Editor’s note: Steve S. Rao is a Council Member At Large and Former Mayor Pro Tem for the Town of Morrisville and an Opinion Writer for WRAL Tech Wire.  He served on the Board of the New American Economy, now the American Immigration Council, and on the NC League of Municipalities Race and Equity Task Force. He is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire.


MORRISVILLE – During the Connected Communities Conference in December 2021, North Carolina Secretary of Technology Jim Weaver inspired the attendees when he stated that broadband deployment in the state would be one of his top priorities.    The pandemic has made it very evident that access to higher speed internet can make the difference in whether our children can get a world class education, or whether we can continue to work remotely, for the near and immediate future.   I am very excited to hear Secretary Weaver’s plans for expanding broadband access in our State for these reasons, but we cannot ignore the other benefit of high speed broadband across our state, the Internet of Things (IOT) and the Smart City.

Yes, the time has come for us to become a Smart State!

Our recent Smart City Journey in Morrisville proves that any town or city, can get started and move quickly, as all of us try to keep up with the unprecedent pace of digital transformation.

Why should I care about Smart Cities?

“Broadband and higher internet speeds continue to accelerate the adoption of the Internet of Things, the network of physical objects—“things”—that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the internet.” (https://www.oracle.com/internet-of-things/)

Photo courtesy of Steve Rao

John Chambers, left, with Steve Rao

The IOT revolution can enable cities and towns to become smart cities by  leveraging data to enhance the quality of services for our citizens, provide for more transparent government/better planning and drive local innovation, which in turn can create more jobs in our community.      Smart Cities promote economic development, sustainability, innovation, citizen engagement, and  can fundamentally change and improve the quality of life for residents.

As the pace of innovation continues to accelerate at unprecedented pace, now is the time, for cities around Wake County, and North Carolina can develop their own Smart City Playbook.

The Morrisville Smart City Journey

The launch and success of the  Morrisville Smart City Journey  clearly demonstrates how the Internet of Things, Connected Devices and Sensors can enhance the quality of life of residents.   For many years, I attended Conferences, where I was mesmerized by how the larger Towns, like Cary and Raleigh,  were starting very successful Smart City Initiatives.

Over the years, my colleagues on the Council got very used to me saying that we needed to have our own initiative.   In fact, I brought the smart city issue up at almost every retreat from 2011- 2019.

Well, thanks to our world class IT team, led by our Chief Innovation Officer Rick Ralph and the willingness of my colleagues to fund our Smart City Initiatives, the Town of Morrisville has come such a long way in the two years since we began our smart city journey.   In fact, in December, our Town was awarded the Clean Tech Innovation Award by the Research Triangle CleanTech Cluster for our Connected Parks Initiative.

The Morrisville  Smart City journey can serve as a guide to how other cities, counties and our state can launch and accelerate their Smart City Journeys.

Like any successful team, the first step is develop a Playbook, a set of plays you can turn to  move the ball down the field, and see progress.

The Morrisville Playbook:  How we Got Started!

1.Conduct a Smart City Assessment, and develop a Smart City Plan for your community.   

In late 2019 Morrisville partnered with IDC to develop Morrisville’s Smart City strategy. We garnered insights on strengths, challenges and opportunities from the Town’s key stakeholders and partners.

Our process incorporated the feedback from all of Morrisville’s departments, including: Planning, Inspections, Engineering, Administration, Human Resources, Finance, Communications, Police, Fire, Public Works and Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Resources. Each group brought a unique perspective on how Smart City technologies could benefit their specific service delivery goals and challenges, and each delivered insights on innovation opportunities.

Well-attended community listening sessions revealed  valuable inputs from residents regarding what to embed in the Morrisville’s Smart City Strategy.

The Focus was on Morrisville’s growing population, specifically in the areas of: communication and transparency, traffic congestion, public safety, and sustainability.

  1. After you develop a Plan, look for some quick wins.

My analogy of the day, is that once you have the plan, you need to find ways to deploy Smart Technology to find some quick wins.   Like the First downs of a football team, a quick win strategy shows your fans  that you are making progress.   In our game, we wanted to demonstrate to the residents, the quality of life and other benefits of a Smart City.

Smart city execution Began with This quick win/first down approach.  Staff identified areas, where the Town could launch pilots, deploying sensors in areas, where we could demonstrate visible results to our residents.

Some of these wins came from partnerships with local companies, who worked with our staff to implement sensors in the parks and some of our facilities.   SAM IT is a Morrisville based company, that has worked with us already on some sensor projects in our Parks.

