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Saturday, April 10, 2021

Smart Cities: Technology is changing, well, almost everything

People have been talking about harnessing the power of big data to make cities more efficient and user-friendly since the 1990s. But the real expansion of the effort had to wait on a new technology.

“The movement that kicked off all this in earnest is the release of the original smart phones back in probably about 2008 or so,” says Steven Duong, associate vice president of design and planning at AECOM.

Duong was speaking as part of a panel on The Future of Smart Cities in America at the recent Ninth Annual Northeast Tarrant Transportation Summit.

He introduced a term that some may find unfamiliar – Internet of Things – and said that the smart phone “served as the best IOT device in the world.”

“The idea is that lots of different devices around your everyday life connect to the internet and [are] sending data back to the cloud that allows some central database, in this case probably artificial intelligence (AI), to harness that data and make better decisions,” he said.

Smart Cities started in the information technology sector but in the last five years or so it has moved into transportation, housing and other general construction industries, Duong said.

Implications of the change are stunning, from self-driving cars to the end of private ownership of cars to precise city planning that doesn’t guess how people want to live, work and play, but knows what they want.

Putting aside the privacy issues, the devices in people’s cars and the devices they carry with them and use in their homes have resulted in an explosion of data. Duong noted that 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years and that 80 percent of the world’s data today is unstructured.

“When I say unstructured data, I mean that this is information that is being created that hasn’t yet been harnessed in a controlled fashion that we can apply in a very specific manner,” he said. And one way to do that is through artificial intelligence.

“And when I say artificial intelligence, I don’t actually mean things like the Alexa that might be in your home,” Duong said.

He means powerful computers and programs that can learn from their own experience.

The implications for the transportation system for rapidly growing states like Texas are enormous, said Kristi Chin, director of civic innovation for the Texas Innovation Alliance.

“The population of Texas is expected to double by the year 2050. How do we manage that growth? And how do we anticipate the changes that are happening at a pace where it’s difficult for us in the public sector to constantly keep up when we [do] business in the same way that we always have,” Chin said.

The Texas Innovation Alliance works with the Texas Department of Transportation, the agency charged by the Legislature with developing the Texas Technology Task Force as a way to anticipate the trends on the population side as well as on the technology side.

Most people think of congestion and traffic jams on streets and highways when they think about transportation problems.

“I’d like to ask for us to take a step back from that,” Chin said. “One of the things that we’re ultimately trying to solve is, ‘How do we help get people to jobs? How do we help those who … maybe don’t own a car? How do we provide them reliable transportation to be able to get to the places they need to?’”

An example is MedStar in Fort Worth, where the dispatch system learns from experience and combines a number of sources of information to direct ambulances to where they are supposed to be.

“You have the pre-call, which is analyzing data on where calls have come from by hour of day, day of week, which then tells us where to position ambulances for the next hour,” said Matt Zavadsky, chief strategic integration officer for MedStar Mobile Healthcare.

Taking it to the next level, when a 911 call comes in, even before it is answered, the system automatically uses geolocating to select and notify the closest ambulance to that incoming call, he said, and sends the most efficient route to the ambulance’s navigation computer.

The choice of closest ambulance is not based on distance but on time, using historical drive times and current traffic information from the traffic sensors that MedStar taps into, Zavadsky said.


Stephen Coulston, managing principal in the Austin office of architecture firm Perkins+Will, said his company believes that design has the power to transform people and the planet for the better.

One way is technology, mobility and people, and technology, cities and people.

“We’re in Texas, so I guess we can talk about horses tied to the hitching rails, but at the end of the day it really comes down to how we typically acquired mobility in the past was … mostly through single ownership, whether we owned our own horse, or we owned our own car,” he said. “But technology in the world around us today has really transformed how we get around, right?”

In the future, a traveler can ask on a smart phone for the best choice for getting from here to there, and integrated technology might say by bicycle because of a train derailment or some other problem.

Coulston said that in the Greater Los Angeles area, people spend on average 104 hours a year in traffic congestion and the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is trying to attack that problem.

“We decided let’s take a look in collaboration and in partnership with Perkins and Will and [transit consulting firm] Nelson/Nygaard and with Lyft to think about how design could have an influence on changing that environment in the future,” Coulston said.

They took one of the most congested cities in the country and one of the most congested intersections in that city – the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Veterans Avenue in Los Angeles, about six miles from the beach, just around the corner from Beverly Hills and near the University of California, Los Angeles.

The analysis put about 30,000 people going through that intersection in an hour, he said.

Lyft was interested in studying its Lyft Line, which provides ride sharing for passengers going the same direction, a carpool-like solution to reduce single-occupancy vehicle trips.

Coulston said that in Los Angeles, about 70 percent of the trips are by a single occupant and SCAG’s goal was to reduce that by half in the Greater Los Angeles are by 2035. The companies decided to see whether they could develop a design that would focus on community, people and public gathering places and allow for alternative forms of transportation.

What happened, he said, is that they did that and also doubled the number of people able to pass through the Wilshire-Veterans intersection in an hour.

“So then we ended up with not only better opportunities for decreasing traffic, but we actually ended up designing better places for people,” Coulston said. “But this must happen in public-private partnerships as we race for the technology and the infrastructure to be put in place.”


Fort Worth’s chief technology officer/IT solutions director, Kevin Gunn, says one thrust of the Smart Cities effort is to do more with less. Growth puts a lot of stress on city budgets because the infrastructure has to go in before there are returns on that investment. The constant repair to older systems adds to the pressure.

“We need to find the efficiencies within the organization to be able to meet those demands of growth and maintaining our current infrastructure without having to raise tax rates, without having to raise utility fees and those sorts of things.

“So we’re leaning more on working smarter and not harder. I think that’s kind of where the Smart City moniker comes from: working smarter,” Gunn said. “We’re using data more now than ever to be analyzing, and turning raw data into information, and turning information into things that can support management decisions. And so we’re making better, wiser decisions about how to invest our limited resources based on Smart City-type efforts.”

Gunn said there are many efficiencies to be gained by using smart technology – automating things, using sensors that collect information and send it back to City Hall to be processed in an automated way that doesn’t take people.

“That’s kind of freeing up those people then to do higher-level, more value-added things,” he said. “That is kind of key to our strategy – finding ways to do those tasks that we have to do that kind of feed into our operations and into the machinery and how we keep this city running, but do it in a way that doesn’t require a lot of labor and is more automated.”

Gunn says the Smart Cities concept is evolving.

“The first round was really aimed at efficiencies, getting machines to do things that people used to do. I think Fort Worth is pretty far along in those,” he said, citing the city’s parking meter app that increases efficiency for the customer and makes collecting parking fees more efficient as well.

The next level is collecting raw information and processing it to support management decisions. Under City Manager David Cooke, that’s been an emphasis, Gunn said.

The third evolution is integrating both private and public agencies and interested parties, and the city is reaching out to those groups, individuals and organizations, he said.

The press toward ever more sophisticated data collection and analyses and the resulting efficiencies that can come from it is only increasing with the population

Coulston notes that there are 10 U.S. cities with more than a million people and three are in Texas: Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. Fort Worth soon will be one as well.

“We have eight of the top 20 largest cities in the country in Texas and we’re continuing pretty exponential growth,” he said.

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Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

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