We are very thankful to have Colorado Smart Cities Alliance as one of our sponsors at Denver Metro Clean Cities! Tyler Svitak, one of DMCC’s board members and the executive director of Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, spoke with us about his role at the Alliance and what their mission is. Keep reading to hear about some of the Alliance’s new, innovative projects, the challenges they face and how they work to overcome them, and successes they’ve had along the way.
Organization: Colorado Smart Cities Alliance
Location: Englewood, CO
*Note: The following answers have been summarized from an interview with Tyler Svitak from CSCA
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at Colorado Smart Cities Alliance?
I am the executive director of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, which means I get to do all things related to our organization. We were formed about 4 years ago as a stand-alone nonprofit and our role is really to find opportunities to partner the public sector, and governments across our state, with the private sector to test new sorts of technologies that have the promise of solving, or at least improving, the issues that the state faces. This covers a range of different city and civic issues including public health, public safety, transportation and mobility, affordable housing and more. My role here is to grow our organization, to grow our impact as an organization and ultimately to get a lot of new technologies deployed in Colorado to attract investment and opportunities to our state.
The Colorado Smart Cities Alliance helps accelerate action by uniting different sectors and jurisdictions towards solving challenges in the community. In your opinion, what is the most important challenge you are currently working to solve?
Good question. There are a number of challenges that are preventing government from being more innovative and from finding solutions to a lot of these issues that continue to upset and hurt people. That being said, I think the biggest thing we try to focus on and improve is the ability to trust and take risk. Government is inherently un-risky and the way that they have been innovative in the past, and continue to try to be, is by defining the very specific requirements they need to go out to bid in a competitive process and purchasing something. In this space of new technologies, where artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, all of these new technologies are shaping what is possible, governments don’t understand what is even out there that can help them or how to apply it. What we try to do is improve the ability for governments to work with the most innovative companies in the world to understand how we can leverage those new technologies to solve problems in different ways. It’s outside a traditional procurement process and it makes governments uncomfortable – they don’t really understand how to engage and vice versa; companies don’t really understand how to engage unless they’re selling something to someone. So, it’s really about building partnerships, establishing trust and co-developing these things together so that they work and can be replicated.
Do you have a favorite success story from 2020? What are you looking forward to in 2021?
I guess one of my personal favorites, because my background is in smart mobility and petroleum reduction, is an electric vehicle project we got off the ground this year, actually two of them, that deployed the state’s first bidirectional DC electrical fast-charger. There’s a company called Fermata Energy that made the first eligible DC bidirectional fast-charger and they were looking for partners to help them test and deploy it. In return, if the partners could cover installation costs, they would get the charger and a Nissan Leaf for free. We were able to find two different host sites that were willing to install the charger and work with Fermata for a four-year period to test this and see how much energy, and therefore money, this technology can save the building owner and eventually the utility and grid operator if we can send electricity back and forth to the grid in a relatively fast way. That was a great success and the first charger was installed in December in Boulder at a city building – the city is using the Leaf for a fleet vehicle. Hopefully we’ll see soon what the results are in terms of energy and cost savings.
What’s interesting about this work is that it takes a long time for these projects to go from an idea to planning to execution. We have a number of projects that we planted seeds for last year that we hope bloom this year. One of these projects is what would be the largest deployment of autonomous and electric shuttles in the country. There are a number of what are called low-speed, high-autonomous shuttles out there that are fully electric, roughly six-passenger shuttle buses that operate completely autonomously without a driver. They’ve been deployed all over the country but only in one or two type vehicle deployments and we’ve designed a project that would take more than ten of them and deploy them into a real transit service. That way, the public can really engage with them and we can see whether it’s a viable solution for lowering the cost and providing more transit to more people. Hopefully this project takes off – we’re still fundraising for it, but the foundation is there.
Who are you partnering with on that project?
There are a number of partners. Our private partners in order for this to work are EasyMile – they are the autonomous driving system developer, they design the algorithms and computers that drive the shuttle, Panasonic – they will be providing the connected vehicle technology because in order for the shuttles to operate on the streets, they need to communicate with traffic signals in real time, and Siemens – they are providing the charging infrastructure for the project. Of course, I can’t share all the cities, but one of the deployment sites for the shuttles would be in Greenwood Village.
As a member of the Denver Metro Clean Cities Board, how has your partnership helped you to achieve your sustainability and collaboration goals across Colorado?
As someone who started their career with Clean Cities, the model that they have created for developing public-private partnerships and testing new types of transportation petroleum reduction technologies is something we have absolutely taken and replicated. As a foundational element, I think the work Clean Cities has been doing for the past 28 years has helped form a lot of other organizations. Ultimately, when it comes to new technologies, and Smart Cities generally – which is an enormous trend right now for government – sustainability is a core pillar of how technologies are going to be used in cities. What we bring to the Clean Cities Coalition is asking “what is the tip of the spear of technology and how is it changing sustainability?”. A lot of governments have set very aggressive goals for carbon and pollution reduction and transportation is the number one source, but no one is 100% certain on how we’re going to get there. Without technology innovation and the willingness of governments to take some risk and try new things, we’re never going to meet those goals. That’s part of the perspective I bring to the board and I love to stay engaged in what’s happening specifically with clean transportation. I think that what’s most interesting and fun about Clean Cities is that it focuses on a big piece of the puzzle that most people don’t recognize is really difficult – deployment. To reduce petroleum, you actually have to do things and that is really complicated and requires a lot of hand-holding and education in order to do it right. As opposed to setting goals and doing research, putting rubber on the road is really what matters.
Over the last four years, since you’ve been established, have you noticed a significant improvement or different direction in a lot of the technologies for the private partners you work with?
I think the technology itself has just iterated. The major trends that are shaping the Smart Cities industry and governments in general haven’t changed that much. It’s artificial intelligence, automation and robotics, next generation networks like 5G, electrification of everything, and those trends are roughly the same as they were four years ago. I think what’s different now is the comfortability that governments have with using this new technology and the scale at which it can be deployed. The change is happening much faster, but the technologies themselves haven’t changed all that much.
What are the barriers you have faced in getting governments to use these new technologies?
We have a whole document explaining the elements of smart government. It has less to do with technology itself and more to do with the internal structure of government. There are a lot of great technologies out there that can help with problems facing cities and communities, from mobility to public safety, but there is very little structure in governments for departments to work with each other. In order for something to solve all of these important issues, there needs to be a way for public works to talk with IT to talk with the public safety folks, etcetera. The structure just doesn’t exist today within government to coordinate everything it needs to do these big, innovative, multidisciplinary type projects. There’s generally not a lot of funding for new things within government, and even when there is, it’s hard to spend that money on something new where you don’t know exactly what you’re getting before you buy it. Procurement, funding, and government structure are the three biggest things preventing Smart Cities right now. Capacity is also a big issue. Within government, everyone has a day job. There is no R&D department in government, so if you want to do something new, they don’t have a lot of capacity to focus on it. Governments that are doing the most in this space have started innovation or Smart Cities departments where it’s their job to look for new types of solutions and how to implement them.
Is there anything we haven’t touched on that you want to talk about?
I touched on this earlier, but the work of Clean Cities is much more important than just petroleum reduction. It’s a model for collaboration and a model for partnership and a model for new types of organizations that are going to be necessary for these big, complex innovative ideas to actually happen. Government is really rigid, private sector is not used to working with government and there’s this need for a middle man with a neutral perspective to push both in the right direction. I think Clean Cities is a model for collaboration that’s worth celebrating, growing and replicating.
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