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  • Matthew Chang

The How behind Jacksonville’s Smart City Initiatives

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

In our previous articles in this series, we have covered the why and the what behind Jacksonville’s Smart City Initiatives. In this article, we will talk about the how. There are many aspects of launching a smart city initiative in any city, and we are going to talk about what some of those aspects are.

Before you begin any project, you need the plan. Matthew Chang, employee number 1 of U2C, JTA’s driverless current circulator, asked himself in the early stages, “How could a private sector transportation agency become a discipline leader in driverless technology?” In order to answer this question or begin any new initiative, there must be a plan. The first challenge is always creating the technology road map.

Once there is a plan, there are many other parts that start to come into play. One of the biggest players in any smart city initiative is grants. In the public sector and private sector, it is hard to accomplish much without money. Especially in the public sector, grants play a big role is securing that money for any project. Specifically, with Jacksonville, there was a national competition for a discretionary grant. Over 300 cities competed, and Jacksonville and Las Vegas both got the funding. JTA and the city of Jacksonville received a large block of funding from the USDOT with matching funds from Florida DOT along with several private sector investors that were recruited. P3’s (public-private partnerships) are also a very important piece of the funding aspect of these smart city projects. Essentially, the philosophy behind a P3 is if the government cannot afford a project then make the private companies, who will benefit most, pay for it. Similarly, if the government lacks the execution experience to design and implement a project an experienced private sector partner is a good idea. For projects that have these criteria, private sector partners have a better pulse on what features and amenities people really want from a project (think of convention centers, stadiums, or airports).

Data is another huge aspect of any smart city initiative. You must be good at data. North Florida TPO, a funded branch of the USDOT here in Jacksonville, saw that we needed to be good at data. They oversee regional master planning. They came out with this idea that everyone needs to at least speak the same language. NF TPO put out a regional data master plan. Justin Dennis, co-founder of Urban SDK is the architect for the data system. When it comes to data, here is some of what Justin had to say:

“A big part of autonomous vehicles is that it’s a research initiative. There are some macro events that are occurring in terms of electric vehicles. A lot of our funding is based on the gas tax. There are clear concerns on the amount of revenue that a vehicle creates for an OEM compared to the amount of revenue something like an Uber can generate. So, an OEM or a manufactured car can make about $3,000 per unit. Whereas, if the mobility to service, Ubers can make that money a lot faster than a traditional car sale. There is a lot of things the DOT is worried about. A lot of these initiatives are research based. The things that they are asking for on a national level is “How are we going to know if this is an effective model to roll out throughout the entire nation?” So, part of the things they are asking for is the data. What are the metrics, the proof points, how do we get insight to this program’s effectiveness. All the data is now moved to being machine readable. So, we are merging between what is going on at the street level, the vehicles, what are they seeing, what’s the weather conditions, etc. The project here is specifically interesting to the DOT because it is taking an automated people mover and bringing it to the road. The DOT wants to understand why this is an effective program. We are providing a middle layer that allows us to collect data from the street, and then also allow the federal level to come in and have access to that information in terms of how effective this program can be.”

Another aspect of a smart city initiative is its sustainability and its investment in the next generation. Higher education is paramount. A lot of talent in tech comes from next generation; it tends to be younger. UNF and JU continuing to invest in these stem and public policy programs will make a huge impact on the sustainability of these smart city initiatives in Jacksonville in the future. Ultimately, it is the young minds that will sustain, grow, and improve these projects in the future, so investing in them now will create great returns for the tech community.

A currently trending topic is the successful deployment of JTA’s driverless “agile route” at Mayo Clinic in Florida to move COVID-19 test supplies. This is a fantastic example of how government leaders and private sector innovators can team up to solve real world problems, in real time.

There is a much longer, more comprehensive list of what must come together to implement these smart city initiatives like the ones in Jacksonville. The ones mentioned in this article, road maps, grants, data, and sustainability are just a few of the more general aspects of any smart city initiative or public sector project.

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