City Smarter, Not Harder

Photos by Peter DeHart and Allison Bohl DeHart

Andrew Rodgers, a Chattanooga-based technologist, smiles as he speaks to an eager Acadiana audience, his hands moving like a Cajun grandmother. A keynote speaker at Lafayette’s inaugural Smart Community Summit, his energetic presentation to a room full of Lafayette notables is fueled by one driving force — belief in the powers of cooperation and technology.

“Researchers and academia work in silos,” he says cheerfully, somehow. “So do city agencies. But the problems we as citizens face are not mutually exclusive to one or the other.”

Last month, Rodgers and a number of urban planners and tech-focused thinkers were invited to speak on how cities can become smarter at UL Lafayette’s annual Cajun Code Fest. The event centers on the use of technology to improve systems and tools we utilize in our everyday lives. Stakeholders in Lafayette’s future came together during the summit to discuss and gather feedback on the path that the city has chosen.

Rodgers works at The Enterprise Center, a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based organization dedicated to the smart urbanization of a town much like Lafayette in size and diversity. The major difference between the two cities is one that is frustratingly simple, and the reason Andrew was invited to speak: Chattanooga is light years ahead of us on urban planning, design and technology. By that measure, it’s arguably “smarter” than Lafayette.

At its core, even if you remove the use of technology, the smart cities movement is ultimately about sparking collaboration aimed at meeting the goals and vision of a city and its people.

To be fair, the whole “smart cities” thing has been practically unheard of in Lafayette. And the idea is fairly nebulous; one that to this day has no real definition. Like the “organic” food labels of the early 2000s, the regulation simply doesn’t exist — and there’s no such thing as “certified smart city” status. It’s a descriptive rather than definitive term.

“I tie the concept of what a smart city is back to making a community work better for its citizens. As an umbrella term, it’s incredibly broad,” says Will LaBar, a vice president at CGI Federal. “It can mean improving quality of life through many different dimensions that are at the heart of many discussions our community has always had. The difference now is that emerging technologies have created some really exciting methods to enable, accelerate and contribute to achieving objectives we set for ourselves.”

While Lafayette has made a number of great strides — installing a best-in-class fiber network, the construction of the now out-of-date LITE center and opening its doors to a number of larger tech firms — the dream of turning Lafayette into Silicon Bayou has, so far, not been transformative. While some of those steps have been met with accolades, many have been accomplished in secret.

And others, such as LITE, with its immersive virtual reality lab now a glowing, egg-shaped shadow of its former self, have seemingly gone silent far before finishing their mission of bringing better technology to Acadiana.

Lafayette’s quest to diversify its economic sectors and join the ascendent urbanist technology movement is one that may be getting some much-needed help from organizations near and far.

In March, Mozilla, the company behind open-source web browser Firefox, announced a $150,000 grant to help fuel education innovation efforts with sprint grants to local nonprofits.

Late last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded Lafayette $40,000 to deploy a couple hundred air quality sensors around the city, with captured data made available to the general public.

While not transformative in scale, these modest grants nonetheless add a little more fuel to Lafayette’s long-burgeoning tech industry. Both of these grants were made possible by Lafayette’s fiber optic network, the city’s first foray into smart city development.

When Lafayette built that network, it leapfrogged regional competitors like Rodgers’ Chattanooga hometown. Now cities like Chattanooga have lapped us, eventually building their own fiber optic networks and erecting functioning IT ecosystems on top of them. Places like Chattanooga, Austin, Eugene, Ore., and Kansas City, Mo., have moved quickly to put new technologies to work improving city efficiencies with smart city technologies and planning approaches. Each of these city is also a recipient of Mozilla Gigabit grant awards.

There are a number of players like LaBar looking to regain that momentum, and are aiming to retake Lafayette’s lead as burgeoning tech titans from the competition. That’s going to take some leg-work — and more than just a little Cajun ingenuity.

