Dallas Morning News

Dallas Getting Ready to get 'Smart'

Mitchell Schnurman, Dallas Morning News

December 8, 2015

“We’re at the beginning of a journey,” keynote speaker Mike Zeto told a group of technology experts last month in Irving.

He was talking about the emergence of “smart cities” — communities adopting the latest technologies to cut costs, boost efficiencies and improve the lives of their residents.

As he spoke, a video began to play. A young woman, dressed in shorts and a tank top, was jogging across a city bridge. LED street lamps turned on as she passed below, lighting her way with every stride.

Then the video began to falter and the audio broke up. Within seconds, everything stopped — and the audience laughed.

“Well, that’s not exactly the way I thought it was gonna work,” said Zeto, general manager for AT&T’s smart cities unit.

It was a reminder that technology sometimes disappoints. That’s worth keeping in mind as cities and companies start pushing hard for major investments in sensors and connectivity. This movement is part of the Internet of things, a popular description for connecting billions of objects through the cloud.

Dallas recently created a public-private partnership that plans a smart cities project in downtown’s West End. Expected to launch next year, the project represents the kind of forward thinking that appeals to startups and young talent.

“This ties in with the ethos of the modern entrepreneur,” said Geoffrey Orsak, a leader in academia. “They want to be in environments that are advanced, even experimental. The West End could become a living laboratory.”

The Dallas group is focusing on adding smart technologies in three areas: infrastructure, mobility and connected living. Efforts could include sensors to capture real-time energy and water use; a green/solar roof initiative; smart parking solutions; improving bike lanes; and adding kiosks with data access.

If advocates can prove the concepts work in the West End, others in North Texas will be clamoring to get in the game.

Cities in Asia and Europe are at the forefront of smart cities because their urban centers are growing fast, often straining resources. Their solutions range from more efficient office buildings to apps that let citizens report potholes to dumpsters that indicate when they’re full and ready to be emptied.

Smart parking alone can reduce traffic by 40 percent in congested cities, said Richard Sear, a partner at the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

“This is the sensorization of things, where you turn something dumb into something smart,” said Sear, who’s working with Dallas leaders. “This drives up revenue for companies and taxes for government. And it saves time and money for consumers.”

Smart cities represent a trillion-dollar global market over the next decade, Frost estimates. Its potential was one of the factors behind a major partnership between Ericsson and Cisco, unveiled in November.

Cisco pointed to Barcelona, which had 22 major smart programs and 83 separate projects last year. The city saved $58 million annually on water and increased parking revenues by $50 million annually, Cisco said. In addition, smart city projects created 47,000 jobs there.

Barcelona “will be a showcase of how we can bring value to other cities around the world,” Hilton Romanski, Cisco’s chief strategy officer, said in an interview last month.

In September, the White House launched a smart cities initiative, pledging over $160 million in federal research for pilot projects and collaborations. It also gave a shout-out to Dallas for creating an alliance of business, government, academia and civic groups.

The Dallas Innovation Alliance lists 13 charter members, including AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, DART, Downtown Dallas Inc. and the city of Dallas.

“We want Dallas to be on the leading edge, not the trailing edge,” said Orsak, executive director of the Texas Research Alliance, which develops projects between local universities and industry. “We don’t want to wait and try to play catch up.”

Last week, Dallas was among 10 cities selected to participate in Envision America, one of the programs announced at the White House. In January, leaders from the cities will meet to discuss strategies and ways to collaborate with business. And the group includes some progressive places, such as Portland, Ore., New York City, Los Angeles and Cambridge, Mass.

Orsak is helping with grant proposals for North Texas, including about 10 submissions for a $100,000 grant from NEC Corp. Researchers have ideas for parking lot safety, optimizing transportation routes, collecting rain water for home use and managing energy, he said.

Proposals for most federal grants are due in the next few months. The National Science Foundation and other federal agencies, including transportation, energy, commerce and homeland security, will award over $100 million.

