Engagement, access, equity drive city’s evolution
Waterloo, Iowa, has 12 smart city projects lined up based on four pillars: e-government, sustainability, transportation and public safety.
Waterloo, Iowa, is ready to make its smart city strategic plan a reality, thanks to help from the Smart City Accelerator Program.
The city’s plan features 12 projects based on four smart city pillars: e-government, sustainability, transportation and public safety. One project is the establishment of innovation districts to create a tech center for testing new products and technologies. Another is the use of smart camera systems and traffic lights to improve public safety.
A third is digital accessibility. “I’ll give you an example,” said Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart. “We have a website that is content-driven. It’s not as user-friendly as we can make it, so it’s the exploration of that and how we’re able to communicate with the public after business hours—that whole level of engagement.”
Another program is building out a fiber network to support ubiquitous connectivity. In fact, a project is expected to break ground in July, spurred by lessons learned from the pandemic-related shutdown. “The impacts of COVID really severely impacted our connectivity,” Hart said. “Our goal was to create a fiber system that focuses not on the business case, but on access and equity, and that’s what we’re currently building.”
The other eight projects are sustainable waste management, electric vehicle readiness, smart parks, renewable natural gas, optimizing police department assets, a cybersecurity monitoring service, a complete streets strategy and a smart city transportation testbed.
The city also expects to derive back-office benefits from the transformations, including better internal and external communication and more data-driven decision-making. Officials also want to find ways to interconnect government entities to reduce silos.
Another goal is to work smarter, Hart said. Thanks to live video from traffic cameras, the city can see at a glance how traffic is flowing. Besides helping the city make smarter decisions on public safety, it “gives us the ability to communicate with our citizens on an incredible level of engagement that we didn’t have before,” he said.
What’s more, the smart city strategy will inform Waterloo’s climate action plan. “This [strategic] plan is a road map for the future,” Hart said.
Work on the strategic plan began in October 2022, when the city was selected for the Honeywell Smart City Accelerator Program. A partnership between the tech company and Accelerator for America, a nonprofit led by an advisory council of mayors, labor and business leaders as well as urban and economic development experts, the program helps cities plan and build capacity to fund initiatives. Other cities receiving technical support from the program are Cleveland; Louisville, Kentucky; Kansas City, Missouri; and San Diego.
Throughout Accelerator Program’s initial four- to five-month consulting engagement with the cities, “we are really working with them to pull out all of the information from a priority standpoint, from an opportunity standpoint,” said Matthew Britt, smart cities general manager for Honeywell Building Technologies. “[We are] meeting with department heads … to understand what the challenges are, what their priorities are at a department level.”
Waterloo’s plan came together in four phases. First, key stakeholders identified priorities and desired outcomes. That included public meetings where the city gathered feedback on how residents define smart cities and what they want most out of living in one.
Second, an operational framework was designed as a map for managing and supporting projects, including the integration of new capabilities into existing systems and processes. Third, the city defined high-impact projects and business models necessary to achieve goals identified in the first phase, and lastly, the plan identified ways to guide implementation and define governance structures.
“We’ve been looking for years to see how we could do it,” Hart said of becoming a smart city. “A community like Waterloo [may be] without as many resources as our larger communities, but our plans are just as big,” he said. Honeywell is “working with us now to try to help us secure a couple of multimillion-dollar grants so we can actually begin the incorporation process,” he added.
On April 17, Honeywell presented the Smart City Strategic Action Plan to a city council work session. The city council was set to approve the program May 15 as part of its consent agenda.
A common challenge that cities face in their work to become smart is what Britt described as the installation of point solutions: “a software application, a sensor of some kind that is designed to really solve one problem at a time. The problem with that strategy … is it essentially allows for the creation of many different data silos.”
Another trend that has bubbled up from the Honeywell Accelerator program’s work is a general unpreparedness for electric vehicles, Britt said. Right now, most cities’ electrical grids will be unable to support the influx of electric vehicles. “Investing in some of these large-scale resiliency projects, renewable energy projects are going to be critical for cities moving forward,” he said. “Depending upon where you are in the country, either traditional power is extremely expensive, or it’s, frankly, scarce. The need to prepare for that has really never been so great.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.