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As Phoenix emerges from recession, smart city initiatives move front and center

The recession of 2008 took place more than a decade ago. Still, for many cities, the impact of that economic freefall has only just moved into rear view.

The downturn dealt a blow to cities such as Phoenix, and the state of Arizona lost hundreds of thousands of jobs by May 2009. A decade later, this city continues to rebuild from the decline.

“We are just coming out of the recession that hit us hard out here,” said Matthew Arvay, CIO at the Phoenix city government. “This is the first year where we have had a small surplus of monies where we can invest in additional areas,” he said.

According to projections from the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity, the number of jobs in the state is expected to grow 2.7% from the third quarter of 2018 to the second quarter of 2020. While construction will bring some job growth, other sectors, including manufacturing, education and health services, will also boost the economic expansion and bring diversity of industry along the way.

“Overall, the state is firing on all cylinders,” wrote George Hammond, director of the Economic and Business Research Center at the University of Arizona, in a brief on the economic growth in Arizona in 2018.

Now that the city is emerging from darker financial times and can claim a $55 million surplus, several technology projects have hit the docket of the office of the CIO in Phoenix. Among other projects, Arvay’s office is turning to smart city initiatives — which use technology to make cities more operationally efficient, safer and even innovative — to usher in the next chapter of growth for Phoenix.

Smart city initiatives take center stage in Phoenix

Over the past few years, Phoenix has already made initial forays into smart city initiatives. The city’s streetlighting program, which began in 2016, will, all told, replace 100,000 streetlights with LED lighting to promote cost savings and exploit small-cell technology.

New smart city initiatives include Hance Park Master Plan, which will transform a downtown park into an urban destination spot, enlisting smart city technologies.

Second, the Eastlake neighborhood will be refurbished through the Eastlake Revitalization Project, which is funded through a $30 million grant from the Choice Neighborhoods grant program at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Arvay will spearhead a workshop to devise smart technology systems — such as Wi-Fi inside park or community center boundaries or smart irrigation systems — to incorporate into these projects for better results. Arvay expects that these projects will pave the way for further work.

Phoenix is also about to start establishing a roadmap for the next three to five years concerning smart city projects.

“We’re trying to create a more formal strategy and roadmap for the next three to five years,” Arvay said. “This is a prime time to understand who we are, what are our challenges, what our gaps are and how we can use technology to address them.”

Matthew Arvay

In advance of this year’s IoT World in Santa Clara, Calif., May 13-16, Arvay spoke about how Phoenix is approaching new smart city initiatives and how they will take shape. Ajay Joshi, Arvay’s deputy CIO, will appear as a session speaker at IoT World.

What technology do you see on the horizon that will have a major impact on smart city initiatives?

Matthew Arvay: The deployment of small-cell technology will have a major impact on smart city initiatives. As various providers continue to implement 5G, it will lay the foundation and provide the bandwidth that companies and cities have needed to expand their data-gathering efforts, to analyze that information and ultimately lead to better decision-making. So it will be key.

In Phoenix, there is a heavy investment in 5G. We’re estimating some 12,000 to 15,000 small cells [to be installed] throughout Phoenix by 2025. It’s about 5G providing the capacity — the highway, if you will — so we can do more predictive analytics and reduce some of the manual tasks today, so we can automate. City staff can focus on higher-level functions.

Local challenges often define the smart city landscape. What are they in Phoenix?

Arvay: Cities have slightly varying community challenges, so it’s important to understand what they are so we can invest in the right technology to ease those challenges.

Phoenix faces challenges that include traffic congestion, pedestrian and public safety, homelessness. One challenge somewhat unique to us in the Valley is urban heat islands [geographic areas that develop with higher temperatures than their rural surroundings], as well as other issues like the digital divide. Phoenix has started to address them through projects such as a beacon light signal system for crosswalks, expansion of the light rail system and expansion of the police department’s body-worn cameras program. We anticipate creating a three-to-five-year roadmap and identifying goals, milestones to address these issues.

How do you see smart city projects as helping to provide services for lower-income residents?

Arvay: With autonomous vehicles, those without transport could pull up to a house and have access to transport. This could reduce the number of vehicles on the street and also provide [ease of access]. Today there are those who have a distance to walk to get to public transport. Arizona is already becoming a hub for self-driving cars.

Another project that falls under the smart city umbrella, if you will, is Census 2020. The federal government has gone to more of an online process with fewer enumerators. It’s very important that we get an accurate count, especially in areas without access to computers or with few communication technologies, but also that we get as many residents to participate in the census as possible. We’re partnering with vendors to retrofit Dial-a-Ride buses with wireless communications and computer devices and staff that will go to these communities and market how important it is for them to be counted in Census 2020, let alone legislative representation. This brings in concerns about the digital divide.

Surveillance cameras and sensors installed in urban areas can seem like a big-brother move. How do you educate residents about the benefits of smart city technology?

Arvay: You have to work with community so they understand. If you put video surveillance in an intersection, residents need to understand why the city is doing so. Being transparent with intent of technology is very important.

We also hold numerous community outreach programs or meetings, depending on what the city project is — whether it’s for light rail, parks, even our budget process. Community outreach and engagement are critical to have that two-way community input.

Other cities with smart city projects in flight have emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships and lessons learned from other cities. Have these been important for you as you embark on your journey?

Arvay: Phoenix is at the beginning stages of understanding what others are doing. Some cities are further along, more mature than Phoenix. San Diego and its partnerships [with the private sector] and how it has built out infrastructure are notable. Of course, we are looking at Kansas City in terms of its best practices [for smart city projects]. We’re also looking at Atlanta. It will be interesting to see how they move forward.

We have had regional meetings with other CIOs and with Arizona State [University] to create a smart regional consortium. Arizona Institute for Digital Progress is heading the smart region initiative. We have various challenges across geographic boundaries to see if there are collaborative opportunities [to launch smart city initiatives in] multiple cities, with Arizona State and other higher-educational institutions.

There is a lot of energy concerning smart city technology in Phoenix right now. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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