It’s difficult to catch up if we don’t exactly understand what we’re working toward. Fundamentally, the key to understanding what smart city solutions do is understanding the challenges cities are facing.

By utilizing cutting-edge research and smart technology, not much different than many of the things consumers are already taking advantage of in their homes, smart cities take advantage of collaborative thinking to increase the efficiency of their utilities and services. Those devices have a variety of uses — from city lights that can dim and turn off when there’s no one around them to traffic signals that can be manipulated by emergency departments to respond more expediently to dire needs. Each component is designed to help city services work in harmony to solve old infrastructure and community problems in new ways. That unity helps to breed further innovation and creative, more efficient solutions to problems people face on a daily basis, with the added benefit of helping to lower the operational and environmental costs synonymous with cities.

According to a forecast by MIT’s City Science program, which studies urbanization and city planning on a global scale, in the near future, cities are expected to account for nearly 90 percent of global population growth, 80 percent of wealth creation and approximately 60 percent of total energy consumption. That may seem like a far reach, but data gathered by author and science journalist Gregory Mone, in his book Communications of the ACM, show that about half of the world’s current population already lives in a city. As farming and manufacturing continue to become automated or, in many cases, outsourced to foreign countries at a cheaper price, more people are fleeing the countryside for city living.

Smart city strategies were developed to combat these very same rising issues. Utilizing technological innovations across a city and weaving them throughout its infrastructure allows for systems and stakeholders to work more efficiently.

Rodgers’ remarks to Lafayette leaders in March described how cities have traditionally functioned: in silos. People who were experts in utility services solved utility problems, experts in law enforcement solved law enforcement problems. At its core, even if you remove the use of technology, the smart cities movement is ultimately about sparking collaboration aimed at meeting the goals and vision of a city and its people.

That last part is especially important to remember, because smart cities should not be designed with a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Every city has different goals set for itself, and solutions should help to meet those specific goals. If a city succeeds at accomplishing those objectives, then it could make an enormous impact on its financial stability and help reduce budgetary strain not only on local government, but also on its citizens.

On a governmental level, according to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, investing in public and low emission transportation, building efficiencies and proper waste management in cities on a global scale could generate savings of $17 trillion dollars by 2050.

That massive reduction in spending is why countries such as China and India, whose cities have been plagued with overpopulation for years, have embraced smart city concepts.

Mayor Joel Robideaux has pegged smart city approaches as a key to improving transparency in city government, for the benefit of an increasingly data-hungry generation.

In 2015, the Obama administration launched its own $160 million dollar initiative in order to research and leverage more than 25 new technology collaborations. That investment sought to help local communities tackle key infrastructure challenges, such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of a changing climate and improving the delivery of city services for years to come.

But with the recent change in administration, a number of these initiatives, such as the EPA’s smart growth programs, are facing the immediate threat of being discontinued by President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts. Fortunately, some private sector companies have already swept in to try and suture that lack of funding before it happens, such as AT&T and Intel, who have recently begun working with the National Science Foundation to provide grants and sponsorships to smaller communities that may be struggling to find a way to embrace technology without breaking their budget.

Ultimately, smart cities are about executing quality of life improvements through a spectrum of citizen-centric government services, such as education, transportation and increased civic engagement, just to name a few. It’s the “beautification” initiative of the future, except instead of a park you get a smart device that regulates a city’s pollution output and air quality.

That’s not to say you won’t get a park, too. Numerous smart city initiatives in towns across the world have cultural and artistic components to them, helping to give artists, musicians and a slew of other creatives a fiber-woven canvas on which to create.

City leadership, including Mayor Joel Robideaux, has nonetheless taken interest in the movement, unfocused as it may be, to find ways to improve quality of life in Lafayette and make the city more competitive economically. Those efforts have been led by local tech gurus at UL Lafayette and in the area’s new crop of tech companies like CGI, which opened its Lafayette office in 2015.

For the mayor’s part, he’s pegged smart city approaches as a key to improving transparency in city government, for the benefit of an increasingly data-hungry generation.