Dallas’ effort stands out because it brings together top companies and other leaders. And because the West End, relatively small and diverse, is ideal for seeing how technology can cut traffic, improve security and enhance work and life.

“We look like a city that’s ready to tackle these problems, so I think we’re gonna do well in the first round of funding,” Orsak said.

Private companies may pay for much of the costs of the pilot, but eventually cities will have to galvanize public support and find funding. The savings from tech upgrades and creating a sustainable community are key to selling the concept, said AT&T’s Zeto.

That “helps politicians get these programs across the finish line,” Zeto told the tech executives.

But others warn about creating too much hype. While smart cities and the Internet of things have great promise, the market won’t grow 50 percent a year or add many billions of devices by the end of the decade. That’s what some are predicting, said Robin Duke-Woolley, CEO of U.K.-based Beecham Research.

“We need to get real here,” Duke-Woolley wrote last month. “Twenty billion connected devices in 2020 is pie in the sky.”

Dallas Morning News: Headed to Dallas’ West End? AT&T may someday help you find a parking spot

Karen Robinson-Jacobs, Dallas Morning News -- September 14, 2015

If you live, shop or work in Dallas’ historic West End district, telecom giant AT&T may someday help you find a parking spot.

Dallas-based AT&T Inc. is one of about a dozen companies and groups to announce a new public-private partnership Monday that is designed to use communications and data networks to help turn Dallas into a tech-savvy “smart” city.

The partnership, called the Dallas Innovation Alliance, was one of several initiatives across the country announced Monday at the White House Smart Cities Forum.

While the scope of the local project has yet to be determined, backers said it could involve everything from installing more smart meters in housing units to programs that can notify nearby motorists of an available parking place.

There is no universally accepted definition of a smart city. The concept basically involves combining technology and data to improve everything from health care and traffic flow to public safety and energy conservation.

Based on eight criteria, consulting firm Frost & Sullivan lists eight “smart cities” in the U.S. — including Chicago, Boston and San Francisco — but none in Texas. 

The new alliance aims to change that.

The scope of the effort in Dallas will be determined over the next several months by the alliance, a group formed at the impetus of the Dallas Entrepreneur Center. Besides AT&T, the charter membership includes about a dozen corporations and groups such as IBM, Microsoft, Dallas Area Rapid Transit and the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce along with Mayor Mike Rawlings and the city of Dallas.

The efforts initially will be focused in the West End, which already is a major hub for public transportation. Backers hope that programs put in place there can be replicated elsewhere in the city. The cost of the project — and who pays — will be determined once the scope of the initial project is established.

“By bringing together these groups we’ve taken the first step to develop and launch a concerted, cohesive ‘smart cities’ initiative in a specific area of Dallas,” said Trey Bowles, a co-founder of the Dallas Innovation Alliance, along with Jennifer Sanders, managing director at Perry Street Communications.

Bowles, who also is chief executive of the Dallas Entrepreneur Center, said the “goal of this group is going to be to come up with a plan … so that we can launch and build and point to something that would make us a globally recognized ‘smart city.’”

For AT&T, the allure of the project is obvious. Tons of data carried across the communications company’s network could mean a windfall.

“Corporations put money in because they’re investing in a long-term … revenue-generating opportunity,” said Bowles.

The central thread that runs through the elements of the smart cities technology is the ability to transmit information, through fiber, a cellular network or Wi-Fi. That’s where AT&T comes in, potentially.

Michael Zeto, general manager for AT&T’s Smarter Cities Business unit, notes that a “smart city” has the potential to have “thousands of sensors, millions of sensors that are connected that pass data back and allow decisions to be made based on that data.

“The more things that are connected the greater the opportunity is for us to make money,” he said

From a public safety standpoint, sensors could control traffic lights and streetlights based on traffic patterns, he said. Or could notify police if gunshots ring out.

Bowles noted that some consumers may find this all a bit too Big Brother-ish.

He said consumers would have to volunteer to participate in any aspect of the program that involves data about a home or person.

“That sort of information is made available by choice of the consumer,” he said. “Nobody’s going to Big Brother you or spy on you.”