Recently, for whatever reason, I have been binge watching the Avengers. I am intrigued by this idea of a multiverse, that there is a parallel universe out there with all of us in it, and in this universe the world is very different from what we see every day.

Imagine if in another universe right now, there were no “smart” cities.

No Internet of Things.

No Riot.

No Tom Snyder.

No highspeed broadband.

No data economy.

In this other universe, if a Morrisville parent wanted to know if their soccer practice was canceled, they would have to view the website, call a number or, like I did when my kids played, drive to the fields and see that practice or a game was canceled. If, for example, I wanted to go play some tennis or pickleball, I would drive to the courts and then see them all occupied.

In the Morrisville I live in on a rainy day, residents would be sent a notification that the fields were wet. (Data captured by the sensors). Staff would be notified and the gates to the park would automatically shut. Tennis! I can view which courts are taken and head over to another park if the courts are filled up.

This exercise really made me think of how far our region has come in this space and how much progress we can showcase to the cities around the nation during the Smart Cities Connect Conference next week.

It’s not about the tech, it’s about the data

During his State of the Region address in February,  Tom Snyder reminded a packed room of startups, investors, and city leaders on how our smart city progress in the Triangle, has quickly transformed our region into a powerful, vibrant data economy. He reminded all of us that we are seeing a shift from the internet or information age to the data era, where data can be gathered and viewed in real time to automate/streamline processes and enhance the quality of life for our residents.

RIOT summed it up best in a recent newsletter:

The real-time automation of data through IoT (data capture), 5G/LPWAN (data connectivity), AI/ML (data analytics) and AR/VR (data visualization) is fundamentally transforming every industry. More exciting, we saw the potential for RTP to be the epicenter of the Data Economy, a hub where innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship would converge to drive unprecedented growth and prosperity. A silicon valley for the Data Age, if you will. 

As the years passed, this vision gained momentum, fueled by the passion and determination of those who believed in its potential. Startups sprung up like wildflowers, each one eager to harness the power of data to solve complex problems and create new opportunities. Technology giants took notice, setting up shop in RTP to tap into its talent pool and collaborative spirit.

It wasn’t just about attracting big names and flashy headlines. It was about building a community — a community of innovators, disruptors and dreamers who were united by a shared vision of shaping the future through data. Together, they collaborated on groundbreaking research, launched game-changing products, and mentored the next generation of data-driven leaders. (August 30 2024, RIOT Newsletter)

Morrisville’s “smart city” transition

The Town of Morrisville is a perfect example of a local government that has leveraged the data economy and smart cities to enhance the quality of life for its residents.

Two years ago in my blog, “Making NC A Smart State,” I cited Morrisville as a perfect example of a smaller town, which was able to develop a more sustainable, resilient and innovative community. Managing flood levels in parks, providing real time visibility of facility usage for our residents, ordering on demand transit via an app are a few examples of how our residents’ quality of life can benefit from this type of innovation.

Since I wrote that last article, the Town of Morrisville has received the CIO Symposium Award for leading world class innovation, one of the first local governments to receive such an award.

The town’s facility vision project is a finalist for the IDC Government Insights Awards, and this program, will create a smart city dashboard, where residents can view in real time how their fitness center is being utilized.

In fact, just yesterday, I was told that my days of getting to the pool and seeing lap lanes full could end very soon, as I could view lane status on the Morrisville app.  Residents can also use the Morrisville app to report concerns, get town updates on events, and in June, the town will be data brainstorming with start ups and techies at a hackathon on how to gamify our app.

The Morrisville success story clearly demonstrates that data-driven decision making enables us to leverage data analytics to gather insights, make informed decisions and personalize customer experiences.

Kudos to Rick Ralph and his team for laying a foundation and case study for other Wake County municipalities to follow, which leads me to my next point.

It’s the jobs stupid

Remember the old Bill Clinton campaign slogan? Well, in this case, it’s the jobs, stupid.

I am seeing a connection between startups working with local governments and their ability to create new jobs.

Green Stream Technologies was founded to install and manage sensors in fields to manage floods and worked with other local governments in the region on a data sharing project for stormwater. Today, they are a growing company, offering their services across the country.

Varidx worked with Morrisville to set up and manage smart city dashboards and is now sharing their smart city ideas with other local governments across Wake County. I look forward to hearing them on a panel at the conference.

Startups like Acta Solutions and Civic AI are applying artificial intelligence to enhance the efficiency of customer services to local governments.

Chip McClelland at See Insights continues to provide better data on park utilization to bolster community support for parks and provide insights that help park staffs better manage their resources. He is working with Morrisville on a number of their initiatives. (I ran into him at the pool and he told me about the lap lane sensors!)

And RIOT has had a number of successful startups that have sprung out of their accelerator program.

In the midst of major tax incentives to bring in the big whales for economic development, smart city startups which succeed can grow and hire jobs.

For every company we create, about five jobs are created. Startup success in smart cities can accelerate job creation, and keep our Secretary of State Elaine Marshall very busy incorporating more new companies.

Another takeaway from Tom’s remarks at the State of the Region event is to question if the major incentives that we provide to bring major employers are really working.

