Editor’s note: Tom Snyder, executive director of rapidly growing Raleigh-based RIoT and a thought leader in the emerging Internet of Things, is among the latest columnists to join WRAL TechWire’s list of top drawer contributors. “Datafication Nation.” His columns are part of WRAL TechWire’s Startup Monday package.


RALEIGH – The first “smart” phone was the IBM Simon Personal Communicator, launched in 1994. This was the first device that had not only an analog phone, but also was capable of receiving emails, faxes and pages. The term “smart phone” is most closely associated with the launch of the iPhone 2G in 2007. The iPhone led to a craze where culturally we began to add the word “smart” to any wirelessly connected device and any place or thing with wirelessly connected sensors. Today we have smart watches, farms, cars and cities.

Today I’d like to take a deeper look into the Smart City (or Community is perhaps a better descriptor). What exactly do we mean by “smart” in this area? Our cities and communities already had connectivity and sensors long before they were called “smart.”.So is this just a marketing term, or are we really living in fundamentally different places than we previously have – thanks to technology advances?  Let’s take a closer look across our region.

Wilson, about an hour east of Raleigh, arguably was the first city in North Carolina to understand the potential of “smart”. Just after the iPhone launch, Wilson began to deploy a fiber to the home network in 2008. Wilson connected every home, business and school to high speed broadband. If the definition of smart for a device is to robustly connect it to the internet – Wilson did that with every structure, taking smart to a city scale. Today that network enables thousands of smart solutions both inside and outside the government.

Half a dozen years after Wilson began their journey, Cary took action, deploying connectivity, compute and security infrastructure across their center-city government complex. They published requirements for how companies and entrepreneurs could use their facilities as a living lab testbed to trial smart city solutions. Soon smart street lights, parking spaces and numerous other solutions were being tested in the City.

Fast forward to today and Cary is deploying novel wireless infrastructure across the entire city to enable smart sensors used by the government, residents and local businesses alike. Nicole Coughlin, Cary’s CIO is regularly invited to speak at smart city conferences around the world and is a member of CNBC’s Technology Executive Council.

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Not to be outdone, Raleigh got in the game in 2018 with the launch of the Smart Cities Summit. While Raleigh had deployed many smart city systems by this time, they saw an opportunity to leverage the crowd and begin to coordinate across the region. The conference was a catalyst to attract solution providers to the region and a forum for exchange of best practices among regional governments.

A few months ago, Raleigh hired their first dedicated Smart City Manager, John Holden, who is already pushing the whole region to become smarter. In a few short months, Raleigh has been selected to host Smart Cities Connect, the premier Smart Cities Conference in the US, at the Raleigh Convention Center next May (register here).

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Raleigh continues to host an annual summit, recently rebranded to Connected Triangle+ Summit (register here). In conjunction, this year the city is hosting a reverse pitch competition organized by RIoT, asking entrepreneurs and startups to propose “smart” solutions that address challenges in transportation, environment and climate change and equity/affordability. This is a follow-on to 2021’s Augmented Reality Challenge, jointly run by Raleigh and Cary to develop AR solutions for public good. I encourage you to invite anyone working on using technology to make the places we live higher quality and more accessible to apply to this year’s contest.

In April of this year, I had the opportunity to lead a discussion in Denver, Colorado that highlighted examples of how the Triangle, and the more rural communities that surround it, are collaborating on smart solutions. For example, in 2020, several cities, counties and the State of NC worked together to collect and share stormwater data and creek levels. The idea was to increase the time between when a creek level rose upstream and when it might cause a flash flood downstream. Nature doesn’t follow jurisdictional boundaries. That project was awarded the Smart Water project of the year by IDC and is just one example of how “smart” our region is.

Attendees from across the US approached me after that session asking how they could learn from our regional approach.  There are a few other areas thinking similarly – the greater Dallas region is one and the State of Colorado is another. But for now, the Triangle+, as John Holden has begun to describe it to capture the entire region around the Triangle, has a head start.

Perhaps one day folks will point back to the Triangle+ as the first “Smart Region” in the same way IBM and Apple are notable for their smart device firsts.