Last week, nearly 1,000 public and private sector leaders came to the Triangle to share best practices for using emerging technologies to improve the communities in which we live. The Raleigh Convention Center was packed with talks, exhibits and demonstrations. I’m aware of at least eight side events that were held across the region, in conjunction with the national Smart Cities Connect conference.

RIoT does a lot of work at the intersection of technology and economic development, which includes advising municipalities on “smart cities” projects.  As part of this work, our team has participated in every single Smart Cities Connect conference since the first event in Austin back in 2017. Since that session, the conference has been hosted multiple times in Denver and Washington, DC, and once in Columbus, Ohio.

This year, North Carolina was the host, and the event had a significantly different feel.  In each of the prior years of this event, it was simply a conference in a big city. Sure, there are associated happy hours held by corporate sponsors, and tourism-driven events for attendees to join, and mayoral welcomes from the main stage. But never before this year has the host location demonstrated an authentic reason that this particular event was a strong contextual fit.

The Triangle version of SCC was quite different.  Attendees arrived a day before the event to participate in a half-day workshop organized by John Holden, smart cities manager for Raleigh. Local organizations, including the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, Raleigh’s Office of Strategy & Innovation, RIoT, the Central Pines Regional Council and LifeScale Analytics collectively ran problem-gathering sessions, to better align regional priorities for future smart city projects.

These workshop sessions focused in four areas, which were chosen through an analysis of the long-term strategic plans for each community across the Triangle. Four topics were found to have strong importance to the regional plans of all of our collective communities.  They are:

  • stormwater management
  • air quality
  • climate change
  • transportation electrification.

The regional effort is being called the Triangle+ to assure that it is clear that we must work as a region that includes not only the anchor cities of Research Triangle, but also the smaller towns and more rural county areas nearby. The effort is also inclusive to outside ideas, so our local IT teams and municipal leadership can learn from each other and communities abroad.

From this workshop, the Triangle+ team is narrowing to a set of pilot projects to trial in the coming year.  While other cities around the US are looking at local deployments, siloed within a single jurisdiction, our region is actively working across borders to more effectively share data, cost-effectively share resources and create broader impact.

By the end of any week-long conference, it is common to see a sharp drop-off in attendance for the final day. Again, the Triangle bucked the trend.  Friday morning sessions remained packed with attendees, many of whom delayed their travel home until Friday night or Saturday because of another local project. Cary held a post-event “Walk in the Park” to showcase the new downtown urban park opened there last November.

If you haven’t yet visited the park, it is a must-see, simply on the merits of having something for everyone. But for the attendees of Smart Cities Connect, the big draw is just how much technology is packed into this public space.

Cary recently established their own LoRa wireless radio network across the city, to enable sensing and data capture from IoT devices. By owning and operating their own municipal network, Cary is able to deploy soil sensors to monitor watering and fertilization of plants around the park. They monitor micro-weather conditions. They can tell exactly when the paper towel rolls need to be replaced by public sinks and when bathrooms need to be cleaned. Rather than randomly inspecting for trash levels, they get alerts whenever a trash can is ready to be emptied.

Like the Triangle+ initiative, Cary’s effort hasn’t been conducted in a vacuum. Nicole Coughlin, Cary’s CIO, and her team have brought together technology partners up and down the technology solution stack. Working from open requirements, established by Cary, with a mind towards regional data sharing, partners like SAS, NWN, Cisco and Everynet deliver technology capabilities that have made Cary smarter.

These kinds of solutions have been the promise of IoT and data analytics for years, but few cities have deployed with the kind of open platform mindset that Cary has.

I spoke with a number of attendees who came to town from as far as Texas and Colorado and Canada and Switzerland. While the conference was a draw, it was the ability to see the real-world projects in the Triangle and to witness how we get a whole region to collaborate that was of highest interest.

Other cities are trying to do things on their own.  We are collaborating in a way I’ve simply not seen anywhere else. The Triangle is authentically a center of excellence in this new data economy. Smart Cities Connect moves on to San Antonio for their next event, after this week broke every attendance, exhibiting, participation and sponsorship record in the event’s history. We have set a high bar of expectations that will be hard to eclipse. Kudos to our local government CIOs and IT departments for their leadership.