May 13, 2019
April 21, 2019
Small Cities Spending Big On Driverless Cars, 5G To Get Ahead
One day in February, representatives from various Fortune 500 companies gathered on the shoulder of a quiet road in a small suburb of Atlanta called Peachtree Corners.
They were there to watch a truck whose driver was, at that moment, 2,471 miles away in Mountain View, California.
This was one of the first tests of an autonomous vehicle on the new $2M test track Peachtree Corners is developing with Sprint called Curiosity Lab at Peachtree Corners. The 1.5-mile stretch of road meanders through a wooded business park here in a city of more than 43,000 residents some 20 miles north of Downtown Atlanta.
Once fully complete, the track will be laid out with sensors connected to Sprint's 5G network for other autonomous vehicle companies to beta test their cars and trucks. The test track is just one initiative Peachtree Corners is undertaking that have underpinnings in technology in some form. Mayor Mike Mason said the initiative has a very clear goal.
“It's not for ridership,” Mason said. “It's for economic development.”
Since the end of the Great Recession, suburban and rural cities have been fighting against a tide of both companies and population returning to major urban cores. By 2050, 68% of the world's population will live in urban centers, up from just 30% in 1950, according to U.S. News & World Report.
This trend has many cities struggling for relevance and a slice of the economic growth pie. In some smaller suburban and rural cities, officials are relying on building technology infrastructure for an edge.
Municipalities across the country are trying to build a variety of technological trappings in the chase for the coveted title of “smart city.” Municipalities are taking multiple paths toward that title, from startup incubators, hot spot kiosks throughout downtowns that offer tips to tourists and advertising opportunities for companies, trash cans that tell sanitation departments when they are full and software systems to better manage congestion.
Experts contend that the advantages of infusing tech into city services and infrastructure go beyond the obvious benefits, including creating a better quality of life, service efficiencies and becoming a stronger magnet for economic development.
Tapping Into Better Tech
Peachtree Corners’ story began in 2012 when it was officially founded as a city. Mason recalls a phone call from the head of economic development for the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce soon after his inauguration as the city's first mayor.
Mason was painted a pretty bleak picture: More than 25% of the office space in Peachtree Corners was vacant, and headlines were filled with companies leaving for Atlanta's central business districts.
“That's like a third-world country,” Mason said. “Everybody said the same thing: You have no millennial housing and all the young workers want to live in Midtown in nice apartments. So we knew we had a challenge.”
Some cities are attempting to grow tech startups into their next big local employer.
Emporia, Kansas, more than 100 miles west of Kansas City, is establishing an incubator program in an effort to foster a hometown company that's successful enough to make a difference to the city of 24,700 people. It received a grant from the Vermont nonprofit Center on Rural Innovation to kick-start a 2,200 SF innovation coworking space and lab, complete with 3D printers, in its small downtown.
City Commissioner Rob Gilligan said the city hopes the facility will help stem the tide of a brain drain from the area by tapping into the growth of the tech sector and providing jobs for residents. Even one successful startup can make a difference for a city the size of Emporia, he said.
“Probably the idea [of the next] Amazon is an extreme [one], that you would find that billion-dollar lottery ticket,” he said. “But if we can even find a stable startup that would start with 10 to 15 employees in the first five years and grow to 100 jobs in 10 years ... In a community like Emporia, 100 new, good-wage tech jobs can make the difference between a community viewed as growing and thriving and a community seen as withering.”
The Fight To Bridge The Digital Divide
Suburban politicians are combating a growing digital divide across the globe. Historically, this gap has been most pronounced along racial and socioeconomic lines, with more affluent white populations having better access and technological education than other races, even within the same city. But there is a divide among the have and have-not cities as well.
In 1998, in the early days of the internet, 28% of rural Americans used the internet compared to 34% of those in urban areas. By 2015, those numbers grew in both areas, but the gap remained: 69% of rural residents were plugged in while 75% of urban residents used the internet, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
As consumer products become even more connected to the internet — not just phones, but cars and refrigerators and thermostats controlled by apps — speed and bandwidth become more critical for cities as they try to keep up with New York and San Francisco.
If small municipalities don’t make investments now, they could fall even further behind. Brooks Rainwater, the director of the National League of Cities' Center for City Solutions, has seen a rise in local governments investing in technology since the end of the Great Recession, especially as a means to an economic development end.
The payoff can be great: If a city can establish the right infrastructure, it can begin to form technology clusters with private employers. This is relatively easy to do, if the municipality has the financial wherewithal.
Depending on how advanced cities want to achieve smart city status — sensors, smart traffic lights, online services for residents and business and, especially important, a strong fiber network — the costs can be enormous. Estimates range from $18K to $22K per mile to lay fiber cable in a community.
“Whenever you look at infrastructure investments … these are things that are going to pay long-term dividends to the communities that invest in them,” Rainwater said.
A Push For Connectivity
For some cities, being wired has given a boost toward their dreams of tech advancement and economic development.
Palm Coast, Florida, already has 65 miles of city-owned fiber cables deployed inside its borders. Now, the city has issued a request for proposals from private internet providers to roll out 5G in the city, Wynn Newingham, Palm Coast's head of innovation and economic growth, said.
That fiber backbone aided the growth of one of the biggest startup success stories in the city: Coastal Cloud, which was founded seven years ago by a couple in their Palm Coast home. As of 2017, the company employed more than 100 and had $20M in revenue, the Palm Coast Observer reported.
Palm Coast is now investing in expanding its array of cellphone towers to ensure coverage throughout the city, another factor that plays into economic development. Five years ago, such a program would have been met with pushback by residents who did not want more cell towers sprouting up, long disdained as eyesores, Newingham said. But today, everyone carries a smartphone and expects to be connected 24/7.
“Now people are [saying], 'I don't care how tall the cellphone tower is. I just want service,'” Newingham said. “I'm not saying it's third world, but it's an expectation. If you're in an area and you can't make a call ... your city is going to get left behind.”
Fiber has benefited Emporia, said Gilligan, who was elected to the city commission in 2011. Eight years ago, a group of local investors and business leaders laid down fiber throughout the city. Today, nearly every home in Emporia has the availability of gigabit-speed internet.
“We're lucky. We're lucky that we had local entrepreneurs who saw the opportunity,” he said. “The network is built. We have it here. Now we [need to] figure out how you can capitalize on that resource.”
For Peachtree Corners, the bets on tech don’t rely on autonomous vehicles only. The city also has partnered with Georgia Tech on a technology startup incubator at a single-story, sleepy office building near the track. That incubator, called Prototype Prime, is already home to 15 startups and received a $1.8M grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to expand barely a year into its existence.
Mason, the only mayor Peachtree Corners has ever known, believes an incubator is a smart bet to place in the tech economy. The investments are starting to pay off, and they are helping to bring new jobs in. In the past year, a number of companies have started operating in the city, including CarMax and software firm Brightree.
Growing businesses are critical to the city's future — and not just because a big part of the budget is derived from business license taxes, Mason said.
Peachtree Corners City Manager Brian Johnson said the efforts to boost occupancy at office parks within the city's borders will have a ripple effect that will create more demand for housing, higher rents for apartments and greater retail sales.
“Do we really want to take theoretically half a million dollars to hire an economic developer?” Mason said. "Is it smarter to do that or is it smarter to grow your own?"