What I learned about Smart Communities (from ITE members)
This post is to help share this journey as a backdrop from what the recommendations for the organization should be for the rest of 2017 and beyond.
Over the past 4 months, I have had the opportunity to go and meet with different Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) members throughout the US. From Columbia, SC to St. Simon Island, GA, a subset of dedicated ITE members volunteered their time to discuss and analyze ITE’s role in the realm of Smart Communities. I have met very dedicated and passionate folks in the industry, whose main goal is to make their community better. Whether it be installing safer streets through a Complete Street, providing and reporting on research on the linkage to transportation and public health, walking through case studies of traffic impact studies and analyses, it was all done with one goal in mind: making residents’ lives better, safer, and more efficient.
Now, the term Smart Community is a new term, that has a bit of wordsmithing behind it. We have all heard the term Smart City, but Smart Community? Isn’t that just a ruse to rebrand and subsequently get more money for a “new” thing? However, nothing could be further from the truth. The reason the switch was done from City to Community was because:
- The term “City” has connotations that focus on the urban, cosmopolitan areas, ones where the population is dense and residents are better off.
- The term “Community” allows ITE to better serve the membership, who range from rural counties and towns, to large cities, and everyone in-between.
- The term “Community” implies that these groups are, at their core, a collection of connected people interacting and engaging with each other in a geographical area, whether they be deemed by a governmental agency or not.
The reason I could do this was that I led the creating of a whitepaper with the help of Eric Rensel of Gannet Fleming, Raj Ponnaluri of Florida DOT, and John Corbin of University of Washington asking the question: what is ITE doing in the realm of Smart Communities? We saw an opportunity for ITE, as discussed more here in the realm of Smart Communities. The market was (and is) still noisy, new revenue streams are starting to become available, and there was no one defining transportation voice. In presenting this to the board back in 2017, the question got turned back to me: “Well Kris, what should we do?” To which I replied (in pure professional fashion), “Uhhh, I don’t know. Let me get back to you.”
The Id part of my psyche took over, as I suggested we delegate this task to people much smarter and more involved then myself. In talking with membership, we created the Smart Community Task Force (SCoTF), in order to answer this question. This group was the engine driving the effort shown below.
Now I use the term journey loosely as I am not implying that I am a 21st century Magellan or Jacques Costeau. In reality, I only took 3 plane rides and a few multi-hour drives, all while on the expense of my former and current employer (both of which I give many thanks). No, I use the term journey in order to outline the changes and lessons I learned when talking and cajoling with the hardworking ITE members across the States.
Whether it was tech-savvy Ann Arbor, sunny San Diego, beautiful Jackson, WY, all members echoed a similar refrain: ITE should do something about this. Members were feeling Some large cities and counties have seen the impact, while others are just getting started. This was evident in the survey released by the group.
When asked, “How important Smart Communities is to Transportation Systems Management & Operation (TSM&O),” respondents answered:
This made the group think that to the TSM&O group, to which most respondents were from, Smart Communities was a needed focus area. At least 40% of the nearly 250 respondents believed this. Along this line, when asked, “How would you rate your awareness of smart communities,” the respondents had a different slant.
As shown above, most people were somewhat aware. The gap then between the perceived importance shown in the previous graph vs. the knowledge of the individuals, which was initially identified in the white paper the group wrote, can be considered confirmed.
The goal of these sessions was to ask our membership, who are roughly comprised of 45% public agencies, 45% consultants, and 10% academia, “What can ITE do for you when it comes to Smart Communities?” To my limited knowledge, this was the first time ITE has really gone around holding sessions like this. Not only was this new frontier (both for myself and the other board members), but the concept of Smart Communities was still be formed and relatively new. Again, using the survey as a backdrop, we asked what are you interested in? Respondents were more interested in the Connected & Autonomous Vehicles and sensor-based aspect rather than the bigger picture solutions Smart Communities deployments can deliver.
Takeaway No. 1 – Smart Communities are a new frontier
By looking at the graph above, there are a number of areas where our membership could use education. The top three areas people were interested in were Connected Vehicles, Intelligent, Sensor-Based Infrastructure, and Smart Land Use. Based on these results, and the anecdotal evidence from the in-person sessions, there were 2 conclusions that were made:
Smart Communities inherently means Connected & Autonomous Vehicles, and putting things on poles.
