Bringing cities to the future: Smart city examples in the US

Citizens’ and governments’ demands for utility advancements such as energy efficiency and low-carbon emissions have gained global momentum in recent decades.
Published: Tue 06 Feb 2018

In the wake of increasing demand, the United States federal government under the Obama administration launched a nationwide smart city initiative in 2015 to modernise urban areas by reducing traffic congestion, diminishing pollution, increasing energy efficiency, among other various measures.

To garner resources and organise efforts to realise such a major transformation, several cities around the country have launched independent initiatives to headline smart city transformations. Dallas, Texas, for instance, has launched the Dallas Innovation Alliance.

“The Dallas Innovation Alliance is a freestanding non-profit public-private partnership. Its mission is to design and execute a smart city strategy for the city of Dallas,” says Jennifer Sanders, the organisation’s Executive Director. “We are a network of 30 partner organisations which span the civic [sector], alongside the private sector as well as the academic sector”.

Charlotte, in North Carolina, is another city that welcomed a similar initiative to implement the transition. “Envision Charlotte is […] a not-for-profit. Our mission is to make the city of Charlotte a living laboratory for new, innovative technologies and first-of-their-kind programmings that really help make Charlotte a more sustainable, resilient, and economically competitive city,” describes Emily Yates, Envision Charlotte’s Deputy Director.

A neutral meeting point for the sectors

As an entity that is outside the governmental, private, and academic sectors, Sanders believes that the presence of the Dallas Innovation Alliance is in itself a key element in the implementation and deployment of projects, technologies, and innovations due to its neutral nature. The entity, she says, is an important part of a model to be followed by other smart city initiatives as well.

Sanders believes that “based on the number of calls I get from other cities, it’s a model that is looked at to replicate.” She points out that the entity presents an advantage thanks to its “ability to act as an independent third party body to advise the city, [...] combined with the ability to act autonomously and move far more quickly than an internal city department could.”

“We really felt that being free of the burden of procurement and being able to go ahead and get lessons learned quickly is a critical piece to the success thus far of our initiatives.”

Likewise, Yates believes that, while the presence of an independent mediator in the implementation of smart city projects is not essential, it certainly ensures that projects advance faster and more smoothly, as its interest lies in the realisation of the projects in hand. “We are an outside organization, we don’t represent the private sector perspective, we don’t represent the public. We are able to operate in that neutral space and bring those players to the table together and to facilitate those conversations,” says Yates.

“I think cities could achieve what we’ve achieved without an Envision Charlotte; I don’t think they could have done it at the speed that we’ve managed to achieve our projects, and I think that is because we are able to not have to deal with procurement. We really value our neutral space, so people trust us a little bit more.”

Dallas is setting an example for American smart city projects.

Putting smart city projects into practice

Sanders recognises that the magnitude of the transformations necessary to truly create a smart city can be rather daunting for all parties involved. “It can get overwhelming really quickly, and I think a lot of cities get very concerned and overwhelmed by that, trying to boil the ocean, so we knew we needed to take a multi-face strategy,” says Sanders.

To that end, the Dallas Innovation Alliance is starting by implementing a pilot project that covers one area of the city to better observe their progress. “The idea and the differentiator, we think, is that we’re putting in seven or eight different projects in the same compressed geographic area, so we can really understand what the value is, not just within an individual project, like energy efficiency, but how can we utilize the data across projects to really maximise the value and insight these initiatives can bring.”

Envision Charlotte, in turn, tests out and implements certain projects in Charlotte with goals to pursue this transition. A major project, for instance, sought to reduce energy consumption in the city by 20% within five years by improving energy efficiency in large commercial buildings. According to Yates, the organisation worked closely with the University of North Carolina Charlotte to carry out this initiative.

“It’s a great asset for our city, and we pulled in the engineering students. They would go into these buildings and engage with the building operators, analyse the data, and come back with no cost and low-cost recommendations.”

Yates estimates that the buildings involved in the project saved around $26m and energy savings reached 19%. The organisation is also involved in other projects simultaneously, such as smart meter installations for energy and water saving, diverting waste from landfills, and a greenhouse gases emission reduction strategy.

To watch the full interviews and find out more about smart cities in the US, access our digital magazine.