to help their neighbors.

Focus area: Reducing single-occupancy vehicles
Traffic congestion isn’t the only reason to try to reduce the number of cars on city streets: air quality is another important consideration. Nine out of ten Louisville residents drive to work alone, leading to problems with asthma in some areas.

Deeper partnerships was one key theme that emerged from the mobility breakout session. More collaboration between operators of the various mobility options could help people plan their trips more easily — especially if those trips spanned multiple modes of transportation. A single trip-planning app would be the ideal.

Dedicated bus-bike-pedestrian corridors could also present an attractive, alternate form of transportation.