Learn about Atlanta’s recent coming-of-age party for smart cities, and about how Atlanta is establishing a thriving ecosystem of local government, startups, telecom, NGOs, and universities to solve some of the city’s toughest problems.
Debutante balls, quinceañeras, bar mitzvahs, cotillions, sweet 16s…they all have something in common: they signal to society that a young person has come of age, that he or she is ready to be taken seriously, that he or she is poised to enter adult society. If that’s the case, then smart cities technologies may have had their coming-of-age celebration in Atlanta this fall.
The event, dubbed “Experience Smart ATL,” was an adult book fair of sorts. All of the folks involved in smart cities projects in Atlanta — spanning half a dozen departments and dozens of vendors, large and small — came together to present their efforts to over 350 attendees. Each project had a tabletop and participants went from table to table to learn about the scope and scale of ongoing smart cities efforts in Atlanta.
Interacting with the exhibits and reflecting on the diversity of problems that smart cities technologies are solving in Atlanta, you couldn’t help but be struck by an overwhelming sense, “Smart cities technologies are not a passing fad. They’re real, they’re here to stay, and this is a good thing.”
I know it’s my job, but even my head spun with all of the different opportunities there are to improve city services, as well as with the realization that we’re only currently pursuing a small percentage of those opportunities. This was exactly why we put on Experience Smart ATL — to signal that smart cities have arrived in Atlanta.
But that wasn’t the only reason. There were several other motivations that drove us to invest a couple of months into throwing this smart city coming-of-age party. The event:
1. Consolidated Atlanta’s disparate smart cities projects under one umbrella. This is making it easier for city government to weave a comprehensive narrative about its efforts to use technology to solve Atlanta’s toughest problems.
2. Incentivized project teams to publish and polish efforts that are still underway. There’s nothing like a public event to encourage staff to consolidate project materials and decide how to tell their story!
3. Focused the vendor community on improving city services. Walking through the event, it was obvious that smart cities efforts in Atlanta are so much bigger than just one vendor, product or partnership, and as a result, vendors came away with a better appreciation of their role within the city’s larger efforts.
The practicalities involved in putting on the event were straightforward and surprisingly cheap. The City’s out of pocket expense was just a few hundred dollars, as General Assembly generously donated the space, and content for the booths came from existing project teams. When it came to invitations, we were careful about our intended audience, as this event was not meant to supplement or replace our existing, on-the-ground community engagement efforts with citizens. Instead, we encouraged Atlanta leaders — academics, marketing professionals, lawyers, entrepreneurs — from many different sectors that have an interest in municipal innovation, technology and smart cities to participate. Being clear about who was attending allowed us to tailor the event to be more specific and more relevant and not, for example, spend a lot of time explaining the basics of cloud technology.
One of the more unique aspects of the event was that it was democratic: all of the project teams (and vendors) had the same small table top displays. This was equally true of huge telecom companies and of tiny local startups.
For example, AT&T presented a small sample of the technologies and smart city solutions they have installed in the city in a modest booth display near a group of Georgia Tech students that had built a creative prototype display of events and movement on the Atlanta Beltline. This was a subtle, but important, signal of the event’s focus on how Atlanta is using smart cities technologies to improve citizen services, and is a large part of why the event felt (and looked) so different from a conference expo floor.
For other cities interested in throwing a coming-of-age event for smart cities in their community, I have one major piece of advice: be pure in your intent.
It’s essential to know precisely why you’re having the event. Otherwise, mission-creep will abound, and before you know it, you’ll be managing the expo floor of another smart cities conference. Don’t hesitate to say no to the hangers-on, the folks who want to participate but who are not actively working with your local government on a specific project or technology.
Atlanta’s commitment to using technology to improve city services has come of age; smart cities efforts permeate dozens of different city departments, from watershed management to IT, and the technologies are here to stay. The City of Atlanta continues to formalize and improve the process of identifying new and emerging technologies that can solve problems across the city and improve the quality of life for everyone in the region. As the market matures and more advances are offered in the future, the city looks forward to finding and implementing those solutions that make our region the most attractive place to live and visit. But that process doesn’t happen by default.
To learn more about Atlanta’s smart cities efforts, visit smartatl.atlantaga.gov.