Digi.City’s Collier’s ‘Smart City’ Thinking

Chelsea Collier, Founder, Digi.City

A ribbon was cut yesterday for the dedication of the New Orleans Digital Transformation Center at the newly named DXC Technology Building at 1615 Poydras St. (formerly known as the Freeport McMoRan Building). Gov. John Bel Edwards, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell and executive vice president Jim Smith of DXC Technology (NYSE: DXC) were there to celebrate DXC’s goal to hire 300 IT and business enterprise professionals this year and bring more than 2,000 direct jobs to New Orleans by 2024, with an annual payroll exceeding $133 million by 2025.

Louisiana Economic Development estimates the project will also result in 2,257 new indirect jobs, for a total of more than 4,250 new jobs in the state’s Southeast Region, in what will become Louisiana’s largest technology-focused economic development project to date making Louisiana one of the fastest-growing software and IT destinations in the U.S.

Chelsea Collier, the founder of Digi.City, a platform designed to discuss policies behind deploying and supporting smart city technologies, thinks it’s critical that communities, governments and industries invest in digital infrastructure to ensure the future prosperity of our cities.

On Tuesday, May 22, Collier was joined by New Orleans councilmember-at-large Jason Williams, New Orleans Chamber president Ben Johnson, City of New Orleans chief information officer Kim Walker LaGrue and Propeller director of programs Daniel Applewhite at the Propeller Incubator, 4035 Washington Ave., when she moderated a roundtable discussion that focused on what New Orleans needs to do to become a nationwide leader in technology innovation and entrepreneurship.

Tuesday’s event was part of a multi-city series called “Digi.City Connects” which hosts thoughtful discussions in key metropolitan areas across the United States with local lawmakers and experts about the policy implications of smart city technologies.

As a 2016 Zhi-Xing China Eisenhower Fellow, Collier studied the development of smart cities in both the U.S. and China, and her research is being used to better streamline the domestic rollout of smart cities.

City Council president Jason Williams kicked off the exchange by stating smart cities can bridge the digital divide. “Smart city technology must be a part of our work to build equity for all residents of New Orleans,” he said. “The City cannot misuse or fail to utilize innovative technology. It’s not just the wasted money and time; it is also the breach of public trust when we don’t invest in our people and opportunity. We have to be innovative. Smart city thinking and efficient technology can do anything from informing residents of a water main break, to directing traffic after festivals to free up police officers from that task. Criminal justice reform and increased public safety require better tracking of the right data, not just a murder rate. Using technology can be a huge part of addressing this challenge. If data drives our decision making, we will get results.”

Collier said the infrastructure behind smart city technology – connectivity and power – will provide the foundation for smart cities from which all residents can benefit, and she shared her thoughts with Biz:


Leslie Snadowsky: How do you think New Orleans is effectively deploying and supporting smart city technology?

Chelsea Collier: New Orleans is on a great path to becoming a smart city. The city is working collaboratively with community groups and industry to create a solid plan that increases access and equity for all residents and visitors. 

Much of the work in smart cities happens behind the scenes. City leaders must inventory their assets as well as the gaps and then create a strategy to digitize the city. New Orleans is doing just that, balancing an appropriate level of planning and action and being very mindful of community engagement. 

It can be a challenge to change, especially in a city that rightfully embraces tradition. I believe the city is doing a really nice job of honoring the past while embracing the future. 


LS: You’ve done a lot of work and research in China as a 2016 Zhi-Xing China Eisenhower Fellow. How would you compare smart cities in China to the Crescent City?

CC: I traveled to China to study smart cities because, in many ways, they are much further ahead than most cities in the U.S. This is the case because they started earlier, and their top-down approach comes with a clear strategic roadmap from federal leadership as well as available funding mechanisms. 

The U.S. really began preparing for smart city innovation in 2016 with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Smart City Challenge, which awarded $50 million to Columbus, Ohio, chosen from almost 100 applicants, with a focus on mobility. 

Other than this effort, the U.S. government has not been comprehensive in their smart city roadmap or in the available funding mechanisms. As a result, American cities, including New Orleans, have empowered themselves to forge forward in the race to become a smart city. It has been an exciting process to be a part of and encourage. 

U.S. cities that are leading in the realm of smart cities are looking inward to define their values as a city, prioritize their assets and identify how to fill the gaps. Streamlining antiquated policies that can inhibit innovation is a huge part of that process.

Smart city technology is built like a pyramid. At the base is high-speed mobile broadband Internet and energy grid modernization. Connectivity and power serve as the foundation on which all other connected technology is built. From there, sensors, beacons and digital devices are deployed to collect data that is important to help optimize city operations and provide a better quality of life for residents. Cities can measure things like traffic flow, air quality and blighted buildings, and then use connected technology to create new levels of efficiency in managing these areas.

