Georgia: The State of City Innovation
The Partnership for Inclusive Innovation (the Partnership) and Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) jointly hosted the State of City Innovation event on March 28, 2023, as an opportunity for city leaders from all over Georgia to connect with faculty researchers, learn from peers, and explore the present and future of city innovation in Georgia. The event was also an opportunity for researchers to connect with mayors, city managers, and other researchers to discuss research objectives and learn about the issues facing cities that impact their research interests. State of City Innovation 2023 featured local and national experts in smart cities topics who participated in panel discussions on innovation in cities, presentations from community-researcher teams who participated in the Georgia Smart Communities Challenge (Georgia Smart), and roundtable discussions on housing, transportation, public safety, smart city planning and data analytics, and clean technology (cleantech). The morning began with words of welcome from the Executive Directors of GMA and the Partnership, Larry Hanson and Debra Lam, as well as Jen Miller, Program Manager at Schneider Electric, Mike Alexander, Chief Operating Officer of the Atlanta Regional Commission, and United States Representative Buddy Carter.
“I’ve always said you can’t get any closer to the people than being on city council or county commission – that’s why it’s so encouraging to see individuals come together with the common goal of making cities better.” Representative Buddy Carter, United States Representative of Georgia’s 1st Congressional District.
The opening panel of the event was moderated by Union City Mayor Vince Williams, the Immediate Past President of the National League of Cities (NLC) as well as GMA Past President. This panel highlighted the role of cities in fostering local innovation. Mayor Williams was joined by Joe Bozeman III, Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech, Isaiah Hugley, City Manager of Columbus, Stacy Richardson, Chief of Staff of NLC, and Tyler Svitak, Executive Director of Colorado Smart Cities Alliance. When asked about the role of equity in innovation, Joe Bozeman III offered insight into the role of recognitional equity in understanding the needs and norms of a community. Manager Hugley and Chief Richardson built upon this concept of community by discussing local innovation, especially in smaller communities. They noted that local government should encourage and facilitate innovation through policy and investing in infrastructure for innovation. Chief Richardson recalled a city that invested in sewing machines in a public facility that resulted in homegrown innovation and community collaboration. Finally, Director Svitak discussed ecosystems of community members, local government, and businesses as a quintessential part of innovation and offered his take on what makes a “smart community.”
“A smart community is one that can solve a problem regularly, frequently, and at scale.” – Tyler Svitak, Colorado Smart Cities Alliance Executive Director.
The next portion of the event consisted of presentations from 4 Georgia Smart communities: Savannah, Woodstock, Valdosta, and Warner Robbins. In the City of Savannah, Omar Asensio, an Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech, and Brian Brainerd, a Senior Planner with the City of Savannah presented their research on vacant, abandoned, and disinvested properties in the city. This research aims to understand the property trends and work towards increasing safe, decent, and affordable housing in Savannah. They found that the spillover benefits for redeveloped properties was $6.60 per square foot, indicating that redevelopment can be beneficial for the whole community.
Following this, Katy Legget, the Chief Information Officer for the City of Woodstock, and Ramachandra Sivakumar, a Senior Research Engineer with Georgia Tech, presented their research-informed plan for innovation, the Woodstock Smart Master Plan. The City of Woodstock is working towards balancing pedestrian comfort and safety with vehicular efficiency and commuter throughput in its downtown area. Through surveying locals, researchers determined the community’s needs and desires for their downtown corridor and other areas. The city has already installed illuminated crosswalks and is now working on traffic analysis and parking availability studies and plans to complete a flexible curb-lane study in the future.
In the City of Valdosta, Larry Ogden, Traffic Manager, and Heung Jin Oh, Research and Teaching Assistant at Georgia Tech, have been researching several ways to improve intersections and safety throughout the city. Valdosta has developed a travel safety app to warn drivers of incoming emergency vehicles which has aided the city’s traffic flow and emergency response time. Valdosta plans to build upon this work by researching crosswalk and intersection functionality to improve the safety of all travelers in the area.
The City of Warner Robins aided by Neda Mohammadi, Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech, and Lt. Eric Grossman of the Warner Robins Police Department presented their research on public safety. The team is working towards building a digital twin of the city to track changes in the area. From this, they discovered that concentrations of crime in Warner Robins moved over time such that a solution must be easily transportable. Since then, the city has worked to create a proactive crime prevention framework through the use of license plate recognition technology.
“[Working with the Partnership] allows me to see what other local government entities are doing — to have that synergy, to get ideas, and to work with them. Meeting [people] here to talk about the [smart cities] technology and improvements cities are using helps us out.” Reginald Brown, Macon-Bibb County Chief Information Officer
The event then moved to a working lunch followed by 30-minute roundtable discussions. Attendees gathered at 5 tables to discuss local challenges and innovations in housing, transportation, public safety, smart city planning and data analytics, and cleantech. These roundtable discussions helped to facilitate conversations about pertinent issues in communities across Georgia as well as the establishment of relationships between researchers and local government officials necessary to create healthy ecosystems of innovation. After a duration of 10 minutes, discussants were encouraged to move to the other tables to continue learning from peers on different topics and share their expertise and perspectives with one another. Participants then reconvened to share takeaways from across the groups.
“Local governments have had a fixed service delivery model for some time [but] needs are changing, culture is changing, and local governments are being asked to do different things. In most cases, governments are asked to lead by example. The change in the local government landscape, the growth in technology and innovation…we all need someone to convene the conversation and provide examples so that people can see what’s possible.” – Blaine Williams, Athens-Clarke County Manager
The final panel of the event was moderated by Brandon Branham, Chief Technology Officer and Director of the Curiosity Lab in Peachtree Corners. The panel discussed the future of innovation in Georgia’s cities. Director Branham was joined by Lynn Murphey, Program Director of Knight Foundation, Lisa Smith, Senior Vice President of Region External Affairs and Community Engagement of Georgia Power, and John E. Taylor, Program Director of the National Science Foundation Division of Computer and Network Systems, as well as Professor and Director of the Network Dynamics Lab at Georgia Tech. Senior Vice President Smith discussed Georgia Power Company’s role in the implementation of electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure. The company has already been working with data to target the right communities as well as ensuring that charging stations are readily available in underserved areas. Furthermore, Georgia Power is offering rebates to home builders to incentivize builders to include EV charging stations in new properties. This works serves as an example, along with the work of countless others, of Dr. Taylor’s later point that future-focused research must “[push] technology for technology’s sake,” but mature into smart and connected research that improves communities.
The event then closed with parting words from Directors Hanson and Lam and an invitation to attendees to submit proposals for the 2023 Georgia Smart application cycle. The theme for 2023 Georgia Smart is cleantech and any projects that incorporate innovative technology to reduce negative environmental impacts, increase resource use sustainability, or protect environmental assets through sustainable materials or processes in a civic context will be considered. Eligible projects must span between August 2023 and September 2024 and proposals will be accepted between April 1 – June 5, 2023. A webinar will provide additional information to interested research teams on May 3, 2023 at 4:00 PM. Apply here to join the 2023 Georgia Smart cohort.