Detroit Regional Chamber > Detroiter Magazine > In Search of Michigan’s Smart Cities

In Search of Michigan’s Smart Cities

January 5, 2018
Municipalities strive to be livable as they get more crowded

By Tom Walsh

Smart cities are all the rage these days, the hot topic of conferences around the globe. High-profile competitions pit cities and regions against each other for bragging rights, government research dollars – and in the case of Amazon’s much-ballyhooed HQ2 project, a $5-billion investment and 50,000 jobs.

Detroit-based NextEnergy recently awarded $100,000 to winners of its second “Next Challenge: Smart Cities” contest for ideas to create safer, more efficient places for people to live and work with a lower impact on the environment.

Michigan has a huge stake in the race to integrate new technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT), described by some as the third wave of the internet revolution, after personal computers and mobile devices. The IoT will connect 50 billion devices – cars, robots, kitchen appliances, etc. – in the next few years.

In a sweeping transformation of the automobile industry, new names like Tesla, Uber, Lyft and Waymo vie for leadership of the mobility space with traditional automakers. Now, amid rapid urbanization worldwide, the race for smart city status looms as the next great economic battleground.


What does it mean to be a smart city?

Rana Sen, smart city leader for Deloitte’s U.S. public sector practice, said his firm once counted 122 definitions for smart cities among academia, think tanks, corporations and governments – then decided not to invent a 123rd.

Generally, “smart city” refers to an urban area that uses electronic data collection sensors to better manage assets and services ranging from traffic and parking to power plants, water supply, schools, hospitals and law enforcement.

“It’s not just the parking structure or the roads and streetlights, this is a complete ecosystem that allows for an interconnected way of living,” said Samit Ghosh, president and CEO of P3 North America, a global engineering and consulting firm.

That will be critical in a world in which 70 percent of the population will be in cities by 2050, even though cities cover only 2 percent of the earth.

Jerome Lynch, chair of the University of Michigan’s civil and environmental engineering department, said rapid development of intelligent sensors during the past few years prompted cities to seek help from university researchers on how best to gather, process and use the vast array of data to make better decisions.

In 2017, Lynch and colleagues from various disciplines — engineering, health, public policy, education, information, sociology, architecture and urban planning – formed the Urban Collaboratory at U of M to work with cities to address challenges that impact livability of communities. They are working on projects in Ann Arbor, Benton Harbor, Detroit, Grand Rapids and Ypsilanti relating to air and water quality, food trucks and public transit.

Rahul Gupta, PwC’s principal for capital projects and infrastructure, sees a “nascent user engagement” emerging from citizen concerns about failing infrastructure in the United States.

“People are asking hard questions following flooding, disasters, earthquakes and wildfires. In the U.S., we react best after a shock,” Gupta said. “As a society, we want to know, ‘how is technology going to change my life?’”

Deloitte’s Sen said smart cities should have three core objectives:
• Economic competitiveness and job growth
• Sustainability
• And quality of life, as measured by key performance indicators such as congestion, walkability, etc.

Gupta said a city’s smart use of technology and data is key to attracting investment.

“If you know how to run your city and people are voting by living in the city, other businesses will want to come and set up shop there,” he said. “It helps you do things like understand climate change and the importance of good traffic management. So a smart city is enabled by technology, for the benefit of the citizens.”


In Michigan, much of the attention on smart cities has focused on the region’s legacy as an automotive and manufacturing hub. Maintaining its leadership in mobility technologies is a critical anchor for Michigan’s economy, one that continues to attract investment from around the globe.

Siemens, a German technology firm, chose Ann Arbor in 2016 as its first Center of Excellence for Intelligent Traffic Technology. Its controls adjust signal timing to optimize traffic fl ow at about 100 intersections in a town with unusual traffic patterns, especially on U of M football weekends, when spectators pack the Big House and then leave town a few hours later.

Vehicle makers and suppliers from around the world also partner with researchers at Mcity, the 32-acre vehicle testing environment on U of M’s North Campus, and at the 500-acre American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti.

“There are many more facets to a smart city than just transportation,” said Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. “Mobility is a piece, but it’s access to electronic information and connectivity, too.”

