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Thursday, March 14, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Communication and expectations seen as key in move to smart cities

The term “smart cities” has a variety of roles in present-day civic planning discourse. It’s certainly a buzzword – “smart” as a descriptor appears 16 times in the titles of panels and sessions at this year’s South by Southwest conference – but it’s also a slippery Rorschach test for how local, state and federal leaders view the role of technology and tech companies in the civic square.

Unpacking the relationship between public and private entities was the order of the day at the March 9 panel “Smart Cities and You: The 21st Century Entrepreneur.”

The biggest question for the panelists and the audience was, how to define what makes a smart city? Answers from the policy leaders tended to land around the idea of finding ways for new technology to address persistent or unseen problems and harnessing those innovations for equitable economic development.

“Smart cities are more than just the technologies that support them,” said Marie Sylla-Dixon, vice president of federal government and external affairs for T-Mobile. “They’re about the people who depend on them for jobs, economic development and new entrepreneurial opportunities. In the future and in the now, you’re going to see a lot more disruptors who will be seen as innovators.”

The linchpin of smart cities, said Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, is using public/private partnerships that have the needs of the community as the most important objective.

“How do we leverage partnerships between the public sector and the private sector to direct capital where we want it to go? We have to make sure broadband is ubiquitous and we also want opportunity to be ubiquitous and inclusion to be ubiquitous,” he said. “How do we use private sector resources for public sector good throughout the country and the world?

“A smart city is one that builds out the infrastructure necessary while continuing to realize innovation is a nonstop process while focusing on inclusion.”

Benjamin said local governments need to balance the need for proper oversight of private companies with the agility and fast pace of the private sector, pointing out that his city tries to give seven-day preliminary approvals to some smart city initiatives because “if it takes 30 days it’s a long time.”

He added that it’s incumbent on the business community to stay involved and in communication with leaders at all levels to help them stay aware of opportunities to deploy new technology at all levels of government.

“Those of us in the public sector need your active involvement and advocacy to make sure policymakers are able to keep up with changes long before they come to our desk,” he said. “If you’re not involved locally or at the state level or the federal level and you’re trying to influence policy on the things you see every day, I would encourage you when you go back home to do so, because it matters.”

U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York said her home state has a tech-forward attitude but the federal government can benefit from the recent creation of a technology caucus that is focused on using new technology to address connectivity, sustainability, workforce development and mobility.

“We recognized that we need almost a clearinghouse, because we don’t know what we don’t know and don’t know who’s innovating what at any particular time,” she said. “Being in New York we are constantly seeing these technological utilities established in isolation from one another. The question becomes how to connect it all … and it’s going to be up to the private sector and entrepreneurs to bring that information to the table so we can connect the dots.”

Photo: User:Argash [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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SXSW: Organizers of the massive annual festival that takes over the City of Austin each March. SXSW has donated to the Capital of Texas Media Foundation.

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