Smart City Challenge Aims to Solve Social Problems with Technology

(Updated at 11:55 p.m.) More than 100 people have signed up to compete in Virginia’s inaugural Smart City Challenge, and organizers expect more to join in the coming weeks.

The proceedings kicked off on Saturday (Jan. 23) with remarks from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and panel discussions on how technology could be used to address societal challenges, from COVID-19 and natural disasters to the availability of healthy food and efficiency of traffic lights.

The month-long competition will conclude on Feb. 18 when participants pitch projects designed to improve modern communities by tackling issues in housing, transportation, health, education, and other sectors.

People can also register for virtual discussions on topics like female leaders in innovation and the future of housing, even if they are not taking part in the competition.

“I can’t wait to see the impactful solutions that come out of the Smart City Challenge,” Northam said. “In fact, I hope we can implement some of them right here in our Commonwealth to create high-paying jobs and advance equitable and inclusive opportunities for all Virginians.”

Spearheaded by the nonprofit accelerator Smart City Works and McLean coworking hub Refraction, the 2021 Smart City Challenge is part of Virginia’s efforts to position itself as a leader in the development of artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and other kinds of “smart” technology.

According to Refraction CEO Esther Lee, who briefly served as Virginia’s commerce secretary under Northam, Virginia Tech’s plans to build an innovation campus in Alexandria helped draw Amazon to Northern Virginia.

In addition, the Herndon-based Center for Innovative Technology has teamed up with Stafford County to establish a Smart Community Testbed that Northam says will enable Virginia to deploy technology ranging from wildfire-detecting sensors to a WiFi-equipped park in Fredericksburg.

Given the amount of construction and traffic in the area, Tysons could be another prime location to experiment with smart technology, particularly when it comes to climate and energy efficiency issues, MITRE Labs Senior Vice President, General Manager, and Chief Futurist Charles Clancy says.

Headquartered in McLean, MITRE is a sponsor of the Smart City Challenge, along with Fairfax County, Dominion Energy, and several other local governments, businesses, and educational institutions. The company will host a discussion about resilence and sustainability on Feb. 12, and Clancy spoke on one of the panels for the kick-off.

“How can smart city technology…further reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions, particularly in an environment where, post-pandemic, we expect upwards of 50% of employees to not be in the office every day, all day?” Clancy said. “…Tysons is a great playground to experiment with that, given the density of office space and, of course, mixed-use [development]. It’s a microcosm of all those issues in one.”

While discussing the opportunities presented by smart technologies, panelists at the Smart City Challenge kick-off emphasized the need to ensure that the future they help create is ethical and inclusive.

Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, noted that the pandemic has put a spotlight on the lack of access to healthcare, housing, employment, and other basic needs for low-income people and communities of color in the U.S. — inequities that technology could either help solve or exacerbate.

“It’s a time of great desperation, and a time of great opportunity,” Fischer said. “I think it’s a real wake-up call for our country to say, is everyone invited to the future or is it just going to benefit those who are already doing well?”

Attracting a broad range of participants in terms of race, gender, and age as well as professional expertise was a priority for the Smart City Challenge organizers, Lee says, leading to a partnership with the nonprofit Girls in Tech DC.

The challenge was envisioned as a more traditional in-person, weekend-long event, but the shift to a virtual format in response to the pandemic means that, while the competition is centered in Northern Virginia, participants are not limited by geography.

“We want to make sure this is inclusive and involves not just coders, but marketing folks and business folks and engineers and sales and lots of different kinds of people with different backgrounds,” Lee said. “…We’re interested in the most innovative solutions.”

Correction: MITRE’s Smart City Challenge panel will focus on sustainability. The clean energy event originally referenced in this article is being hosted by Dominion Energy.

Image via Refraction/YouTube

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