The results have been impressive and have now given us momentum to do even more.  A few examples of quick wins are as follows:

  • The Morrisville Smart Shuttle: An on demand transit service, powered by an App, connects residents to 15 nodes in Morrisville.   More efforts are underway for a Connected Corridor Initiative, where transportation sensors can help provide real time visibility on roads.  Visibility into real time transportation data can help us better plan for residential development, and can help us do more to help reduce traffic congestion on our roads.

Solar Array Panel at Fire Station 1: Sensors at our Solar Array at Fire Station 1 provide real time visibility into energy usage at our Fire Station and we can expand this capability to other buildings.  Smart Building Automation Systems can also lead to more successful sustainability efforts.

Connected Park Initiative: Installing occupancy sensors at Town parks to let the community know if they are available for use, enhancing the use of green spaces and helping residents avoid unnecessary trips to courts and fields when they are occupied.

This project also included installing autonomous flood and ground moisture sensors in partnership with Green Stream, an environmental technology firm, so that the parks management team can be alerted of flooding, which has historically been an issue for Morrisville.

Based on my experience, a successful Smart City Plan must involve departments and stakeholders in your community.   Base your plan on your own strategic goals and what you are hearing from your residents.

Kudos to my team in Morrisville for making this happen!    I know that Morrisville CIO Rick Ralph and our team will share our successes at more events, so other cities can address similar challenges and experience the same successes.

  • Public Private Partnerships: Public Private partnerships are key, reaching out to market leading technology companies and local start ups, who can partner with your Towns and Cities and help address community challenges. Tom Snyder and his team at RIOT have done a remarkable job in driving these types of partnerships regionally, even starting an incubator, to grow IOT companies, who are focused on civic innovation.    Greenstream, for example, is a Triangle based company and RIOT company, offering real time flood monitoring to local governments.   In addition to leveraging the experience of market leading companies like IBM, SAS, AT&T and Cisco, we can provide start up companies a chance to pilot their products and services for Towns.   If these companies are successful, they can  grow jobs in our communities.    .

Engaged Citizens:  We established a Smart City Advisory Committee of tech saavy residents to advise and guide the Council and staff in Morrisville.  Many innovative ideas for our plans are coming from this group of technology engaged citizens.    For example, one recent idea from the Committee which is already in the works is to develop a Morrisville App for all residents.  All residents will receive updates on Town events and announcements on their Mobile Devices.   There is nothing better than true, results based citizen engagement!

  • Regional Collaboration: Finally, while we talk a great deal about Regional Collaboration, smart city innovation can be accelerated by more local governments working together to solve problems. A few years ago, RIOT organized  local governments to work on open data projects for stormwater and flooding.

We are now seeing this type of collaboration taking place with Smart Cities.

A great example is RIOT sponsoring The Smart City  Challenge, an initiative which is helping Research Triangle develop a data sharing roadmap.    

The goal for the Challenge is to accelerate mobility data sharing;  Data capture and visibility into carbon emissions, traffic travel times, congestion, energy efficiency, resiliency, health and safety) can help us all have a higher quality of life, and a cleaner more sustainable environment.

I am very proud of the Town of Morrisville  for taking a lead role in the Readiness Challenge and most recently hosting a Smart City Forum on Transportation Data at SAS.  Cary, Raleigh, Wake County, Apex, the Triangle J Council Of Governments and the Raleigh Durham are now included in these regional innovation programs.

I would encourage Secretary Weaver to not only lead efforts to deploy more broadband but encourage counties and cities across the state to develop their Smart City Playbooks Now.   One way to achieve this goal is to have a Local Government Chief Innovation Officer on board at the NC Department of IT (NCDIT) focused on championing Smart Cities in the state as we embark on our broadband expansion efforts.   Smart City Grants should be on our radar screen now more than ever as The American Rescue Plan and Biden Infrastructure Plan are investing billions in Broadband infrastructure.   The State needs to help make all of our cities and towns aware of these opportunities.

Our Regional Economic Development Partnerships and Triangle J Council of Governments  could develop a regional smart city strategy and provide ways for cities and towns to share best practices with their colleagues.   I would  like  to see the NC League of Muncipalities assist in these efforts as well.      Perhaps, at next years’ Connected Communities Conference, we can hear from more other Wake County municipalities that have jumped on the Smart City Bandwagon.   Rolesville, Garner, Apex, Wake Forest, and others can get in the game!   The time is now!

Effective smart city strategies can enable  every city and town in North Carolina to strive for more Sustainable and resilient communities and reduced carbon footprint, Reduced Traffic Congestion, More efficient urban planning, More Innovation and Jobs, and a more resilient and streamlined governments.  If the cities and counties in the state do not leverage IOT and  smart city innovation, they will be left behind.

Mr. Secretary, as you lead our efforts for Broadband expansion, let us strive to make North Carolina the Smartest State in the Union.

Then, just as we say in our Morrisville Brand Statement, we can all “Live Connected and Live Well.”