I started to realize this in our Jackson, WY trip where we were asking a mostly-rural group of participants to see what ITE needed to do for Smart Communities. All the examples we gave were either focused on urban or vehicle-centric issues. These are really not the issues communities like those in the Intermountain Section (e.g., Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and Montana) are dealing with. When we started to then shift the message to bridge-strike applications or snow-plow operations, then dialogue then took off.
Takeaway No. 2 – Smart Communities needs broader support and understanding
By looking at the data, it would be easy to say, “Okay, the data says that the 3 big areas are ones we should focus on those. That is what the membership wanted, right?” Wrong. That sort of thinking can lead you down the echo chamber rabbit hole. You have to look closer at the data and understand the nuance behind what you are asking.
We were trying to also look for, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, “Those unknown-knowns.” I was honestly not surprised at the results. Transportation technology has been focused on asset-heavy deployments, requiring procurement methods which are an iteration from the procurement methods of concrete, asphalt, and steel. These are the areas in which most ITE members currently reside and are the most comfortable. However, the concept of Smart Communities brings into effect new ideas, technologies, and products that are not asset-heavy.
These asset-light, or hardware-light components, are new. They rely on the ubiquitous nature of power and communication to take advantage of the myriad of synergies that arise from connection. This type of deployment then requires new types of partnerships, which traditional transportation procurement is not set-up for.
As shown above, these types of deployments typically involve a bit of horse-trading. Public agencies usually receive a benefit outside of the normal transportation service, whether it be a tangible benefit (shared comm & power infrastructure), insight into their constituents (proliferation and analysis of data), or even a monetary incentive (revenue-sharing options). Agencies provide either direct funding or remove obstacles for private entities to provide the value. The agencies are then the check on the private entities who provide the service. Traditionally, this type of partnership has been a four-letter word as fraud and back-room deals have caused a slew of regulations and processes. While this is great for upholding public trust in government, and providing a level playing field for everyone in a well-established market, Smart Communities operates outside those bounds.
Takeaway No. 3 – Smart Communities can be broken into 3 main components
The building blocks of a Smart Community are actual pretty simple. They all require 3 basic components:
- Use of information (historic and/or real-time) to make decisions
- Regionwide proliferation of communications & power
- Openness to work with private vendors and non-traditional providers
Getting there is another thing entirely. With draining funding, a lack of knowledge and expertise, as well as the noise generated by industries is making it more and more difficult for Communities to achieve their goals.
Takeaway No. 4 – Smart Communities are being developed Today
Smart Communities is here. It is not going away. The potential market is in the billions, and with that sort of price tag, companies are jumping at the chance to develop new products and new business models. The advent of the ITE Podcast Series , the USDOT Smart Cities Challenge, and the explosion only further solidifies this.
Interested in Smart Communities? Post to the ITE Smart Communities page here:
Traffic Technology Services and Ross & Baruzzini for investing the time & money for this effort
ITE Executive Board and the Local Coordinating Committees for the Districts and Sections visited
ITE Staff Michelle Birdsall, Steve Lavrenz, Jeff Lindley, Siva Narla, and Douglas Noble
Shawn Leight and Eric Rensel for providing leadership and the opportunity to shape the narrative
SCoTF volunteer members:
- Alan Clelland, Senior Vice President with Iteris, Inc.
- John Corbin, with FHWA
- Jeff Kupko, Assistant Transportation Program Manager with Michael Baker International
- Shawn Leight, COO with CBB Transportation Engineers & Planners and ITE International President
- John Lower, Associate Vice President with Iteris, Inc.
- Shawn McEwen, Account Executive with Miovision
- Carlos Ortiz, Chief Operating Officer and Principal with Advantec Consulting Engineers, Inc.
- Raj Ponnaluri, Arterial Management Systems Engineer with Florida DOT
- Scott Poska, Senior Associate Traffic Engineer with SRF Consulting Group
- Eric Rensel, Vice President with Gannett Fleming & ITE TSMO Council Chair
- Brad Strader, Senior Associate with MKSK Studios
- Yang Tao, Assistant City Traffic Engineer with City of Madison, WI
- Ryan Westrom, Mobility Partnerships Lead with Greenfield Labs-Ford Mobility
Eric Rensel says
This is fantastic Kris! Way to go.