Austin reinventing itself into a Smart City

The most successful companies are often the ones that can reinvent themselves. Consider Apple, Google and Amazon, just to name a few.

  • Apple began selling computers in 1976. Three decades later, it introduced the first iPhone and the world changed.
  • Google was in business six years before it launched Gmail and has since transformed itself into a multi-faceted, high-tech company with a range of businesses that includes autonomous cars.
  • Amazon started in 1994 as a web-based book store. A dozen years later, it introduced Amazon Web Services and in short order became one of the world’s leading cloud-based powerhouses.

These companies didn’t just introduce new products. They re-invented themselves and became more successful.

Today, the major cities across our country are faced with many challenges, but also with an even greater number of opportunities. In recent years, there has been an increasing number of “Smart Cities” initiatives around the world. The U.S. Department of Transportation Smart City Challenge was awarded in June 2016. Seven finalists were selected from the original 78 U.S. cities to apply, and Columbus, Ohio ultimately was named the winner. In February of this year, the Smart City Council announced five cities had won its own Smart City competition out of the more than 100 that applied. Austin was the only city that made the final round of both.

The wonderful thing about these contests is that they help to foster greater collaboration among public and private organizations. A great example is Austin CityUP, a nonprofit public-private consortium whose purpose is to facilitate smart city initiatives. Although only formally organized a year ago, it already has an impressive roster of 70 member organizations. Those include Accenture, Amazon, AT&T, Cisco, Dell, HP, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, the city of Austin, Capital Metro, UT and many others.

The Smart City movement is certainly about collaboration and technology as methods to improve the quality of life in the city. The types of technologies involved cover a broad range of innovative solutions, including internet-of-things smart infrastructure such as sensors and communication systems, smart kiosks, smart data with analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities, mobile app technology and autonomous and connected vehicles.

Capital Metro recently began demonstrating a new transit-on-demand service accessed through its new Pickup app, which uses technology from transit-on-demand technology company VIA Transportation, Inc. The agency is also preparing an update of the CapMetro App, working with partners Bytemark and HaCon, that will support multimodal trip planning. Riders will see options that combine Capital Metro bus and rail services with bike-share, car-share and ride-share transportation companies.

Working with members of Austin CityUP, Capital Metro is also in discussions with a range of private organizations to demonstrate the use of wireless sensor technology. The project would temporarily install a Bluetooth-enabled beacon that can communicate with users’ mobile devices. The service could push notifications such as transit information, upcoming events or developing news to travelers within a certain distance of the beacon location.

The pilot version of the project will place the beacons in a defined area of downtown along 2nd Street. That’s due to the density of the neighborhood, high pedestrian use and proximity to restaurants, retail locations, public and private employment centers and a range of transportation alternatives like Austin B-cycle or ride-hailing services like RideAustin or Lyft. Internet of things company Connecthings, which already provides similar services in Europe and South America, would operate the system. Austin-based beacons manufacturer Blue Cats is in on the project. Both of those companies are members of Austin CityUP.

The major opportunities for cities and other public sector organizations come by taking a page out of the private sector playbook and allowing themselves the chance to do new things. Cities need to reinvent themselves, as the best companies have continuously done. So, in addition to improving existing services — like improving bus routes or redesigning your development code (which are huge undertakings, of course) — it is about reimagining the services and products that a city provides and reinventing related processes, such as procurement, ordinances and public-private relationships.

The time is now; existing opportunities are available and new ones are on the horizon. Those cities that have the vision to reinvent themselves will be positioned to become the smartest cities.

Source: Austin Business Journal
Joe Iannelo, VP and CIO of Capital Metro

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