“The little bit that I’ve learned through this process and with Code Fest is the importance of us having as much open data as possible,” he said in remarks at the Smart Community Summit. “Government is oftentimes really hesitant to throw it all out there for the public to see. The millennial generation is not gonna accept that. They want that data out there.”

Whether you know it or not, the Acadiana area has been on the smart city path for some time. But for the most part, that path hasn’t been clear. Save for organizations like Fiber Corps, a community nonprofit that helped facilitate projects leveraging the area’s fiber network starting in 2010 before petering out a couple of years later, that path has been largely left untended.

Geoff Daily, a former Fiber Corps head and one of the city’s biggest tech crusaders, says one of the biggest hurdles with bringing digital urbanization to Lafayette isn’t the technology itself, but the people using it.

“Technology alone won’t produce a smart city. It requires a re-imagining of our city’s social infrastructure, redefining how individuals and organizations interrelate and get business done. Getting people to change behaviors is often more difficult than plugging in technology as it requires folks to take risks when the rewards are uncertain,” Geoff states. “That’s why smart city efforts across the country are all being led by new entities [that] communities have created and funded specifically to facilitate these conversations and provide support for these kinds of efforts.”

Over the last few years, more light has been shed on the city’s smart initiatives, and because of that we’ve seen a number of new players, such as LaBar and Matt Delcambre, the director of UL’s Center for Business and Information Technology, who are looking to fill that support role Daily speaks of. Both have been helping to re-tool that social infrastructure into a more positive wellspring of collaboration, and so far it’s brought a number of new initiatives that have attempted to build cross-industry relationships throughout Lafayette’s sub-communities.

The Lafayette Engagement and Research Network (LEaRN), a collaborative effort between UL, CGI and Lafayette Consolidated Government, won the aforementioned $40,000 EPA grant to deploy 300 air quality sensors around the area while sharing data from those same sensors with the public. The sensors will allow the city to discern and disarm pockets of pollution throughout Acadiana.

Lafayette General has set up a number of telemedicine clinics in places like jewelry manufacturing giant Stuller, Lafayette’s city hall and a number of area schools. These digital clinics provide urgent care services through videoconferencing between on-site nurses and off-site doctors.

The U.S. Ignite program, a collaboration between the Obama White House and the National Science Foundation, helped to connect university researchers and private industry with communities that utilize high-speed networks (such as LUS Fiber) in order to have them serve as living labs or testbeds for new, innovative network technologies. UL Lafayette’s Center for Business and Information Technology serves as a data center for the program, promoting more collaboration between the university and the business community.

Lafayette’s Mozilla award was earned in large part because of the city’s work with Ignite, and that extra money could help bridge the gap between past, present and future plans driving Acadiana. A part of the company’s Gigabit Community Fund, the grant helps to support new initiatives in high-speed areas aimed at promoting and developing a more decentralized internet and open collaboration between individuals, schools, nonprofits, museums and other organizations. That decentralization of information technology helps far-flung communities gain access to tech advances typically made along the coasts in an effort to spark further collaboration and innovation.

But, while the advances mentioned are productive next steps in Lafayette’s smart city development, introducing new concepts and technologies into the dynamics of a city presents complications.

There are serious infrastructural, budgetary and security caveats to deal with as a city begins to intertwine with the electronic stratosphere that is the internet. Even with a proper roadmap and fail-safes in place, the risk of an entire city grid getting hacked or going down becomes a real problem. This could, as Anthony Townsend in Places Journal writes, turn a city’s thriving economy into a “zombie-infested wasteland.”

There’s also the issue of accessibility, especially in smaller cities like Lafayette. As cities become smarter, so too do their centers of education — which inevitably means a greater reliance on access to technology both in the home and the classroom. When a large subsection of your population is either resistant or unable to keep up with the technology, who ultimately holds the responsibility for ensuring everyone has a chance at a fair and equal education?

