Smart City Initiatives and Community Engagement in Spokane

By David Condon

David Condon has served as Mayor of Spokane, Washington, since January 2013. He is the first two-term Mayor of Spokane in more than 40 years. Mayor Condon is focused on creating a City that is safe and healthy, innovative, sustainable and provides an urban experience. Smart city projects are part of that vision.

Oct 4, 2018 | Governance, Society | 1 comment


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As Mayor of Spokane, Washington, I spend lots of time talking to people—delivering speeches, facilitating discussions, connecting at receptions, and yes, even chatting it up in the grocery store line.

I find people can connect easily with information about street projects, property crime, and economic development in the form of new businesses and jobs. These are things they can relate to; they are tangible to them in some way.

Smart City initiatives, like our Urbanova initiative in Spokane, however, are more challenging to explain. You can tell someone you want to use data to create places that are safer, healthier, and more sustainable, but that doesn’t immediately resonate. They look at you quizzically, while they remotely close the garage door they accidentally left open or schedule a Facetime visit with the grandkids.

Usually, my strategy is to take them out of the world as they understand it today and ask them, “what if?” What if you had real-time information on your use of electricity; how could that change your behavior? What if we could harness shared data about transportation needs in a given day or at a given hour to dynamically route freight traffic and free up regular commuter routes? What if we could install sensors on our street lights that dim them when traffic drops to near zero in the wee hours of the morning to save energy—and money—without impacting traffic safety? (We’re piloting that, by the way.)

Spokane’s Urbanova encompasses our 770-acre University District and serves as a living laboratory for smart city solutions like our dimming street lights that ultimately could be replicated around the world. This urban district is home to more than 54,000 residents and daily commuters. The district, adjacent to our vibrant downtown and growing medical district, is ripe for development and redevelopment as well as packed with students who are more open to emerging technology. This is a great location for our smart city initiative.

Urbanova’s partners include our regional gas and electric utility – Avista – as well as Itron, which is innovating the way utilities and cities manage energy and water; McKinstry, a leading built environment contractor; the University District Development Association, which also oversees our public development authority; and Washington State University, our state’s land grant research university. That partnership has led to our early pilot project success; we are all committed to finding solutions that are replicable, scalable, and sustainable and which improve the economic, social and environmental equity and resiliency in our community and communities like ours.

Everywhere, smart city initiatives are exciting, but somehow as a group of leaders and collaborators, we haven’t found a reliable, straight forward way to talk to regular people about it. If we’re really going to be successful in these efforts, that has to change.  We can’t continue to communicate only with each other – the people who are immersed in the Internet of Things or advanced analytics.

Recently, we formalized our intentional steps to address this gap by announcing our partnership with global analytics firm, Gallup. Known by most people as a polling company, the firm is actually the global leader in insights about the attitudes and behaviors of citizens, customers, students and employees. Tailored for an industry audience, the headline was “Gallup and Urbanova launch groundbreaking people-centered platform to enhance global smart city initiatives.”

Now, I—and probably you—know we are working on cutting-edge information gathering that is designed to provide a road map to what’s most important to our citizens. The projects we could pursue are almost endless. This will help us define what we should pursue first.  But, my citizens mostly know Gallup as the polling company, not as the advanced analytics company that supports data-driven decision making, and “people-centered platform” defies easy explanation. While this announcement is an important step forward, it doesn’t help me talk to citizens about “smart cities” – yet.

In August, though, we celebrated an allied initiative in our living laboratory that can be seen and touched and visited when finished. Avista Development, which is related to our regional gas and electric utility, broke ground on the “Catalyst” building. It will be the first net zero energy and zero carbon building in the Intermountain Northwest and will include all the latest energy and environmental bells and whistles. The building will feature cross-laminated timber construction, solar panels, and a way to store excess energy for later use.

And it will house all kinds of smart people—students and professors from Eastern Washington University in the fields of computer science, electrical engineering, and visual communication design; employees of Katerra, a technology company optimizing every aspect of building development, design and construction; and offices for McKinstry, known for its commitment to building a thriving planet.

This building will be a physical place that we can use not just to talk about smart cities but to see some of these concepts in action. It will be located at the landing of our new iconic arch bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists that will physically connect two sides of our Urbanova living lab. Today, that area is divided by a railroad viaduct, much as the understanding of some of these concepts may feel divided depending on your perspective.

I expect all of this to help us bridge the communication divide and lead to greater understanding.

Public acceptance, of course, is critically important for smart city implementation. More and more, our expenditures on public infrastructure will need to include technology investments in fiber, sensors, and other mostly invisible equipment. Limited scope projects conducted under Urbanova will help our citizens get comfortable with what information will be collected, why it will be collected, what might be in it for the citizen and what may be shared and how.

As a well-intentioned industry sector, we have to stop talking about clouds—things that can’t be touched—and start talking about (and showing) homes and work places and families and how our efforts can make things better or easier or less expensive. You know, things that actually mean something to people. We have to show them the future—and let them touch it.

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