In the past two years, two Alabama cities — Birmingham in 2018 and Montgomery in 2019 — have been awarded prestigious Smart Cities Readiness Challenge grants from the Smart Cities Council. An industry coalition established in 2012, the council works with cities across the United States to lower barriers to adoption of technology and data as tools to accelerate growth and expand economic opportunity. Its efforts are based in the core values of livability, workability and sustainability
“Birmingham is committed to sustainability and inclusiveness,” says Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who took office in 2017. “Our core values are efficiency, effectiveness, transparency, accountability and customer service. Smart city initiatives are a conduit for living up to those values, and the Smart Cities grant has helped sharpen our focus on ensuring that we are delivering the results our citizens expect and deserve.”
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed took office in November 2019, nearly seven months after his city was awarded the Smart Cities Readiness Challenge Grant. But supporting and expanding on Montgomery’s ongoing smart city initiatives is a key priority of the new administration, one that is embedded in each of the six focus areas — education, economic development, infrastructure and transportation, public safety, health and human services, cultural arts and entertainment — of Reed’s transition team.
“Investing in technology and innovation is paramount to positioning Montgomery as a great American city and unleashing its full economic potential,” Reed says. “Our smart city initiatives can create an equitable city and lead to quality-of-life transformations that include revitalized neighborhoods and a reinvigorated education system.”
To learn more about how Birmingham and Montgomery are leveraging the resources provided by the Smart Cities Council, we spoke to two “hands-on” representatives of their respective efforts. Josh Carpenter is director of Birmingham’s Department of Innovation and Economic Opportunity. Griffith Waller is a public relations specialist in Montgomery’s Department of Public Relations & External Affairs.
What is your city’s philosophy as it relates to being a “smart city”?
Carpenter: Albert Einstein said, “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” That’s our philosophy, which we combine with Mayor Woodfin’s commitment to the theme of “Putting People First.” For us, a smart city is one that integrates human-centered systems that are data-driven, collaborative, interdisciplinary and intentional. It is a city with systems that are responsive to changes in circumstance.
Waller: We believe that smart city investments and initiatives are crucial to driving development, diversifying our economy and advancing opportunity in Montgomery and the surrounding region. We’re elevating the quality of life for everyone in the community. That means enhancing residential services and reducing blight, increasing organizational efficiency and saving taxpayer dollars, optimizing public safety processes by ad
How would you assess your city’s progress against the goals for which it was awarded the Readiness Challenge grant? What initiatives are currently underway or have been completed?
Waller: Our first foray into the “smart city” space was Open Data Montgomery, which was launched in 2017. It’s a web platform comprised of high-value data, published in an engaging and open format for the public. The ever-increasing amount of data available ranges from building permits and road improvements to city expenditures and crime mapping.
Another backbone of our Smart City initiatives is the Montgomery Internet Exchange, or MGMix. It came online in 2016 as the first open exchange point in Alabama and one of only four in the Southeast. It’s a visionary collaboration, housed in the Retirement Systems of Alabama’s Dexter Data Center in downtown Montgomery, and in addition to the City of Montgomery includes Montgomery County, the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base, the Air Force Cyber College and our local research universities.
Currently, MGMix hosts four unique DNS root server instances. Among the four exchange points in the Southeast, that’s more than Jacksonville and Tampa, which have three each, and it’s closing in on Atlanta’s five. This investment is boosting operations for our existing businesses and industries and will continue to help us attract new economic development opportunities.
We also have TECHMGM, a public-private partnership of the city, the county, the Chamber, the Montgomery Public Schools, Alabama Power and representatives of the region’s defense community. This partnership launched the Smart City Living Lab in downtown Montgomery, which will feature fiber-optic infrastructure, and expansion of our Open Data Portal, free high-speed public Wi-Fi, conversion of streetlights to LED and deployment of smart parking solutions throughout downtown. We view the Living Lab as a proving ground for new technologies and pilot projects that, if successful, can be deployed to other areas throughout the community.
Finally, the city’s Public Works and IT departments continue to embrace smart solutions to everyday challenges. We adopted Rubicon SmartCity software to optimize daily sanitation operations and efficiencies that have led to big savings on repair costs and manpower devoted to our fleet and equipment. That technology also turns equipped trucks into roaming data centers for tracking and responding to problems like potholes and downed trees. Public Works also teamed with RoadBotics, which is helping us use artificial intelligence to better assess paving needs.
Carpenter: In economic development, our overarching goal was to integrate data structures into our systems so that we could better understand how to build a robust ecosystem for small and young companies. One example is business licensing, which we focused on because of three conclusions we drew from structured conversations with local business owners.
First, every business in Birmingham must go through this process, so it’s the most important touchpoint in establishing a dynamic feedback loop with the business community. Second, if we re-imagined our business license process as a front door to city government, that touchpoint becomes a switchboard, navigating businesses to the resources they need to thrive — access to capital and incentives, technical assistance, sourcing new business opportunities and establishing networks. Third, if we collected data to help us better understand the needs of local businesses — particularly minority- and women-owned businesses and disadvantaged business enterprises — we could shape our policies more effectively and optimize deployment of our resources.
That data also informs and drives changes that need to be made in our process. As a result, on December 1, 2019, we launched online business licensing. It’s a process that uses carefully designed surveys to collect the data we need to continually improve the job we do.
Another example is the changes we’ve made in how we award incentives. We’ve spent the past year designing a new, digital- and data-intensive incentives framework, focused on the ROI on taxpayer dollars. We will be rolling that out soon.
We’ve also placed an emphasis on leveraging partnerships like the one we have with Burning Glass Technologies. That partnership allows us to have a real-time understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of our labor market, enabling us to design our human capital incentives to support the needs of our business community. We have an informed understanding of the occupations in our market, in which demand is outpacing supply, and are positioned to help businesses find and hire the talent they need.
At the neighborhood level, among other things, we’ve worked with Alabama Power on a pilot project to enhance public safety by installing cameras and LED lighting on existing utility infrastructure. In addition to the public safety benefits, we anticipate significant savings on utility costs as a result of these improvements.
How has the Smart City grant supported or accelerated progress toward your objectives?
Carpenter: Building an inclusive economy requires cooperation across sectors — public, private, academic and civic. From that perspective, the Smart City Readiness Challenge grant provided us with an avenue by which to form an official, cooperative partnership between the city, the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Alabama Power. It also helped us bring additional focus to our efforts to engage the community at large. Complex social challenges require innovative solutions, and innovative solutions are created when members of the community come together to integrate their ideas, knowledge and expertise.
Waller: The grant helped Montgomery reassess its smart city strategy and refocus our efforts in an even more collaborative approach among internal and external partners. It offered us a chance to “roadmap” opportunities and prioritize them according to the biggest immediate impact on building a better community. It helped us reach our first set of goals with our Smart City Living Lab, leading us to now work with our partners in TECHMGM to move to the next steps in that space. It has helped fine-tune our vision for Montgomery’s future