Columbus, Ohio’s winning proposal in the U.S. Transportation Department’s 2016 Smart City Challenge included providing cell phones to people who could not afford them, so they could tell when buses were running, Steudle noted.

“I do think there’s opportunity to use the transportation network as kind of a smart city backbone,” he said.

“We still have challenges maintaining the existing transportation infrastructure,” Steudle added, so smart regions must find cost-effective ways to invest.

The recent rollout of the $92-million Flex Route project on US-23 between Ann Arbor and Brighton involved bridge, ramp and pavement repairs while also adding intelligent technology with overhead signs, cameras and electronic message boards. The inside median shoulder was opened to traffic during peak traffi c times, averting the need to add extra lanes

Michigan’s adoption of laws enabling the use, testing and selling of autonomous vehicles positions the state for continued leadership in the mobility space, said Mark Davidoff, Deloitte’s Michigan managing partner and member of Gov. Rick Snyder’s Michigan Council on Future Mobility.

“If we’re going to lead the world, we must lead on all fronts,” Davidoff said. “That’s why you see public-private partnerships that focus on cementing our beachheads.”

Brandon Mason, PwC’s automotive director and mobility leader, said retaining talent is critical.

“We’ve got the universities putting out smart, very good engineering people, but can we keep them in the region to help develop the technology?” he said.

P3’s Ghosh believes Michigan has opportunity but perhaps not enough collaboration.

“Because we have so many of those larger players – GM, Ford, tech companies, and Tier 1 suppliers that are all here together — we could come up with a collaborative initiative for the future smart city,” Ghosh said. “We have all the ingredients to cook the soup and it would be stupid if we don’t cook it, because definitely somebody will cook it somewhere else.”


So what can cities do to nurture smart growth and create incentives for innovation? For starters, ask the citizenry what they want.

For a recent study entitled “Future Cities: Navigating the New Era of Mobility,” conducted for the state by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR), the research team conducted workshops in five cities across Michigan – Grand Rapids, Gaylord, Marquette, Plymouth and Ypsilanti – and surveyed participants about mobility options and traffic issues.

PwC’s Gupta said this approach is needed in an era of tight municipal budgets.

“We don’t have all the money in the world to recapitalize the U.S. infrastructure,” Gupta said. “The last time this was done top-down was during the Eisenhower era. Our bridges are failing, our pipes are failing, our copper cables need to be replaced. We’ve got a brittle grid that needs to be made resilient, so the conversation is turning to how can the public and private sectors come together?”

The U of M Urban Collaboratory was approached directly for help last year by Benton Harbor, one of the state’s poorest cities, which was run by state-appointed emergency financial managers from 2010 to 2016.

“The new mayor, Marcus Muhammad, came in looking to do something different, but with limited resources,” said Lynch, codirector of the Collaboratory, which worked with the community to address two pressing problems, mobility and water.

Benton Harbor does not have the lead contamination that afflicted Flint’s water, but it did have poor water pressure due to declining population and aging pipes, which caused buildup of sediment. In addition, many residents do not have cars, and the local transit system does not provide good options to get unemployed workers to available jobs. Studies have been launched to address both issues, Lynch said.

In Grand Rapids, the university was approached by the city and the Start Garden startup accelerator to partner with seven other private and nonprofit groups on a pilot program to monitor air quality in the city from sensors installed on food trucks. As a byproduct, residents can also more easily find locations and times that the food trucks are operational.

And in Detroit, Lynch said, the Collaboratory is working with the Knight Foundation and Voyageur Academy in Southwest Detroit, providing “sensors in a shoebox” kits with devices to middle and high school students. Students use them to measure air quality, pedestrian traffic, parks usage or other aspects of community life – and then work with U of M experts on how to analyze the data.


Amazon’s hyped-up derby for awarding its HQ2 location is targeting larger metro areas located far afield from its home base in Seattle, Wash., but most of its key criteria – talent, transit, tech-friendliness – are aligned closely with a smart-city playbook.

With 238 applications from U.S. cities, including Grand Rapids and Detroit, the guessing game about top contenders has rivals comparing their smart city bonafides with the rest of the pack. Coming on the heels of the U.S. DOT’s Smart City Challenge, this may be an early stage of smart city obsession. And that’s a good thing, says MDOT’s Steudle. Tom Walsh is a metro Detroit freelance writer.