By Mark Toner
The “smart cities” movement is global, but an ecosystem for the companies that will power it is emerging close to home.
Two of the newest developments in the “smart cities” movement in Fairfax County won’t be on your phone or delivering your lunch—they’ll be under your feet and over your head.
In the coming months, the county will be working with the Virginia Department of Transportation to test a new, longer-lasting pavement material developed by an Australian company which made connections with state and local governments through a local business accelerator. Fairfax also plans to pilot smart street lighting as part of an experiment to determine how best to collect data on air quality, traffic conditions and parking availability.
In both cases, sustainability, not sexy new technology, is what’s driving the experiments in Fairfax County. It’s a telling sign of the ongoing evolution in how governments and technology companies are thinking about smart cities as the concept matures. The region already has burgeoning but disconnected examples of “smart cities” concepts, including most recently the extension of variable tolling on I-66 that, with its $40-plus tolls during peak times, has become a less than universally popular way of addressing the region’s congestion issues.
But while connected sensors, data aggregation, and, ultimately, autonomous vehicles are still at the heart of the smart cities vision, ideas about sustainability, urban planning, community engagement, preventing homelessness, and addressing youth obesity have become part of the conversation.
“Part of it is trying to connect all the different dots,” says Eta Davis, economics initiatives coordinator for Fairfax County, which was a finalist in the 2018 Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge. “Because of the wide-openness of the issue, we need to determine what problems we are trying to solve before we expend resources.”
At the same time, the region is developing an ecosystem around smart cities technologies. Its established technology sector has deep knowledge of the tools that will be required to make smart cities a reality—cybersecurity and the Internet of Things (IoT) among them. Newcomers are being supported by the Smart City Works Infrastructure Actuator, launched in 2017 with support from the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), which has attracted startups from around the globe. And with the willingness of governments, campuses and organizations to serve as testbeds for the new technologies, the region could become both a market and a market-maker for smart cities companies.
“These companies are going to grow based on information we can provide them on how to sell to governments,” Fairfax County’s Davis says. “The potential is getting companies to develop and grow here, but also getting access to new technologies to improve our services.”
The smart cities sector will be an $80 billion market this year, according to research released by IDC in April. That makes it the largest new market in the world, according to Philip Bane, executive director of the Smart Cities Council, a Reston-based organization that represents leading companies, researchers and standards bodies in the space. Even so, it’s still hard to pin down exactly where the sector begins.
“If you put 10 people in a room, you get 10 ideas about smart cities,” says Dale Castellow, a consultant working with Fairfax County. “I like to keep it simple—developing technology to make our lives easier.”
Still, the idea of collecting, aggregating and acting upon data to improve how cities work remains the central concept—whether that involves land use planning that takes into account a future of autonomous vehicles or testing materials that make roads last longer.
“We’ve found ourselves in the sweet spot between what the world might be and what the world has been,” says David Heyman, co-founder of the Smart City Works Infrastructure Actuator. “By changing the way we design, build and operate infrastructure, we can change the way we design, build and operate cities.”
Some benefits are obvious—energy-efficient networked street lighting could pay for itself in six years, according to the IDC report—while others are less intuitive. For example, creating smart parking solutions that prevent harried drivers from circling in hopes of finding an open space could help reduce congestion in cities by one-third, according to Heyman, while connected trash bins could save between 40 and 80 percent in collection costs by informing AI-generated trash routes that collect garbage only when bins are full.
Smart cities planning also forces local governments to think about changing policies and practices for a more connected future, including untangling infrastructure and planning that dates back a century—or more. “Intelligent design is often overlooked,” says Bane. Cities’ needs also are not one size fits all—one may want connected sensors for gunshot detection, while another may be more focused on tracking and managing the impacts of climate change in low-lying areas.
For Fairfax County, which held a smart city readiness workshop in March that attracted more than 200 stakeholders and experts, conversations to date have focused on streamlining transportation options, developing street infrastructure, and examining ways in which data can be consolidated and policies developed to address issues such as homelessness and youth obesity, which impacts more than one-third of the county’s youngest students.
According to Davis, data analytics also can be used to identify factors that signal residents are at risk of becoming homeless, allowing the county to target resources to the people who need it the most.
“Any way we can leverage technology to focus on effectiveness and efficiency is a really positive thing,” Castellow says.
A Regional Testbed
The Greater Washington region has many advantages as a testbed for smart cities technologies, according to Bane. With more than 1 million people in Fairfax County alone, the region has the critical mass of only a dozen other U.S. cities. (By contrast, Africa has more than 40 cities with populations of 1 million or more.) That’s important because population density and the resulting capacity for connectivity and data aggregation drive most smart cities concepts.
The Commonwealth of Virginia, which was one of the winners of the Smart Cities Council’s 2018 Readiness Grants, has coordinated the efforts of multiple localities throughout the state through the Virginia Smart Communities Working Group, a collective overseen by CIT and the Business-Higher Education Forum. These efforts, says Gov. Ralph Northam, are intended to “make Virginia the nation’s leader in smart communities and help us build a better framework for initiatives like expanding broadband to rural areas.”
One of the state’s key investments, made through CIT, has been the Smart City Works Infrastructure Actuator, which launched in January 2017 with a cohort of a half-dozen companies focused on smart cities technologies. To date, it has worked with 17 companies from around the world using what Heyman calls a unique model.
Along with the support and networking ecosystem of a traditional business accelerator, the Smart City Works Actuator selects its cohorts through what it calls “Requests for Infrastructure,” which are based on extensive research on what technologies cities around the world are looking for now and the “innovation gaps” that presage what they’ll need in the future, Heyman says.