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Making a smart city like Austin smarter

Making a smart city like Austin smarter
by Don Dingee on 06-01-2016 at 4:00 pm

One of the takeaways from the recent #NXPFTF in Austin was the potential for smart cities. As the EDA industry gathers again for @53rdDAC, visitors will see firsthand how much high-tech talent there is in #ATX – and how big a challenge is developing.

Let’s focus on the challenge. At a panel introducing the Smart Connected City Summit sessions, led by Greg Kahn of the IoT Consortium, sat two execs from NXP – Rudy Stroh and Kurt Sievers – along with Jerry Davis, CIO of NASA Ames Research Center, and Austin Mayor Steve Adler. I was struck by the composition of this panel and the gravity of the discussion.

 image courtesy RCR Wireless via Twitter

Juniper Research recently named the top 5 smart cities in the world for 2016: Singapore, Barcelona, London, San Francisco, and Oslo. 40 criteria including technology, transportation, energy, open data, and economic conditions were considered in the rankings. The operative quote from report author Steffen Sorrell says it all:

Congestion and mobility are almost universal issues for cities to address. When addressed effectively, the impacts are substantial: higher economic productivity, potential for new revenue streams and services as well as a measurable benefit in reduced healthcare costs.

When asked about the topic of the panel, Mayor Adler’s opening comment was profound: “A smart city captures and processes moments.” Those moments presumably are not just recreational in a social media context, but real, measurable enhances to the quality of life in and around a city. That comment reflects the need: a combination of sensors and infrastructure plus an understanding of the environment and the people.

Adler went on to describe his mini-crisis in progress. Out-of-town visitors to DAC will immediately observe the first one: traffic. Explosive growth in the Austin metro has clogged both the freeways and the surface streets, and it’s not just during a major event like SXSW. I live about 65 miles by car south, on the northern edge of the San Antonio metro. It’s a breeze coming up I-35 until about Slaughter Lane, where it turns into a parking lot. It’s even worse on the north side of Austin, and traversing the downtown stack is a complete mess. There is a toll road around town that skirts the airport, but it doesn’t help you get into town.

The next issues are subtler. As Adler put it, Austin was built on economic and racial diversity. Creatives (including authors like me) are struggling with the costs of living in and near downtown, as are many long-term residents now being priced out of the inner city by gentrification. While some see that as positive, and many low-income residents are effectively stuck in some blighted neighborhoods, Adler sees a different overall picture developing, threatening preservation of Austin’s culture, and actually reducing diversity and its benefits.

Fixing that is a problem. “We can’t build roads, so we have to get the most out of the ones we have.” That sounds funny for a mayor to admit. Adler says he won’t be graded on technology – nobody outside of this industry cares. What people care about is opportunity, diversity, mobility, preservation, and growth. That’s why Adler and his team have assembled a proposal for the US Department of Transportation “Beyond Traffic” Smart City Challenge, with at least a $50M prize at stake. The smart city vision from Austin is interesting reading. Five initiatives mark the proposal: automated and connected vehicles, electric fleets, sensor systems, travel access hubs, and a packaged mobility service.

I don’t want to sound like Austin is a total disaster, and I’m sure the Mayor is not saying that either. Compared to most other big cities across the US, it’s paradise – I chose to come this direction for a better quality of life. Infrastructure elsewhere is falling apart, sprawl is taking over, and people with talent and means are fleeing. (My rural community here is full of part-timers mostly from Houston on summer weekends.) Austin is being proactive, trying to avoid becoming an instant replay of a growth-to-gridlock-to-grunge cycle evident in most other major US cities.

We can discuss the smart city tech itself another time. I wanted to concentrate on the economics of change. Adler rightly points out no municipality has a smart city R&D department – that has to come from industry. Listening to the panel discuss the issues, I thought back to a not-so-virtuous model of years gone by: what Dwight Eisenhower labeled the Military-Industrial Complex. In a twist of fate, the very reason I-35 and roads like it were created traces to the Eisenhower administration and a need to connect the country so goods (including weapons of the Cold War) could flow via truck seamlessly between urban centers and rural areas. Mission sort of accomplished. That freeway that was the solution to the problem then is the focal point of the problem now.

We need new thinking, a model of government and industry cooperation and investment similar to the Military-Industrial Complex, to transform smart cities across America. Austin as a tech hub is the kind of place that can draw the necessary R&D investment. From his keynote and opening comments to this panel, it was clear how many cycles NXP CEO Rick Clemmer is spending working with federal, state, and city officials. NXP’s strategy is built on synergy between secure financial tech and connected industrial IoT tech, a perfect fit for smart cities. Austin has identified other firms such as Amazon, Daimler, Google, GM, IBM, and Mobileye to name a few possible teammates – there is a full list at the end of their proposal document.

If Austin can pull this off, with or without the DoT prize money, this kind of public-private partnership will be worth the investment from the industry. This is the potential for the industrial IoT and smart cities movement, solving one of the more difficult big problems of our time. I’m looking for firms who have stories to tell, and maybe need help with defining or assessing a strategy.

I look forward to seeing everyone at DAC in Austin next week. Among other things, I’ll be hosting a panel on Open Source IP on Wednesday, June 8th at 11am that I promise you will want to catch – and all my panelists are from Texas, a sample of the brainpower that is here.

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