That divide is one of Lafayette’s biggest hurdles, one that Matt Delcambre, who also serves as technical community lead for Lafayette as a part of the U.S. Ignite Program, warns on.

“We still have a digital divide gap that has to be a top priority for our community. Digital literacy and continued learning, particularly around workforce development, needs to remain a focus for us,” he says. “The hope is that, ultimately, things like the Mozilla grant, as well as local foundations and corporations with a vested interest in making this community a more attractive and valuable space for talent to relocate here and for our own talent to remain, will help us address that challenge.”

But others, like Nicholas Lipari, a Ph.D. student in computer science with a focus on interaction and perception at the University of Lafayette, have different concerns regarding Lafayette’s push to digitization. He’s worried the city’s commitment may face a more difficult road than it realizes by retrofitting itself into a “tech-first” community.

“There are a number of long-term upkeep and maintenance issues that go hand-in-hand with these initiatives, especially when the city wasn’t built with a focus on innovation,” says Lipari.

Those issues, which could turn into an expensive endeavor, could spell doom for a city that is consistently constrained by a lack of funding. Long-term investments, whether it’s digitization on a city-wide level or building a new house, are always costly rolls of the dice. And when the well runs dry, Lafayette’s techno-colored dreams could become a governmental nightmare.

“A challenge I think we will need to navigate is how to prioritize, fund and execute these initiatives,” says Will LaBar. “Resource constraints in Lafayette cannot be ignored, so we will need to identify creative partnerships, funding opportunities and innovative ways to implement projects that have measurable impacts and return on investment.”

From an outside perspective, Lafayette has great potential, both in terms of delivering on the promise of smarter city operations and in staying regionally competitive.

LaBar’s done tremendous work pushing the city toward its fiber-enabled potential, serving a key role in organizing Cajun Code Fest each year. The annual tech-centric event sponsored by the university, Lafayette Consolidated Government and a number of local businesses, hosts software developers competing to build smart city applications for Lafayette problems. Winners receive up to $10,000 in cash and prizes, with the most innovative application receiving the Mayor-President’s Smart Community Award.

Code Fest’s growth is emblematic of a burgeoning tech and innovation culture, one that will help attract new talent and retain talent educated in Lafayette.

That transformation is a promising start for students like Lipari, who historically have had trouble finding employment throughout the state. While some of Louisiana’s universities have offered a quality education in many science-and-tech-focused disciplines, the state has lacked jobs for its graduates. But with larger companies like Electronic Arts and IBM opening their doors in the state, and companies like CGI, Perficient and Enquero expanding into the Acadiana area, the possibility of that changing is becoming more likely.

Lake Charles-based Waitr has also decided to take advantage of the city’s high-speed network by expanding its headquarters and opening a data center right here in town.

That possibility could help students who, like Lipari, will need to find employment post-graduation. Keeping our students in the state is a necessary part of keeping Louisiana attractive to bigger, new companies looking for a trained, talented workforce — and to keeping the forward momentum of the state’s innovation initiatives in general. But Lipari, who remains skeptical, has a bit of hope that the community may finally be opening its doors to more technology may keep Lafayette as a future option.

“I’m leaving my options open here and afar,” Lipari says. “I do believe that, if Lafayette begins to take a tech-first approach, it’ll place the city in a higher regard for more attractive and successful companies to expand into.”
It’s easy to take what Lafayette has for granted. Living within city limits, it’s often difficult to tell the forest from the trees. But from an outside perspective, Lafayette has great potential, both in terms of delivering on the promise of smarter city operations and in staying regionally competitive.

Reflecting on his visit to the Smart Community Summit in March, Andrew Rodgers says he’s positive that tech-first approach is definitely at the forefront of Lafayette’s mind, and he can’t wait to see what’s next for the area.

“I’m struck by how many parallels there are with Chattanooga,” he says. “If the relationships between the city, CGI and the university continue to flourish, I think there’s really some magic sauce there.”