New Orleans is doing great things in this area. They are in the process of evaluating their broadband availability and charting a path to maximize connectivity. These are critical steps as 5G (the next generation of mobile broadband) becomes available and integrates to expand the Internet of Things (IoT). Soon we will have 50 billion connected devices, which will create a seven fold increase in online activity. Cities that are prepared for this influx, as New Orleans shows promise to be, will benefit while other cities may find themselves in what is called the Digital Rust Belt. 

My work is to do everything I can to support cities in preparing for the new digital reality. This is especially important in my home state of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans where my family still lives. This town is so important to me, and I’m just thrilled to be a part of the experience of seeing New Orleans embrace its history while leading for the future!


LS: Why do you think New Orleans councilmember-at-large Jason Williams is so passionate about New Orleans becoming a nationwide leader in technology innovation and entrepreneurship?

CC: Councilmember Williams is committed to bringing more voices to the table to dramatically modernize our electrical grid and infrastructure and cited Mayor Cantrell’s integral role in the process. He called attention to the digital divide with a particular emphasis on broadband deployment and disparities in smartphone and tablet use.

He hopes that smart cities can be a big part of the City of New Orleans’ effort to engage in equity. He said, ‘Bringing smart cities is going to change how you entertain yourself, how you travel, how you get out of a crowd at Jazz Fest, but it can also change your GPA … regardless of how much money your parents make.’

He spoke about the city’s Master Plan, which will be a project of future administrations and future councils. He said, ‘This is something that we want to commit to for the next couple of decades. If we start now, we can prioritize where we want to begin.’

The councilman also spoke about trust and how important it is to bring the community along. For example, he said, ‘Digging up streets is a problem if you need to get to work or pick up your kids, but it is also an opportunity to put better things in the ground [and be prepared for 5G …] that will be key to a smarter future.’


LS: Why does New Orleans Chamber president Ben Johnson think New Orleans will benefit from becoming a smart city?

CC: Mr. Johnson spoke about ‘the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ as a ‘gargantuan avalanche coming towards us,’ and how we must choose what we want to work on. But in making these decisions, Johnson declared partnerships will be essential.

His focus is on identifying the partners and the path that will have the biggest impact in our community. For the Chamber, success in smart cities is when the quality of life in the community is increased. The Chamber is committed to building for the future.

He also mentioned real issues for local businesses such as permitting. His hope is that the city can modernize, streamline and digitize its processes and policies, increasing online engagement and increasing efficiencies. 


LS: What steps is City of New Orleans chief information officer Kim Walker LaGrue taking to keep New Orleans ahead of the curve by creating a smart city framework and its requisite infrastructure?

CC: Kim’s role is to look at a smart city from a fundamental point of view – smart and informed. She believes that information will be the key to successful outcomes for smart cities. Communities and city government can use information to improve their lifestyles and communicate key information, for example about hurricanes or emergencies.  

She stated that the city has to be thinking about the foundational layer of a smart city and mentioned the important role that fiber and small cells play that can support other technologies that layer on top.

Quoting Kansas City, Missouri’s chief information officer Bob Bennett, LaGrue echoed that the three most important areas are the places where it affects all residents – water, energy and transportation. She said we can build infrastructure and deliver information that will improve the resident experience. Sensors on our water systems, for example, in the here and now can help to do this.

Partnerships are also critical from Ms. LaGrue’s point of view. She said, ‘We cannot do this alone, and we do not want to do this alone,’ noting that partnerships will be very important.

Finally she emphasized that educating citizens and increasing the public’s digital literacy is an important step. They have access to technology in many ways already, but may be unaware of how to leverage information or data they could be receiving, but are not.


LS: Propeller’s director of programs Daniel Applewhite also took part in your panel discussion. How is Propeller, a nonprofit organization that helps entrepreneurs grow their nonprofits and small businesses to tackle social and environmental disparities in New Orleans, helping its clients stay competitive in the smart city arena?

CC: Propeller is an incredible asset to New Orleans. This supportive community provides opportunities for collaboration and access to systems that support entrepreneurs. Startups are key players in smart cities as they inject new ways of thinking, technology innovation and more flexible ways to address community issues. 

Applewhite stated that private and public partners should be working together in order to curb inequity – across connectivity, food, technology, etc. Collaboration will be key. It works really well when the private and public sectors’ goals align.

Related to the subject of connectivity, Applewhite wants to ensure that this is a community-focused conversation. If we are going to jump to 5G, Applewhite said, we need to make sure that we bring everyone along with us.


LS: What does New Orleans need the most to become a smart city leader in the U.S.?

CC: The most important thing New Orleans can do is to create a solid platform of connectivity on which to build its smart city strategy. The headlines are all about autonomous vehicles, sensors, streetlights, big data and drones. Those are all important, exciting innovations but without the power of a robust network, it’s like building a house of cards. You have to have the foundation in place.  

We are in an era of great change and disruption. Doing city business as usual will not serve New Orleans. It is time to look to what is possible – as Mayor Cantrell says, the ‘City of Yes!’ – and create a new way to approach very traditional challenges. Connected technology and the Internet of Things combined with 5G holds tremendous potential and promise to do just that.


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