Sonic Automotive, Conduent, Centene and, most recently, Invitae have reneged on over $431 million of tax incentives because they did not hit their performance targets.

Microsoft just pulled out of their lease in Morrisville and Perimeter Park is looking very empty.

Perhaps, we need to think about transforming these empty offices into more co-working spaces or RIOT accelerators.

Imagine (in another universe) if these dollars were invested in grant programs for startups and entrepreneurs.    This would be more  grant money for Thom Rhue and NC Idea to provide to local entrepreneurs and smart city startups. Small businesses in North Carolina employ 1.7 million North Carolinians, and can be as critically important to creating jobs as the big tax incentives.  Scot Wingo’s Tweener Fund is also another place these startups can look at as he is changing the game of start up funding in our region.

Forget the Avengers. In the present day universe, we have the Innovators: the  local startups, investors and visionaries who are not afraid to take the first steps on new roads, armed only with their vision and willingness to bring positive change to our communities. These innovators can power up our data economy even more and transform our region to the Silicon Valley of data startups!

Smart city collaboration is key to success

Over the past two years, state Chief Information Officer Jim Weaver has made it his top priority to deliver the $1 billion of broadband funding throughout all of  North Carolina, with the focus on providing high speed internet to every corner of the state. In Wilmington, President Biden reminded the audience that North Carolina has now provided high speed internet access to over 900,000 households and saved millions on their internet bill.

As Weaver continues to execute North Carolina’s broadband plan to provide high speed internet for that last mile,  our state now has the opportunity to accelerate smart city initiatives across the state at a much faster pace.     Every place where we expand high speed broadband access is a potential for smart city.

While I am excited about the handful of cities and towns like Raleigh, Cary and Morrisville that are demonstrating smart city success, we can can now expand these types of programs with other local governments. For example, there is no reason that Garner, Rolesville, Fuquay Varina and Apex cannot join these efforts but in order to do there must be a more regional approach so best practices can be shared.

A regional approach across the Triangle was launched last November and is continuing this week at the Smart Cities Connect conference. The Connected Triangle+ Summit brought together community leaders, entrepreneurs, and business of all size to explore regional “smart” collaboration. You can see the dialogue and the panels online.

And this work continues with a focused discussion on how we share data to benefit local climate and sustainability goals.

“Our May 7 workshop is focused on actionable data collection and sharing projects across jurisdictions to improve local and regional climate and sustainability projects,” said John Holden, organizer and smart city manager for the City of Raleigh.

An idea I have would be to have a Wake County task force which could provide recommendations to other local governments in our region on how to begin their smart city initiatives. This task force could help provide a central forum where other governments can learn from case study examples. For example, every city or town in Wake County could be offering similar services like Morrisville (managing facility usage, flood sensors, mobile app), a repeatable process where smart city innovation can be accelerated and more Wake County residents can see the benefits of innovative applications of technology.

Finally, collaboration between government entities, businesses, academia and community organizations is essential for the success of smart city initiatives. The recent HBCU Smart Cities Challenge showcased how cities can leverage collective expertise and resources to address complex urban challenges, fostering innovation and job creation in the process. Students from the HBCUs spent time with town staffs and came up with ideas to on how smart city solutions could help address a number of challenges in transportation, sustainability and a number of other areas. I enjoyed meeting many of these students when they did their meetings in Morrisville.

Startups will bring their innovative ideas to solve complex urban challenges.

Advice for the next governor of North Carolina

I do hope that our next governor restructures the Information Technology cabinet position to help grow smart city initiatives across the state as we continue to expand broadband. The secretary position could be restructured to focus on growing smart city initiatives in all local governments across the state. Cities and counties that do not embrace IOT innovation could become the digital rust belt and will be left behind. The tech secretary and Department of Information Technology can be expanded beyond the silos of state agencies.

The secretary and next governor can transform North Carolina into the smartest state in the nation as we continue to invest broadband money from the American Rescue Plan and America Connectivity Act.

Come out to Smart Cities Connect

As we prepare to host the Smart Cities Connect Conference next week in Raleigh, I wanted each of us to take some time and celebrate the progress we are making and the positive impact that data innovation is bringing every day to our lives in the Triangle.

RTP has indeed become the epicenter of the data economy that visionaries had once imagined. It’s a place where startups thrive, where technology companies push the boundaries of what’s possible, and where local government officials work hand in hand with industry leaders to create a more connected, intelligent, and resilient community.

It is validating that Smart Cities Connect, a national conference and expo dedicated to the advancement of smart city initiatives and urban innovation has chosen Raleigh for this year’s event. I encourage all city leaders to attend this conference, which expected to have over 1,000 attendees and technology leaders and companies from all around the world.  In addition, there are over 400 city leaders from across our country and the world,  who will  be coming to Raleigh to share their experiences, lessons learned and most importantly, how local governments can embrace data innovation to grow jobs, and make our lives better.

Like the “Mission Impossible” movie line, “This is your mission if you choose to accept it.”

I hope you will accept your smart city mission!

See you soon!

Editor’s note: Steve S. Rao is a councilmember at large and former mayor pro tem for the town of Morrisville and an Opinion Writer for WRAL TechWire.  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.