Readiness Challenge Update: How Virginia is working to be a smart state for all

The Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge isn’t just for cities. In fact, one of our five 2018 winners was Virginia — and we were there this week to deliver its Readiness Workshop.

The Council believes in the concept of smart states and Virginia is on its way to being one of the first. Much of our work is based on the idea that when it comes to planning smart cities projects, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. We collect, curate and share the best ideas from around the world so that cities aren’t starting from scratch. Smart states extend that by giving their cities a common foundation. Even more encouraging: in Virginia, that foundation is inclusive, as you’ll read below.

Over the course of our Readiness Workshop in Virginia, we worked with stakeholders from across the commonwealth to turn big ideas into action plans. If you’re interested in getting hands-on help and innovative tools to help accelerate smart cities projects in your community, I encourage you to apply for our 2019 Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge. We’re now taking applications — and what you want to accomplish is more important than what you’ve already done. — Kevin Ebi


Even with good schools, the level of internet access you have at home is a very large determining factor in how far your kids will get in life.

“Children who are born into communities that don’t have access to broadband, simply cannot access the same opportunities that children who are born in fully wired communities can,” said Evan Feinman, Virginia’s chief broadband advisor. “That is simply not fair. That flies in the face of what it means to be a Virginian and an American.”

Feinman is leading an effort to make sure everyone in the commonwealth has access to broadband. It’s an effort that’s driven by the fact that even children who attend highly-ranked schools lag if they can’t get online at home.

“Within the four walls of schools, those kids are getting a good education,” he told participants at Virginia’s Readiness Workshop. “But their post-secondary numbers are bad. ... The reason for that is they can’t get online to figure it out. They have to get their parents to drive them to the library.”

The focus on universal broadband is just one example of Virginia’s inclusive approach to deploying smart projects. It focused its Readiness Workshop to explore opportunities in four areas — transportation, energy, public safety and data — but further divided participants into working groups that talked about the impact to those living in rural and urban areas and communities that fall somewhere in between.

“When we’re talking about smart communities, it’s a really important distinction that we’re not just talking about smart cities,” said Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade Angela Navarro. “We’re focusing on economic opportunities in our rural communities as well as our urban communities.”

And getting there involves collaboration. "The more you collaborate, the better the outcomes are," said Virginia Commerce and Trade Secretary Brian Ball.

Putting Virginia at the center of mobility options
Participants in one of the mobility groups concentrated much of their discussion around smart mobility approaches that could help reduce carbon emissions. One idea is for Virginia to develop an integrated mobility planning tool that brings all the options together — and possibly even shows travelers the carbon impact associated with their choice. In rural areas, there was a suggestion around using grants to encourage the testing of new solutions in rural areas where the options are more limited.

School buses could also play key roles in reducing congestion. They could be a source of real-time traffic data. Another suggestion involved considering staggered start times for schools to get the buses off the roads when the traffic is worst.

Helping to unify Virginia’s energy planning
In the world of energy, there was some discussion about how Virginia’s energy infrastructure is lagging behind new energy demands, including electric vehicles. It has a number of groups and initiatives working on various facets of energy, but there was a recommendation to form a new group that would not only advise them all, but fill in gaps that currently exist between them.

And to help the commonwealth get a better understanding of using infrastructure for new use cases, the group proposed picking one rural and one urban community to test electric school buses.

Using data to improve public safety
"As we face larger, more complex public safety threats, we must work together to leverage technology to make Virginia more safe," said Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran.

Public safety working groups believed there was an opportunity to improve public safety by greatly improving the data coordination between agencies. Under the recommendation, Virginia would develop standards and governance polices, and regulate the data submissions. Another idea to improve incident response is to pilot ways to push situational-awareness data to responders in the field.

Standardizing data — and preparing people to use it!
In the area of data, the rural and urban working groups focused on different elements of Virginia’s data opportunities.

The urban group explored the need to break down silos that are currently preventing different data sets from being able to work together. It suggested an effort to improve data governance, develop a common architecture and data platform, and create incentives for data owners to work together.

The rural group concentrated on preparing the next generation of data workers, and finding ways to keep them from having to leave home to find good jobs. Its ideas spanned the range from establishing a satellite learning campus with college and private sector to develop skills in students to running career fairs and other community events to inspire and prepare people for data roles.

What's next?
Virginia will immediately start the process of evaluating all of the ideas with an eye toward finding quick wins that could be launched within months. Across these technology verticals, and no matter the type of community, Virginia is looking to integrate its state-level expertise and capacity with the needs and priorities of local communities to create a smarter future for all Virginians

"The best and brightest minds don't want to work in a state that has outdated technology," said Virginia Administration Secretary Keyanna Conner. "They want to work in an environment that embraces change and is at the forefront of innovation. The governor and I want that too."