Panel discussed need for all civic partners to collaborate on smart city technology

A whopping 80 percent of a cross-section of metro Atlanta leaders who gathered at a panel discussion on smart cities convened by Bank of America Merrill Lynch thinks reducing roadway congestion is the most pressing transportation challenge that digital technology can address in the region.

The group of about 200 was comprised of business, civic, higher education and philanthropic leaders who met last week. Panelists included Adie Tomer, of the Brookings Institution; Cynthia Curry, of the Metro Atlanta Chamber; and Larry Williams, of the Technical Association of Georgia.

The purpose of the panel, “Building a Smarter Atlanta: What Digital Technology Means for the Future of Our City,” was to promote a discussion about the components of smart city technology, how it can be deployed to improve the quality of life in metro Atlanta, and how it can promote economic development.

Economic development in an aspect of smart city technology that’s not been widely discussed in metro Atlanta. But the crowd in the room clearly appreciates it – two-thirds responded that smart cities technologies and initiatives represent “a great deal” of economic opportunities.

However, they think local governments are not helping much. Asked to name the biggest roadblock to the Internet of Things technology, 57 percent selected this answer: “Unclear priorities from local governments.”

This comes at a time 60 percent of respondents said transportation mobility delivered via smart city projects represent the best opportunities to foster business and economic growth.

The growth rate in the sector is expected to be enormous over the next two years, according to Wendy Stewart, who moderated the discussion and whose titles include Southeast region co-head of global commercial banking, and Atlanta market president for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Smart city technology represented $1 trillion in economic opportunity in 2017, Stewart said Wednesday. That’s projected to balloon to $3.5 trillion in economic opportunity by 2020, she said. The sum represents various investments in infrastructure, technology and all the components.

“We talked about economic opportunity, but the reality is that this is also going to require an investment in our community,” Stewart said. “That’s something that has to be considered.”

One example in Atlanta of the cost of such technology is the $23.7 million project along an 8-mile stretch of Campbellton Road. It’s being funded through the Renew Atlanta bond program.

This price is to provide for upgrades including wireless vehicle-to-infrastructure communication that will allow for traffic light prioritization. This will enable MARTA and emergency vehicles to have green lights as they approach intersections. This feature is expected to make MARTA a more attractive commute option because travel times will be shorter by bus than car. The money also will help fund MARTA’s planning for a bus rapid transit system along the corridor.

Stewart said the discussion included a host of topics that included not only the economic and technological impacts of smart cities, but also the social implications, including:

Equity – As smart city technology is installed, those without access to it will be left behind. “How do we ensure shared prosperity so everyone can benefit from smart cities…. clearly it’s top-of-mind for the leaders in the room – the issue of equity and how smart cities can help not hinder progress is a unique opportunity.”
Food deserts – Many Atlanta neighborhoods don’t have easy access to grocery stores that have fresh fruits and vegetables. Smart city technology could be devised to address the shortages. A Southern Co. participant said the company is evaluating the potential of growing food in retrofitted buildings.
Farm-to-table movement. Georgia has a potential $2 billion market for Georgia-grown fruit and vegetables if Georgians ate the recommended daily allotment of these foods produced in Georgia, Stewart said. Smart city technology could link growers and consumers.

Stewert said the notion of promoting a conversation about smart cities fits into the bank’s mission of “making lives better through the power of every connection.”

“We certainly had a discussion around smart cities, and the potential impact of smart cities and infrastructure on Atlanta, how we need to collaborate to ensure we are successful in delivering an experience for residents that results in the best quality of life,” Stewart said. “We have to have an understanding of what a smart city is, and what a smart city isn’t.”