New consortium sets vision for Washington region to be national leader in finding digital solutions to problems

By Luz Lazo posted March 19th, 2019 on www.washingtonpost.com


An officer keeps traffic moving in downtown Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Key leaders in business, government and education announced Tuesday that they have formed a partnership to foster smart growth and make the Washington region one of the most “digitally enabled” in the country.

They envision a region, for example, where residents unable to afford Internet service would access it through a broad network of public WiFi. Intelligent technology would sync traffic signals to reduce commute times. And drivers would turn to a universal smart-parking app that would direct them to available spots, eliminating time spent circling city blocks.

“There is an opportunity here for technology to really be utilized to address a lot of issues,” said Jack McDougle, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which along with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area will form the Greater Washington Smart Region Movement.

The three groups collectively represent hundreds of organizations.

“Cities that choose to embrace smart technologies are better equipped to drive improvements in critical initiatives including public safety, transportation, connectivity, health services and disaster management,” said Tony Lewis, chair of the Board of Trade and region vice president of Verizon. “[The partnership] is designed to create a productive, competitive environment for industry while driving the very best solutions for meeting the needs of the people.”

The group wants to explore expanding public hotspots, coordinating traffic lights to reduce congestion, and adding digital air pollution warnings.

D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), chair of the COG board, said the Smart Region Movement will enable the region to build on innovative ideas and make strategic new investments in infrastructure.

Technology, for example, can be a tool for solving many of the region’s problems, including improving traffic flow, providing residents digital access to medical professionals and improving urban farming. While most governments have identified lack of Internet access as a priority, he said, the region can combine their purchasing power to not only help find a solution but also save money.

“This effort will help us think bigger about our shared needs, reduce taxpayer costs by making joint purchases and working with local businesses, and plan for these technologies to work seamlessly across our jurisdictional borders,” White said.

Cities around the world are embracing smart technology to solve basic problems, such as shortening commutes by using smart-mobility apps, fighting crime through data-driven policing, and using sensors to identify pollution sources and related solutions.

These kinds of initiatives are making cities more efficient and improving the lives of their residents, according to a 2018 study from McKinsey Global Institute. The study found that smart-city benefits touch all aspects of city life, cutting commuting times, improving emergency response times, and conserving water and energy.

In the Washington area, some communities already are experimenting with smart pilot programs. The Smarter D.C. initiative, for example, is testing the use of video sensors to measure traffic volume and flow in major corridors, and sensor technology in waste to put out data on fill levels, helping public-works employees boost efficiencies. Montgomery County has grant funding to focus on technology solutions to fight air pollution. In Virginia, officials are studying statewide broadband access and prioritizing cybersecurity.

Rosie Allen-Herring, president and chief executive officer of United Way of the National Capital Area, said the Smart Region Movement can ensure benefits to all sectors of the Washington area — including providing access to services such as Internet to the poor, which could be accomplished by creating WiFi kiosks or facilitating special offerings.

“When a city becomes a hard place to live because infrastructure and municipal services are overburdened, the consequences are not felt equally. Many can and will pay a premium to get around those barriers, and those who cannot pay get squeezed out,” Allen-Herring said in a statement. “We care about making Greater Washington a smart region because it can level the playing field to make it easier for all people to get to work, access the Internet, and live in a safe neighborhood.”

The Board of Trade, one of the region’s oldest and most influential business groups, spent a year researching what other cities are doing and how the Washington region could work together. The partnership, made of representatives from local governments, businesses and academia, will work on a plan of action in the next few months to prioritize projects and secure funding to carry them out.

“Rather than the communities across our region trying to tackle these kinds of issues individually, we now have a platform to do it collectively,” board president McDougle said, “which allows us to take advantage of economies of scale and ensuring that we will reach more people than if we try to do it in isolated pockets.”

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