Think about a city’s digital future, and the conversation has typically turned to technical topics — internet of things, sensors, automated functions. But talk to those working to build a city’s future, and it’s clear that these projects won’t get off the ground without people.
Communities must have a voice in what is built. Government has a role to play in ensuring it is shaped for everyone. A workforce must have the skills and knowledge to bring new technologies online.
Those were just a few of the takeaways from the 13th edition of Waterfront Tech Series, the Baltimore event series connecting technologists and businesses. Held on Oct. 20 at Inner Harbor’s Fogo de Chão, the panel discussion focused on smart cities and “accelerating Baltimore’s digital transformation.”
Here’s a look at the key components of any such effort:
Connected devices are powerful because of their connection to each other. That comes via the internet, making a connection to the web the key building block for any network. It speaks to the importance of internet as cities move forward.
“Internet is no longer a luxury item,” said Jason Hardebeck, the Baltimore City director of broadband and digital equity. “Now it’s very clear that this is a basic tenet of modern civil society.”
That has especially come to the fore in the pandemic, when digital connectivity became the key piece of infrastructure for work and school. In Baltimore City, 40% of households lack wireline internet access as of 2018, per an Abell Foundation report. Solving that will take many pieces. Another side of the equation is affordability, which will need a “real, long-term permanent solution,” Hardebeck said.
There’s also a need to get more households connected. That’s been the work of Project Waves, a community internet service provider that has connected 1,000 low-income households to free internet service over the last 15 months, said executive director Samantha Musgrave. Such gap networks play an important role.
Partnerships have been key. Project Waves partnered with Baltimore-based internet provider LiteCloud, which offered space on its network.
Internet is also a key piece of new development. In Port Covington, one million square feet of new space for businesses and residents is currently under construction, set to be delivered in the fourth quarter of 2022. The community will be coming online with Wi-Fi access throughout.
“There will not be a place that you can’t walk in Port Covington and not have connectivity. Every park, every waterfront, every building will have connectivity,” said Antony Gross, VP of leasing at JLL.
Working with the community a project is serving is another key building block of any city-based digital transformation effort. While technology advances make more possible, they must be able to reach everyone.
“You can’t have a smart city unless you have a community that can benefit from that,” Hardebeck said. “Otherwise what you’re doing is exacerbating existing challenges.”
In practice, it means sitting down with residents and stakeholders to discuss the challenges they’re facing, and what can help.
“You need solutions that work that are affordable, that are scalable and are the right solutions for the problems we’re facing,” said Divesh Gupta, director of strategy for electric utility BGE’s Utility of the Future program. “Where we’ve been able to sit down and lead with a conversation about, what are the challenges you’re facing, that’s actually created even more engagement.”
“People are excited to help with solutions because we’re addressing problems that they’ve identified.”
It’s also something BGE considered when it received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to provide electric vehicle infrastructure. It’s bringing 100 electric rideshare vehicles to the area, in partnership with Lyft. Many of these rides start or end in low income communities.
“One of the best ways to open your aperture for what’s possible in terms of jobs and education is to be exposed to it,” Gupta said. “If we can have those vehicles in the neighborhood, have the opportunity to ride in them, and engaging in teaching, that’s going to be important.”
For BGE, one of the projects that came out of speaking with the community was an effort to install smart streetlights in the Johnston Square neighborhood. Residents said they wanted more reliable, LED lighting in the neighborhood to make it safer.
“One of the things they talked about was, help us make our streets safer and cleaner in particular. One of the things that came out was there were a lot of people that are dumping in the dark of night in our neighborhood,” Gupta said. “How can we help with that? Smart streetlights was one place where we could.”
This led to the installation of 198 neighborhood streetlights in fall 2020.
“It also provides the infrastructure for doing more. These smart streetlights are the base case for, are there sensors that you can attach to lights that can help with other challenges?” Gupta said.
Connected devices don’t only mean bringing new hardware online. There’s software that powers this technology. That means a city’s growing software workforce can be part of the move toward smart city technology.
“Now your refrigerator can actually talk to the net, it’s part of this ecosystem. That needs intelligence, and you have this great blend of software and hardware,” said Eliot Pearson, chief strategy officer for partnerships at Baltimore software workforce firm Catalyte.
Catalyte is working to grow that software workforce, as it identifies people with aptitude to become an engineer through an assessment, and offers a training program into a career. This approach aims to widen the candidate pool beyond those who have a computer science degree, and build a workforce that’s more in line with the diversity of the population of a city where it works.
As it widens the pool of talent, connected devices also open up the number of companies that software engineers can work with.
“Because we’re finding people that are software developers, they’re able to work on hardware as well,” Pearson said. “So that allows us to work with any customer over any industry.”
Those working today acknowledge that these efforts are just the start. The conversation about connected cities is one that must consider the future as much as the present. Building the workforce will be a key part of that. In a series of project presentations made at the event, it was clear this is top of mind. Federal Hill’s Digital Harbor Foundation is working with youth to instill making and learning approaches that will have lifelong impact. The Maryland Tech Internship Program is connecting university students and companies Hampden-based printing software firm Tricerat moved into the city and is reshaping working modes as it moves to a four-day workweek.
“We have all the people and partnerships that we could ever need right here in the city,” said Laura Gaworecki, the founder of Waterfront Tech Series and moderator at the event.-30-