Attendees of the 2018 ULI Carolinas Meeting tour downtown Greenville.

Urban planners and technology experts are hard at work bringing “smart city” technology—autonomous transportation, digital sensors, smart grids, and, yes, artificial intelligence—to a city near you. These were among the takeaways from a panel discussion at the 2018 ULI Carolinas Meeting in Greenville, South Carolina.

Moderated by Doug Webster, a senior associate at CBRE, panelists explored how Greenville and other midsized U.S. cities are leveraging smart city technologies to address a range of urban challenges. Session panelists included George Fletcher, engineer and at-large council member for the city of Greenville; Eddie Mottern, director of programs at Robotic Research in Gaithersburg, Maryland; and Michael Knight, chief strategy and technology officer at Greenville-based Encore Technology Group.

Webster and Fletcher are both leaders in Greenville’s real estate development community and serve together on the board of the nonprofit Carolinas Alliance 4 Innovation, which promotes research into smart technologies for the region. Robotics specialist Mottern develops and implements autonomous vehicle applications for both military and civilian use. Knight is a cyber-security expert with a focus on smart grid systems integration and encryption strategy.

The panel discussed Greenville’s recent participation in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, which asked midsized cities for original transportation solutions that could “help people and goods move more quickly, cheaply, and efficiently.” While the $50 million grant was ultimately awarded to Columbus, Ohio, the DOT published a summary of findings designed to inspire cities everywhere to rethink mobility. These insights helped shape Greenville’s plans for smart city development in its own transportation sector.

Speaking at the ULI Carolinas Meeting, Doug Webster, senior associate with CBRE and moderator of the panel; George Fletcher, at-large council member for the city of Greenville; Edward Mottern, director of programs at Robotic Research; and Michael Knight, chief strategy and technology officer at Encore Technology Group.

Fletcher pointed out that Greenville, like many midsized cities, has a large population of residents who do not own vehicles and who must rely on mass transit, taxis, and family members to get them where they’re going. The inconsistent access to transportation means that people have trouble getting to their jobs, school, appointments, the grocery store—all of which can affect economic mobility.

“Public transportation is a solution to a lot of problems,” said Fletcher. “It’s the other side of the coin to affordable housing.” Referring to a term used in the DOT study, he said that cities have to consider the “first-mile/last-mile” problem. This is the distance between where someone lives and where the public transportation options stop.

Looking for “alternative transportation and infrastructure” can help solve these logistical issues, he added, and went on to describe a yearlong process wherein he and his fellow panelists have been doing just that for Greenville.

What does “alternative” mean, in a practical sense, for real estate developers and planners? The panel was clear: smart city technology is here and evolving fast. Cities should see its value and create infrastructure plans that can be implemented, evaluated, and, if needed, revisited early enough in the development process to see cost benefits. Autonomous mobility platforms are the key.

The first order of business, according to Mottern, is to find the right subject matter experts to partner with, then you can focus on the economics. The earlier you do both, the less costly retrofits will be later.

“For a fraction of the money it costs to automate one vehicle,” he said, cities can put in place “infrastructure that [will] allow autonomous vehicles to operate even more safely going forward.” He gave the example of installing technology that could eventually help vehicles navigate adverse weather conditions.

Autonomous mobility platforms also allow developers to provide area residents with better access and connectivity to geographic locations that may have been unreachable before.

“A bus can take you from point A to B, to C, then D,” said Mottern, “but you’re now going to have the ability to take people anywhere in a two-, three-, four-mile radius.” That addresses the first-mile/last-mile issue, he said, and opens up more options for people to live and work—something that can only be good for developers. He also pointed out that autonomous vehicles can be deployed by first responders to help with nonemergency situations, resulting in a considerable savings in resources.

“If you’re going to be developing a new community,” he added, “for pennies on the dollar, you can set it up in such a way now that there will not be a bottleneck later when these technologies are real.” Part of Mottern’s mission with the city of Greenville is to track results and share data with other locations in the United States that are well suited for the technology.

In his part of the panel discussion about creating both hard-wired and wireless digital technologies that are safe and impenetrable, security expert Knight reminded the audience that it is not just autonomous cars, trucks, and publicly owned vehicles that cities should be thinking about. They need to consider the communications infrastructure that a smart city requires: cars and shuttles will require strategically placed charging stations; smart vehicles will need encryptable sensors in order to safely navigate and talk to each other; and technology experts will have to ensure safe, consistent access to the latest connectivity platforms.

“When you bring smart technology into cities, or into your home,” he said, “you not only have to think about what they’re supposed to do, but also what they can do.” This requires long-range, creative thinking and an ability to help others envision potential uses.

Both Knight and Fletcher talked about the city’s plan to build a Center for Excellence in the region, a place where “cities, communities, and subject matter experts” can come together to share best practices, test technology in a lab setting, and set performance and safety standards.

Knight said he felt confident that if Greenville, and cities like it, continue to focus on infrastructure and quality of life as they plan—including wireless connectivity, ease of transportation, and plenty of nontraditional workspaces for the new, office-less digital nomad—they will easily attract and retain a highly skilled workforce.

Fletcher spoke for the panel when he said the Smart City Greenville project was one of the most exciting things happening in the region: “We are now taking some major steps toward our goal of making [Greenville] the model of a world-class smart city. We can do a lot here.”

You do not have to go far, or even step out of your car, to see that the city of Greenville is plenty smart already.