Work toward becoming a ‘smart region’ continues in Northwest Arkansas

by Kim Souza ( 944 views 

A mission of the Northwest Arkansas Technology Council is to educate and explore the dynamics of integrating technology for what is hoped will become one of the first smart regions in the country.

Rick Webb, president of the Council, has made no secret of his desire to tackle the giant initiative with the help of other stakeholders such as the Northwest Arkansas Council and support of the Walton Family Foundation. Webb said progress is being made in baby steps at this juncture, but he’s working with the University of Arkansas to teach the first “smart cities” class on campus in the spring 2019 semester. He said it will be part of the Honors College and it’s a great place to start.

“Dean Matt Waller at the [Sam M.] Walton College [of Business] thought if the University of Arkansas is going to become a ‘smart campus’ then it should be student led. I think he’s exactly right given the student population would be the main users,” Webb told Talk Business & Politics.

He said the UA is forward thinking and wants to be part of the groundwork in the endeavor and the university ecosystem is doable. The University of Mississippi uses gamification to reward students who attend sporting events, and it can be used to entice students to go to class like a similar program at the University of Manchester.

Waller told Talk Business & Politics he’s excited about the “smart cities” class. He said students will be able to work with technologies already in place like sensors, beacons and RFID and find ways to apply technology to solve problems or situations.

“The cost of sensors have really come down and now they are being tested in automobiles so that if there is a accident, the sensor can recap what has happened by reading the noise patterns,” Waller said. “Cities are using them in all sorts of ways (on light poles dispatching 911 in the case of shootings). The university is a small ecosystem with a dense population and in many respects resembles a small city. I think it’s a great opportunity for our students to be part of the problem-solving process as we became a more digital society.”

Webb is also working with a contact at the city of Fayetteville to explore the possibilities for a parking application. He said parking in downtown Fayetteville and even the UA can be problematic and confusing for consumers. He said people would likely get behind a “smart parking” solution if it made their life less hectic. With the new parking garage at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, Webb said he would love see the technology tested in the future.

“We know there are some great examples for parking applications such as at the San Diego airport, where I know firsthand how this is a time saver,” Webb said. “I opt in the app and I am directed to a parking spot near my gate and I can pay for it from my phone and be on my way.”

A big hurdle is the cost of implementation, Webb said. While there has been some support from within the community to become a smart region, he said it will likely be a piecemeal project. He said the University of Arkansas is buying in and the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce is also eager to take part, but funding is a primary concern.

“We will likely have pods of smart ecosystems around the area that develop first such as UA, and maybe parking in downtown Fayetteville, an application many consumers could get behind. As others see the benefits they could join the effort and over time we could link those smart ecosystems together,” Webb said.

Webb said the effort will take consumer acceptance and funding. But if the applications solve a problem there is a much greater chance funding will be found and consumers will also support the digital applications. He said the world is connected and there is a plethora of opportunity for entrepreneurs and technology expansion in the region if there is significant buy-in from key stakeholders in the region. The Northwest Arkansas Council recently outlined its new strategic plan, which cited a need for more focus on growing the technology base and attracting more talent if the region is going to keep up its growth pace.

“We run the risk of falling behind if we can’t attract and retain technology talent to this region. This smart city platform would open up lots of opportunities for startups and veteran companies to set up shop here,” Webb said. “But they must have faith we can also provide ancillary tech services and talent which is still quite a challenge at this time.”