Digi.City panel: Birmingham could be Smart Cities leader in inclusive economic growth

Digi.City panel: Birmingham could be Smart Cities leader in inclusive economic growth
Birmingham's growth as a Smart City will come by being more inclusive in the implementation of technology, officials believe. (Getty Images)

Birmingham has already figured out a key element in developing a Smart City and it could become an example for others when it comes to inclusive economic growth, a panel of experts said Thursday.

Digi.City Connects Birmingham Roundtable was held at Innovation Depot to allow those who are leading the Smart Cities initiative in Birmingham to discuss best practices from other cities and the way ahead for the Magic City.

In March, the Smart Cities Council named Birmingham one of five winners of the 2018 Smart Cities Readiness Challenge Grant. The grant is intended to help cities use technology and data to tackle local challenges, and improve services and connectivity.

Digi.City was created to inspire and inform leaders as cities advance in the digital age, particularly those building on a Smart Cities designation. Digi.Cities convenes roundtables like in Birmingham to have discussions across all segments within a community.

The Digi.City Connects Birmingham Roundtable featured, from left, Dr. Anthony Hood, Deon Gordon, Yuval Yossefy, Mashonda Taylor and George Stegall and was moderated by Chelsea Collier. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

The Birmingham roundtable included:

“What Birmingham is doing that I think is such a brilliant approach is that they’re coming at it from a three-legged stool,” said Chelsea Collier, founder of Digi.City. “So, it’s the city, it’s the University of Alabama at Birmingham and it’s also Alabama Power. From that really strong stance they’re inviting everyone from the community – from community advocates to nonprofits, startups, all of the creator community – and really focusing on, ‘Yes, we can be informed by our past, but who do we want to be going forward? What are our values and how are we going to use connected technology to lift all of our residents?’”

The discussion centered on where technology and people come together and how key components like infrastructure and the internet can help improve lives in the metro area.

That led to talk of ways Birmingham differs from other cities and identifying how Birmingham can stand out as a Smart City.

Hood suggested Birmingham use something that in the past was a source of a negative image for the city into something that shapes it as an innovator in the future.

Birmingham’s Smart Cities progress highlighted at Digi.City Connects Birmingham Roundtable from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

“We’re trying to come up with a model for inclusive economic growth. What does that look like? Quite frankly, I don’t know that there is any city in the country that actually figured this out,” Hood said. “Birmingham can be that city that figures that out. When we talk about Smart Cities, talk about technology and building the city of the future, we need to make sure none of our citizens are left out.”

Others seized on that thought.

“That is so exciting I would love to see Birmingham be one of the first cities in the United States to really get that right,” Collier said.

Before Birmingham can work toward such objectives, however, the panel said there is much that has to be done in the Smart Cities process.

Stegall said Alabama Power will have a central role to play because the technology has to be powered by the electric grid.

“We’ve got to grow our communities. We’ve got to support them,” Stegall said. “We’ve done it since the beginning of our company and this is the latest frontier. We’ve got to be a solution-provider to those communities. And we can.”

Digi.City looks at a Smart City as a four-layer pyramid that always puts people at the top. (Digi.City)

Stegall said that doesn’t mean dictating what is needed, but listening.

“We’re not going to come and tell you exactly what your needs are, you are going to come and tell us,” he said.

Taylor agreed that while data should be used to serve residents and change communities through areas like public safety and transportation, the citizens need to play a role in the onset to have ultimate buy-in and successful implementation.

“We’ve got to take high-level data and share it at a lower level,” she said.

Taylor said we can’t neglect primary or secondary education as part of the process.

“At the end of the day, if we don’t have a strong K-12 system, we’re not going to be feeding students into these new positions,” she said. “If they cannot critically think and do basic reading or math – which is going to be necessary for these new jobs of the future – there’s no way they’re going to be able to compete.”

Hood agreed.

“We have to be very intentional about that. We can’t do this haphazardly,” he said. “We can’t mess this up. If we mess this up, we could set the city back for decades.”

Gordon said TechBirmingham has an initiative focused on K-12 education and sees that as a key component. He used the acronym “MAGIC” to map out his organization’s approach. It consists of marketing and promoting, alignment of assets and approaches, growing the economic base, inclusion of all in the community, and connectivity.

A Smart Cities Readiness Workshop in August helped identify some of the key needs and ways to use technology to tackle big issues in the Birmingham area.

Yossefy said the city is moving on to the next steps.

“We have gone past identifying what the problems are. That is kind of that major first step,” he said. “We know what needs to be done. There are kind of two things happening in parallel over at the city. The first is we are picking specific projects that we can do really interesting analysis on and then basically use those to influence policy in the short term. The second thing is a much more long-term pull.”

This infographic shows how complex a Smart City can be with all of its facets. Officials said the best way to simplify it is to focus on the people who will make up the Smart City. (Digi.City)

Hood said the city isn’t working alone in taking the next steps.

“It’s about collaboration. It’s about developing a shared understanding,” he said. “All of us have to be on the same page if we truly want to have a Smart City.”

The areas of emphasis can come into focus by asking one simple question, Hood said.

“If it doesn’t benefit citizens and residents, then what are we doing it for?”

Collier said from what she has seen visiting other cities, Birmingham is asking the right questions and including the right players.

“It’s how you come together and understand who you are as a community and who you want to be and really focus on what can you do well,” she said.

Which is why Hood thinks the ultimate thing Birmingham can do well is including everyone in its future growth.

“Dr. (Martin Luther) King referred to Birmingham as the most segregated city in America back in the ‘60s,” he said. “We now have an opportunity to be the most inclusive city in America. I think we’re going to do it.”

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