‘Smart region’ possibilities outlined for Northwest Arkansas

by Kim Souza (ksouza@talkbusiness.net) 1,751 views 

Leaders across Northwest Arkansas leaders have been sought out by Rick Webb to get them to imagine the region becoming the nation’s first “smart region” equipped to bring convenience, ease and efficiencies to a wide variety of daily tasks.

Webb, president of the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council, has worked with firms across the globe from San Diego to Tel Aviv, Israel, learning about smart city infrastructure and the technologies that exist to build the country’s first smart region. He recently introduced Erik Bjontegard, founder of San Diego-based SparkCompass, an architect of smart city platforms, to various business and educational leaders in the region.

He said the immediate reaction to the idea was somewhat mixed depending on the amount of technology experience, but Webb is encouraged by the interest level for this large undertaking.

“I see my role here as one who can educate the public on smart region basics and hope to provide business cases that will illustrate how becoming a smart or connected region is possible. Then I can help city officials to get their heads around various applications and help paint a picture about what this would do for all the stakeholders from business to arts to local government,” Webb said.

He said the University of Arkansas may try some student-facing applications and there is brainstorming session this week with the possibility of a smart city class in the fall semester. Webb said he’s working with Nelson Peacock, CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, on ideas that could be added to the council’s strategic plan.

Webb said he is focused on building out use cases in the coming months which should help city governments and businesses see the risks and rewards of adopting a “smart region” mindset. He hopes to conduct a symposium this fall on smart city and connect regions.

Webb recently authored a White Paper that examined what the Northwest Arkansas might look like as the nation’s first smart region. He said it would be a fully engaged regional community from Fayetteville to Bella Vista.

“It’s educators and their students. It’s visitors and those making a living there, creating a smarter, safer and more inclusive community. It’s a public, private and academic partnership. An intelligent region makes community connectivity a reality and takes this community connectivity to an unprecedented level,” Webb said.

He said connectivity is made possible through a system of sensors, mobile applications and data-driven integrated databases living in the cloud. He said a common technology platform is the backbone of this utility, bridging the physical with the digital in an entrepreneurial ecosystem, harnessing those among us who have the insight and drive to design, build and deploy civic-minded technologies.

Webb said technology is not the hard part of this equation, rather it’s end users fully understanding benefits, and understanding there are some privacy trade-offs for the sake of convenience.

“Imagine you’re using our ‘My NWA’ app on your smartphone on a trip to downtown Fayetteville. The My NWA app, using a system of sensors, shows you empty parking places near your destination, provides directions to your selected space and then allows you to pay for that spot using your phone. And, if necessary, the app lets you deposit additional cash if your time on the parking meter is about expire. And the same technology can automatically sense an expired meter and bill the user,” Webb noted in the White Paper.

For a business application, Webb gave the following example: “Imagine a technology application that monitors our very basic need for trash removal from our buildings. Today, trash trucks drive the same route each time and often empty only partially filled bins, wasting time and energy. Using our NWA Intelligent Region technology, we can collect and monitor, real-time, truck routes and monitor fill-levels on building trash bins. We can then optimize the trash pickup route, driving trucks only to bins that need to be emptied. This change will save the hauling companies unnecessary miles and at the same time, could provide discounts to building owners who simply don’t need to have their trash picked up as frequently.”

Webb said the constituents can use the “My NWA” app which will require users to opt-in and download it to their mobile device and the user will always have control of when their private information is monitored and used by the analytics platform. Other apps and solutions can be integrated into the same core platform.

Key benefits of a smart city include retaining and attracting tech talent and creating public/private services that improve the overall quality of life.

Webb said cost is a valid concern but there are possibilities of Smart City Bonds which could be an option for some applications.

Webb said a sensor network involves Internet of Things (IoT) sensors positioned throughout the region starting with all way-finding signs, to every light pole and in all municipal buildings. He said one application could be the collection and analysis of real-time energy and water usage, temperature, humidity, noise and air quality. He said managing traffic patterns would be possible.

In addition to the smart parking and trash pickup applications already mentioned, Webb said smart city lights, street signs and traffic signals can be used to create smart streets which offer Wi-Fi connectivity, automatic dimming, pedestrian counters, cameras to capture gunshots or speeding cars.

He said placing sensors on the way-finding signs designed to help visitors navigate the region helps increase connectivity. Company sponsorships could be used to offset the cost of system maintenance. He also sees the potential to connect city parks and trail systems with adopt-a-sign programs that puts sensors on signage to collect usage data for cities.

Webb also sees applications for public transportation with smart buses and smart taxi-cabs. For example, the system could include ridesharing applications where residents call cabs on demand through the “My NWA” app.

He said there are smart transportation partners could help pull. Through partnerships, it’s possible to install digital displays within and on top of the taxi (allowing for advertising revenue, and displaying public notices), as well as cameras to track driver movements to reduce insurance costs.

“Our selected partners will also help us provide super-fast, encrypted Wi-Fi to each of the buses, as well as install location sensors to feed into our IOT network. We will then display the information collected from the buses in digital displays, located in your required locations, alongside a proposed additional location at hospitals. This will give the public access to real-time bus transit information, increasing the convenience and desirability of public transit,” Webb noted.

Webb said cities could install smart mobile kiosks at select locations that are powered by solar energy to deliver fast Wi-Fi and charging stations. He said the use of augmented reality and virtual reality could help bring cities and counties to life from creating a walking tour around parts of the city, or perhaps map the infrastructure underground and create a mixed reality map. This technology can help further the engagement of the citizen and visitor.

“This has the potential to harness the new creative class through our entrepreneurship ecosystems, partnering them with enterprise businesses and academic researchers. We can foster innovation through student and innovator living labs and demonstration projects, dispatch intelligent workforce solutions, and train the tech talent for the future while protecting private and public information,” Webb said.