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  • Matthew Chang

Bold City must show boldness to innovate on autonomous engineering

We have a lot of names: Jacksonville, Duval, Florida's First Coast, the Bold City of the New South. With all of the names, do we know who we really are? I believe we are innovators. I believe we are change agents. I also believe we can innovate in a unique Jacksonville way with a focus on quality of life, ecology, hospitality, faith and community.

One of our opportunities is to become the national hub for autonomy, or more precisely said: autonomous systems.

I've been a resident of Duval County for 18 years, moving here after having lived in regional rivals (Atlanta and Charlotte). Since arriving in Jacksonville, I quit the Carolina Panthers and the Atlantia Falcons to pick up the Jacksonville Jaguars. At the same time, Duval has been hungry for rebirth and renewal.

Just months after the Super Bowl, I saw a city with a dead downtown, little urban development and minimal entrepreneurship activity.

My time in Charlotte saw its downtown rebranded to "Uptown" and I lived in Midtown Atlanta when a blighted area became a success story of urban development. My childhood home is on the Greenway of Charlotte and while at Georgia Tech, my senior design class helped design the Atlanta Beltline bicycle and pedestrian trail.

Those cities have experienced their transformation and now it's Jacksonville's time.

Where do we sit today in Jacksonville? We have the Emerald Trail under development that is almost two times larger than any other downtown bike trail in the nation, connecting our waterways and historical neighborhoods. The official bird of downtown is no longer the osprey - it's the construction crane.

Additionally, our premier educational institutions are developing advanced engineering and technical programs to support the digital future of tomorrow. Duval County has implemented robotics teams in 50% of their schools. Our health care system is the center of innovation with cutting edge therapies and technologies powering Jacksonville to be a national health care destination.

The jobs market is booming with top financial technology companies deciding to grow their operations in Jacksonville. JaxPort and local logistics companies are investing in modernization and digital technologies required to keep Jacksonville an important part of the global supply chain. Every person in the city expects that the Jaguars will win their division and make the playoffs.

With new homes coming to every corner of the city, our housing market is expanding. And the city's first female mayor of Jacksonville has been elected, following the lead set by Atlantic, Neptune and Jacksonville beaches.

In other words - our time is now.

Jacksonville is no longer a city of complacency. Innovation is the path forward and there is a remarkable opportunity right in front of us. Jacksonville can become the autonomous systems epicenter of the nation. Autonomous systems are the result of mixing robotics, computer programming, artificial intelligence, workforce training and computing together.

We can become the "knowledge hub" of autonomous systems in the country. We must keep going, because so much is happening already. Jacksonville University is developing Autonomous Systems Engineering curriculum for their engineering department. The University of Florida launched a center for AI sponsored by Nvidia, and several hospitals in town are launching autonomous robotics projects.

One of the nation's leading autonomous engineering firms is located in Jax Beach (founded by yours truly). A new electric-autonomous vehicle company that produces autonomous systems for airports just established their corporation in Duval. Multiple start-up companies in town are perfecting the art of using autonomous drones used for industrial applications.

Smart city projects are one of the most visible forms of autonomous systems. The city and JTA have been successful in recruiting the federal government and state of Florida to support a local autonomous transit system. St. Augustine and Jacksonville are both engaging in complementary smart city projects using much prized federal funding.

There's also a little-known organization, Smart North Florida, piloting 12 projects to infuse technology in our infrastructure, including a project in every county in metro-Jacksonville.

Autonomous systems need power, as they run on carbon-free electric and battery systems. Local company Miller Electric is leading the country in installing vehicle charging systems. JEA has set up a special division to help support the transition to vehicle electrification. Jacksonville is also studying public-private partnerships to install micro-grids, street-side bus electrification and consumer car charging at public parking lots.

All this automation and electrification creates a lot of data that must be interpreted, but local companies are addressing that, too.

Jacksonville can become the knowledge hub for autonomous systems. It won't be easy, but creating anything new involves effort, ingenuity and the risk of failure. However, the benefits by far outweigh the risks. Higher wages, increased quality of life, inverse brain drain, attracting capital, start-up companies, workforce development and a more diversified and resilient economy.

Urban areas stand to benefit the most, which spreads equity, education and prosperity more uniformly across our city. As Dr. Nahshon Nicks says: "What's good for the Southside should be good for the Northside."

Autonomous systems will help grow the pie in Jacksonville, but will the Bold City have the boldness to innovate?

Matthew Chang is a professional engineer and founder of Chang Industrial. He served as the first team member of JTA's autonomous vehicle testing program and founded the Jacksonville Venture Competition, now entering its second year.

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